Tuesday, April 22, 2008

world's best restaurants 2008

this year's top 50 list was announced last night - el bulli's voted the world's best restaurant 3 years in a row.

the french laundry and chez panisse, two restaurants we visited recently, is no 5 and 37 respectively. locally, 3 restaurants are in the top 100 - pierre gagnaire is no 88, robuchon a galera (in macau) is no 98 and zuma, no 99. (i know what you are going to say, but please don't shoot the messenger!)

according to the organizer, the list's compiled by a group of prominent food writers, critics and restauraneurs from 23 different regions/countries. but apparently none of them have been to japan before. anyway, you can read the full list on their website if you are interested.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

the inn at little washington

i found it a gross miscarriage of justice (on my part) without writing about (and reflecting on) our experience at the inn at little washington after having separate (and long) entries for chez panisse and the french laundry. if chez panisse’s about simple food with simple ingredients, and the french laundry, perfect to the details with innovative matchings, the inn at little washington is about being elaborative, fanciful and sometimes even playful, sheer luxury without being presumptuous.

the dinner served as the finale to our u.s. vacation. prior to our final stop at the capital city we have been on the whirlwind tour “across america” which brought us to san francisco, napa valley and baltimore, and as you have read in my prior blog entries, our previous experiences all within the span of one week have set the bar extremely high for chef/proprietor patrick o’connell to beat. another case of miscarriage of justice, unfortunately.

the inn at little washington, contrary to what the name may have suggested, is not anywhere close to washington dc. in fact it’s some 60 miles away, in the virginia town of washington, along the windy roads which led down to the scenic shenandoah valley in the south. it’s already my second visit here while for cyy, that’s her first.

our reservation’s at 6:15pm so we basically have to leave dc at around 4:30 to beat the evening commuting traffic. by the time we got there the sun’s not set yet so we had a chance to appreciate how beautiful it is on the road en route –picturesque forest, ranches with horses, farms and vineyards - we could totally imagine an even better scenery comes fall time during foliage season. we were greeted as we pulled up our car to the parkway at the inn, and surprised to see we were not the first diners arrived.

menu’s a bit complicated here compared to what we had at the french laundry – there’s the 7-course tasting menu feast, or an a la carte menu with a variety of choices for each courses. i promise this would be the only comparison i am going to draw between these two totally different restaurants with distinct characters. we spent a good fifteen minutes studying bit by bit and arrived at a consensus decision – “omakase” that is, as we almost proclaimed to our waiter. wine list is an interesting one actually –from local virginia vineyards (oh virginia makes wine? you may ask) to the usual old and new world selections, even to a few junmai daiginjo (which after all, is a perfect accompaniment to raw seafood or sashimi course). we finally settled on a 2006 weingut brundlmayer gruner veltliner, on sommelier’s recommendation. crisp and definitely not overtaking any of the food.

my favorite dishes are the quartet of oyster slurpees – raw oysters served with passion fruit, cucumber, cabernet sauvignon and wasabi sorbets – and morel dusted diver’s scallop on cauliflower puree – the signature dish that was on the cover of his book. each taste of the oysters came as a surprise as they went from fresh to spicy which teased your palate.

i did say playful in the beginning – just look at the menu, there are “funky” dish names such as “crusted tuna pretending to be a filet mignon” which we did not try, or “lilliputian passion fruit dreamsicle” – passion fruit sorbet and vanilla icecream served like a popsicle, or the fromage course served on a faux cow – named faira - that actually mooed as it was being wheeled by the table. our first course – named the “tin of sin” – was served on a petrossian caviar tin with ossetra caviar overflowing the rim with layers of crab and cucumber rillette lying in the bottom. breath-taking – i think this will be the only time I would use caviar and overflow in the same sentence ever.

other dishes in our tasting menu included crusted tuna wellington with caponata ravioli, as well as braised veal cheek with saffron risotto. the décor followed the theme of a traditional country house with classical artwork, oriental rugs, silk wall coverings and plush fabrics. elegantly done.

the petit fours was served on a mini rattan picnic basket loaded with mini-cookies and sweets – consistent with the countryside atmosphere the surroundings brought. we also had a chance to tour the kitchen which “happens” to have the best view of the house - with large windows overseeing the garden – and a photo op with chef o’connell in his signature dalmatian-spotted pants. on our reluctant drive back to dc and reality after the supper, we savored what we have enjoyed and seen and eaten in our brief vacation and with small voices inside singing, “what a wonderful world”.

when? april 14 2008
where? the inn at little washington, middle and main streets, washington, va
occasion? vacation
menu highlights? a quartet of island creek oyster slurpees
drinks? 2006 weingut bründlmayer grüner veltliner

Sunday, April 13, 2008

chinatown sentiments

the inn at little washington may be on top in the dc region in terms of quality and experience on an absolute scale, but my vote for the favorite eatery in town will definitely go to full kee(富記), a "cha chan tang"-style chinese deli serving usual stuff like noodles, rices and congees. apparently i am not alone - it's also been rated the favorite restaurant by the locals/food critics/travel journalists, as reported by the washingtonian magazine and the ny times previously.

full kee's located on one of the main streets in washington chinatown - h street, a few blocks away from the verizon center, home of the washington wizard basketball team, and government offices. since the opening of the stadium, the area has slowly transformed into an interesting hybrid of traditional down-to-earth chinese restaurants, and an array of sports bars and upscale restaurants catered to the sports crowd or business people, in the midst of not exactly the best neighborhood in the city. it's also close to the national mall, at the west end near to the capitol. so when we were done sightseeing at the smithsonian and national gallery of art (and meals after meals of western food in the previous days), there's no better place that i can think of for a quick bite than full kee.

well, my "情意結" to this place dated back to the old days when i still called this city my hometown. this is my un-official "飯堂" on every occasions you can imagine - whether that be a simple sunday lunch after working at the smithsonian as a volunteer, or introducing my friends to a taste of authentic chinese food for the first time, or making a late-night snack run (they open til 4am on weekends), this is the place to go. i remembered one time i dashed straight to this place for a bowl of comforting wonton noodles after a 20-hour flight from hongkong - must have gotten homesick already then. it's not unusual to see me sitting at the same table on the same day every week, eating essentially the same food - even after they open a branch closer to my home, i still prefer the chinatown one better.

menu choices at full kee are wide and varied - true, they do have "gwailo"-oriented dishes like general tso's chicken and sweet and sour pork, but they also have dai pai dong-style street food like marinated pork intestine or pig blood, or typical cantonese/hongkong dishes like deep-fried squid, steamed fish, barbecued meat, or "dry-fried" beef rice noodles (chow fun). they are written all over the place - in the menu, on the wall, and on the little laminated placards on each table. my favorite dishes are their "粥粉麵飯" actually - either a bowl of wonton noodles, or congee with pork and thousand-year eggs - in my opinion, they are as good as any above-average "cha chan tang" in hongkong, and that's certainly good enough in u.s. standard (sans places with high concentration of chinese population such as orange country or new york city)

we arrived there at 1pm - towards the end of lunch hours for most people - that is perhaps why we only waited for 5 minutes before we were seated. the restaurant is the same as i remembered - still the same set-up with tables on both the ground floor and the connected basement, the large plaque with the words "full kee" engraved hanging prominently above the cashier (the name of the restaurant literally means rich), the noodle stall in the front part of the restaurant, and even some wait-staff looked familiar. (i heard there's a change of ownership since i left dc but i suppose some waiters remained)

cyy ordered the lunch special of stir-fried beef and broccoli (with rice) while i had a bowl of wonton noodle - just as i've always been. feeling inadequate, we later ordered an a-la-carte dish of deep-fried salty squid as supplement. the total bill came to around $20 - probably the cheapest sit-down lunch we've had in the entire trip. while waiting for our food, i can't help but looking around and checking out what other people are eating and talking about. it's peculiar scene of dining crowd - at one table there are a group of local office workers gossiping and chatting about politics while enjoying their noodles and seafood dishes, then there's a family of out-of-towners taking a break from museum-hopping with beef and vegetable dishes, or couple of friends just catching up with each other over a bowl of congee and veggies. there are both regulars and newcomers (and old-timers like me), westerners and chinese, locals and tourists. a true reflection of what washington dc is about - essentially a mixing bowl.

after the meal and the fortune-cookies, i am happy to report that full kee's still the same good old full kee, and it's going to remain as my "cheers bar" in heart - "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came..." even as i felt like i have left town a long long time ago.

when? april 11 2008
where? full kee, 509 h street nw, washington dc
occasion? vacation
menu highlights? wonton noodles hongkong style
drinks? chinese tea! cha-chan-tang style

Friday, April 11, 2008

法式洗衣店 (the french laundry)

"全世界美食愛好者的聖地", "一輩子非得來吃一次不可", "experience of a lifetime", "best meal one can ever dream of", "epitome of fine dining", "米芝蓮三星級餐廳"… 狹着種種美譽, 在Thomas Keller 的 "法式洗衣店" (the french laundry) 享受一頓晚餐從來都是不少foodie 夢寐以求的"目標". well, we finally made it.

興奮是從臨離開香港前一天得知secure 了dinner reservation 的一刻開始. 要知道位處yountville, california 的 the french laundry 只有十七張枱, 每日招待62名"幸運兒", 餐廳每天就接超過400個訂位電話. typically all seating is filled by 10:30am local time exactly 2 months in advance – i.e. within a mere 30 minutes after they open up their hotline and online reservation system for those tables. if you are still not convinced how hard that is, try google "french laundry reservation" and you will find tens of so-called tips and sharing on this "finding the holy grail-like" experience, or try reading this.

anyway, we managed to get the table a week before we are to stay in napa. i am not going to bore you with the details with how we managed to get the table here, but has something to do that little plastic in your pocket. now i know what’s meant by "一卡傍身 世界通行"!

the dinner took place on the first day we stayed in napa valley as part of our overnight trip in the wine country. anticipating what could be our best culinary experience ever, we saved up (our stomach and wallet) by skipping breakfast and having a "light" lunch – a double-double at inn-n-out burger joint, and tried hard to stay sober in the midst of wine-tastings and vineyard visits. we even skipped a couple planned winery stops to get some quiet time in the b&b and gathered ourselves mentally ready for the laundry experience.

the restaurant’s in yountville, a township of population 3500 in the middle of napa valley, in between napa and st helena. it’s about 20 minutes from where we stayed. when we arrived, we were amazed at how unassuming the place looks – a stone building with a small sign just by the walkway. after all, it’s converted from an old french laundry built circa 1900 – hence the namesake. it’s overlooking a garden which also belongs to the restaurant.

upon entry through the famous blue door, we were promptly seated in a room on the second floor. menu’s simple – either a 9-course tasting menu (with choices on several courses) or a vegetable menu. no brainer to us. as the tradition, we started off with the amuse-bouche of dollop of salmon tartare atop a crispy cone – i probably saw the picture of it a thousand times in his cookbook or in magazine articles, but trying it for the first time almost dropped me into tears – a dream came true at last, i said to myself. a dream came true.

signature dishes included “oyster and pearl” – in a literal sense, that’s 奶油西米"沙巴翁"拌生蠔及鱘龍魚子醬. i know that doesn’t sound delicious but i am going to leave it that way. and let me assure you if you have not tried it - it’s not just delicious – it’s HEAVENLY! you just had to wonder how the heck can he come up with such pairing and makes it almost like a natural match from the beginning of earth! for all we knew tapioca only works with coconut cream or milk tea! but with oyster and caviar? not in our freaking wildest dream! other of my favorites include "beets and leeks" – lobster tail with leeks, thinly-sliced fried potatoes (pommes maxim) and red beet essence, and moulard duck “foie gras au torchon” – oh my god!

i am not going to blog about every single dish we have enjoyed that night– because words can never appropriately describe the experience we have had. i was going to use an analogy for this but i dare not here. service is formal, attentive and to the details. more perfect than perfect. for wine, we picked a copain 2002 broken leg vineyard syrah which was especially blended and bottled for the restaurant, which "rises to the occasion" to match with the food, especially the later courses. apparently only 123 cases were produced from this sonoma boutique winemaker – speaking of exclusivity! just as a side thought, during our stay and visit in the napa wine region, we seem to have better experience with the pinot and syrah over the more famous cabs. probably just so happened.

if i really have to find glitches in the whole experience – which is extremely hard to, that would be how tight the tables are arranged. well, cyy apparently didn’t mind as she’s been having fun overhearing the conversations from the table right behind us. and of course, if they didn’t fit a few additional tables in, that would make the already-difficult reservation even harder to get. so that was forgiven.

at the end of the dinner, we couldn’t resist by asking our waiter to give us a brief tour of the kitchen and pay our compliments to the chef. we looked at everything in amazement and “fear” like we are looking at a holy shrine or something. 當然美妙的, 還有廚房裡real-time連線着紐約per se廚房的螢幕... it’s a pity that we didn’t get to meet thomas keller in person this time – an excuse for us to go back there some time in the future? as if we need one.

worth it? absolutely – for the food, for the experience, for the sense of privilege and accomplishment, for the tale to share among ourselves in many years to come and for everything. and we will let the ecstatic feeling going over and around our head for a few more weeks, until we have to pay off that huge laundry ticket bill when the credit card statement arrives.

when? april 8 2008
where? the french laundry, 6640 washington street, yountville, ca
occasion? the dinner is an occasion by itself
menu highlights? everything! start from finish! perfect 10! two thumbs up!
drinks? copain 2002 "broken leg vineyard" syrah

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

chez panisse

asparagus with brown butter and garden lettuces, spit-roasted pork loin, rhubarb tart a la mode… nothing fancy, simply good food. that’s what a satisfying meal is all about, and that’s what we had at an old wood house on a busy street in berkeley, california, which was known to be the birthplace of california cuisine, on a monday evening – the second day since we arrived in the bay area.

simple is the key word here at chez panisse – 2 seatings, one fixed menu (which changes daily), every day. we booked the second seating at 8:30pm so we won’t feel like having to rush through the courses (and also allow us time for an afternoon nap before dinner to overcome the jet lag) monday dinner menu is a 3-course fare (as opposed to 4 other days of the week and $10 cheaper).

according to wikipedia, california cuisine was defined as “a style of cuisine marked by an interest in fusion – integrating disparate cooking styles and ingredients – and in freshly prepared using local ingredients.”. at chez panisse, all ingredients inside a dish are seasonal, fresh, organic and locally-produced. if asked, the waiters can easily tell you which ranch their pigs were raised, or which farm they picked the asparagus from (and when). speaking of knowledgeable staff.

we were lucky to have seated right outside the open kitchen – that enabled us to see the full action as dishes after dishes were delivered right off it and we got a good smell too all evening long. the dishes were simply divine – there’s nothing on them that made you scratching your head thinking what they were, but they just came together in perfect harmony and made you wish you could do half as good in your own kitchen at home. the freshness of that asparagus dish we had for the first course still lingers in my mouth – well, those who know me know i don’t say so highly over a vegetarian dish often, if ever. so that must mean something.

yes, simplicity is still the name, but all the dishes were nicely presented too – yet there’s no extra garnishes that were put there just for the sake of it. wine list is straight forward and not intimidating (i.e. not expensive or overpriced or anything). we matched the food with a 2005 pinot from navarro vineyards up in sonoma. innovations also came in small ways at chez panisse -for example, the restaurant is among the first to serve carbonated filtered tap water instead of bottled one, out of environmental concerns. trust me, it all tasted the same, and hey it’s on the house too. when will this free tap water movement ever come to hong kong?

and another magical moment that we observed - all around chez panisse you only saw happy faces – whether that be old couples celebrating birthday (or anniversary or whatever), man and woman on a date, family gatherings, college students having a nice night out with friends, or people enjoying their vacation and california sunshine (that would be us) – laughter was filling the entire place with occasional woos and wahs as dishes arrived at each table and people started eating. even the wait staff and chefs – the night we went it happened to be one of the staff’s birthday, and the pastry chef made a tart for her and we could all see them celebrating inside the kitchen, singing “happy birthday” and enjoying a cheer. well, if you see only happy faces in the kitchen, you know the food simply can’t go wrong.

when many has turned to “forward-thinking” ideas of molecular gastronomy or turning ingredients and cooking methods upside down in search of a perfect dish, alice waters’ outpost in this college town across from san francisco bay bridge reminded us strongly that good food simply shouldn’t be that complicated and should be enjoyed by all. it’s so right 30 years ago when she first opened its door; it’s still so right now.

in many ways, chez panisse reminded me of m at the fringe, the old stable in hong kong’s dining scene which happens to be my perennial favorite – is it the similarity of background of their respective owners? the décor? or is it simply the common passion and commitment that they shared to serve good food to customers, day in and day out?

when? april 7 2008
where? chez panisse, 1517 shattuck avenue, berkeley, ca
occasion? vacation
menu highlights? fresh picked cannard farm asparagus with brown butter and garden lettuces
drinks? 2005 anderson valley pinot noir, navarro vineyards