All tagged molecular gastronomy
My first meal at Alinea was in 2009. At that time there were two menus: a smaller, more focused 12-course tasting and a 24-course "grand tour" of the restaurant's cuisine. I overall really enjoyed my first meal quite a bit, though I thought it lacked focus and the kitchen was heavy-handed with the sugar. Since that time the two menus have been combined into a single 18-course tasting which I think is intended to bring focus and tell more of a story.
While the dining room still felt icy, the service warmed up, a little. Our waiter seemed genuinely friendly, cracking jokes and making us smile throughout the meal. Once in a while, however, someone else from the kitchen brought our food and seemed a bit more distant and, well, self-satisfied. I think we got really lucky, our waiter was great.
Molecular gastronomy, or avant-garde cuisine, challenges the way diners interact with food. The meal becomes as much about the experience as it does about the flavor. The challenge is to create a unique and exciting experience without sacrificing the taste. Alinea was my first domestic experience with molecular gastronomy where the dishes were not only fun and exciting, but they tasted great, too.
Our menu, titled the "grand tour," consisted of 24-courses each overlaid with grey orbs of varying opacity to indicate intensity, portion size and sweetness. The color of the orb indicated the dish's intensity: darker meant more intense. The position of the orb indicated the dish's sweetness: to the left meant savory, to the right meant sweet. The size of the orb represented the size of the plate: bigger orb, more food. We were given not a menu for the evening's food, but a guide to help us with pace.
I first visited Quique Dacosta in 2009. That write up is here. Since then, the food has only gotten better. The menu has been redesigned and simplified with more focus; it now tells a story. The dishes have less added sweetness and really take advantage of the restaurant's location by the sea. Reflecting back on my recent meal, I was deeply moved by Chef Quique Dacosta's ability to use local ingredients, combine them with local Valencian traditional cooking, and build from that base a truly inventive and modern cuisine. His cooking is inspirational and, to date, this is the best non-Japanese meal I have had.
Over the course of three meals, we were brought on a comprehensive and well-organized tour of Chef Dacosta's cooking. My first visit meal started with a dinner. The following day my friend the ulterior epicure and I basically hung out all day at the restaurant. We had two more meals. I am writing about the second of those three meals, which was my favorite. You can see photos of the other two meals here.
Quique Dacosta, at first, seems out of place. It’s in the center of a tourist town and the tourists don’t eat there. During high season, a large portion of the town is foreign: most signs are in German. Regular ferries carry young club-goers eastward to the Balearic islands, while older couples stay behind to enjoy the serenity of the Mediterranean. Except the restaurant is in exactly the right place; it's clear that the local seafood has had a profound influence on Dacosta's cooking.
Though Quique Dacosta doesn't receive nearly as much hype as his compatriot Ferran Adrià, I'd argue that his cooking is equally as exciting. And he's just getting started. When I made it to Quique Dacosta in 2009 I was blown away by his creative use of local shellfish and vegetables. When I returned in 2011, I was even more impressed.
Our meal began with Universo Local, the more extensive of the two tasting menus.
My recent meal at El Bulli was the most fun I have ever had at a restaurant. I said the same thing last year because it was also true. My two meals at El Bullí have kept the table laughing, analyzing, discussing, and chatting in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. Our experience was both intellectually stimulating and novel. There were flavor combinations I had never tasted before. We were kept on our toes throughout the entire lunch.
It started as a lazy morning. Waves crashed and fizzled on the sun-drenched shore as we drank tea and coffee at our seaside hotel in Roses. Lunch at El Bullí was the only activity on the day's agenda. Unlike last year where we (embarrassingly) overestimated the Costa Brava's formality, this time, we left our suits and ties at home. At one o'clock we would casually drive no more than ten minutes to our lunch. We were ready, but in no hurry.
Biko is a Mexican-Basque fusion restaurant in Mexico City's posh Polanco district. Its co-chefs, Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso, have the honor of bringing Biko to the Pellegrino Top 50 Best Restaurants list. Its swanky yet minimalist decor of suede chairs squeeking atop tile flooring is a bit cold and clinical -- much like eating in a hallway; but the warm and very professional service compensates to make diners feel at ease and comfortable.
The dishes were purportedly a mixture of Basque and Mexican influence, but it was hard to spot the Basque component. The food seemed more like a random collection of European and pan-Asian concepts with occasional Mexican ingredients. Most of the dishes were presented quite beautifully with clever plating, but at times I got the sense that the dishes were more about style than substance. They were everything expected of a fine dining restaurant, minus the background story, passion, and at times, flavor.
The 7-seat Tapas Molecular Bar in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is the home of chef Jeff Ramsey, formerly of Minibar in Washington D.C. My first meal in 2008, while delicious, featured many of the same dishes featured at Minibar. I think a lot of this was due to the newness of the restaurant and the difficulty in finding its place. It's no easy task to integrate new molecular techniques with traditional Japanese cuisine. However now, two years later, this restaurant has really found its niche in its surroundings and thoroughly impressed me with innovative, delicious, and really fun cuisine.
One aspect of the Molecular Bar that makes the experience so fun is its chefs. Instead of creating an environment in which interactivity is passive-aggressively shunned, chef Ramsey and his team explained the back story of each dish and how it related to Japanese culture. This was particularly crucial for the nostaligic dishes as many of the diners did not grow up in Japan. Questions were encouraged, and frankly, this in-depth understanding of the food I was eating really added another dimension to the meal's enjoyment. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about the food and its preparation, but I felt like I was eating a story with each course.
My last meal at Pierre Gagnaire, Paris was a roller coaster. Lots of ups and downs and by the end of service I was left holding on to my chair in confusion. Any great restaurant has to take risks in the kitchen to achieve something great. But my original experiences were like a lottery, and after three meals at Gagnaire Paris, I kept losing.
Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo, in some ways, was the complete opposite. There were few risks. Everything was consistent. This is good in the sense that no single course was particularly disappointing; bad, however, that nothing was exceptional. Exceptional cuisine balance risk-taking and spontaneity with consistency, and it's no easy task. My meal here was an extremely toned-down version of my meal in Paris.
I'd always considered French cuisine to be stagnant and unchanging: thick mother sauces blanketing filets of meat and fish with fancy adornments. It was when I actually lived here for a few years that I discovered the new wave of French cuisine led by garden fresh vegetables and lighter preparations. Mother sauces were on vacation.
L'Arpège quickly became the restaurant spearheading Paris's back-to-the-garden movement. L'Astrance peaked my interest when I heard of the restaurant's compulsiveness for fresh vegetables combined with its ability to integrate elements of molecular gastronomy: spherification, foams, and non-traditional flavor extractions made this menu really exciting. Here was a young and extremely talented chef, Pascal Barbot, who went from one Michelin star to three in just under seven years.
It's an understatement to say that getting a reservation at El Bulli is difficult. During the two and a half years that I lived in Paris, I emailed the restaurant on a nearly weekly basis during season asking for last-minute openings. And everytime I received the same semi-automated reply: No. When I learned of the restaurant's closing in 2011, I became even more anxious. Unfortunately, all I could do was pray.
Counterintuitively, I decided this year to pick a specific date and time, instead of indicating my open availability for the entire season. Since El Bulli does their scheduling all by hand, this specificity actually may have facilitated my acceptance. Then one early morning in March, I received a pleasant surprise from the dining room manager:
We apologize for being late giving you an answer. The demand has been extraordinary and [it] is difficult to go on with the management. We have found a solution and If you wish we have a reservation option for you.
The date I was assigned would be nearly a year in the future. But the clouds parted, and I was officially etched into the book of heaven. Now I just had to figure out how to get there.
With molecular gastronomy taking the world by storm it was only a matter of time before it crossed the pacific. Located in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, the Tapas Molecular Bar is Japan’s introduction to this innovative and creative cuisine.
The interactivity that makes molecular gastronomy so much fun is heightened by the restaurant’s sushi counter seating which holds at most seven guests at a time. The entire evening is filled with conversation between not only dining companions, but with the chefs as well. It is interactive in every respect.
Japan is known for its mix of tradition and technology. I can't tell you how many pictures I've seen of a bullet train passing Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms blooming in the background. This mix of new and old is, what I believe, made the molecular bar so appealing.
There are few chefs in France so universally known as Paul Bocuse. It could be because Chef Bocuse, a descendant from a family of chefs dating back to the late 1600s, is 83 years old and still works, though less frequently, in the kitchen. Or the fact that his namesake restaurant in Lyon has had three Michelin stars for over 43 years, making it the restaurant to have the longest period of consecutive years with such an honor. Even the state of California has proclaimed March 10 "Paul Bocuse Day." It's no question that Bocuse has an extensive and titled culinary history. What is interesting, however, is that after all these years most of his menu hasn't changed at all. But fortunately Bocuse continues to reproduce these classics with the same quality and passion that made them popular so many years ago.
Before my visit to chez Bocuse, I had associated "classical French" with the ubiquitous inclusion of French mother sauces containing butter, crème, and wine reductions tasting so starchy and old-fashioned that they could not be exciting. At least that's what my experience had been. Even in my limited experience at culinary school, we were taught to use these sauces as a springboard for other more elaborate, more international creations to spark originality. But here with Paul Bocuse, the concepts of Spanish molecular gastronomy, California cuisine, and Japanese fusion are foreign. He sticks to the basics; no games. Bocuse only uses classic sauces because he believes it's the best way to highlight the flavors of meat, fish, and vegetables. He does it because it tastes the best. Period.