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Archive for August, 2006

Cyrus (Healdsburg, CA) – Luxuriously Average

Cyrus has been on my to-do list for awhile. Theoretically, a chef with a resume that includes Gary Danko & Jardiniere (both highly over-rated) shouldn’t impress me (in fact, it should make me run far away) but i saw some pics of his dishes and they *look* very good. Add in all of the buzz over the past year (Food & Wine, SF Magazine, Douglas Keene as F&W Best Chef of 2006) and I thought this could be a surprise meal.

Silly me. It’s a good, not great, meal that more resembles SF’s “fancy meal quagmire” than its 2 pillars – Manresa and French Laundry. The restaurant has stated they want to bring “European dining” to the Bay Area; presumably, this means luxurious ingredients, superior service, and high price tags among other things. They succeed on some fronts, fail on others, but the sum of the parts don’t add up anything close to a proper European experience.

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Moto (Chicago) – Lab Rats

“Science is the future!” a young chef exclaimed to me over a WD-50 meal. He said it with the zeal of a futurist in the short-lived early 1900′s art movement (many died thanks to their belief that war was progress.) The premise behind that movement, and arguably that of the “molecular” gastronomy chefs, is that progress for the sake of progress is necessary. In the culinary world, it has been argued that taste is an acceptable casualty of molecular cooking if progress is made. The practical rule of thumb is that a meal of experiments is OK if some of the experiments are true winners – I can live with this.

Homaro Cantu of Moto has been getting a lot of press lately for his daring culinary experiments. In a world where Ferran Adria spends 6 months of the year stuck in a Barcelonean laboratory; Wylie Durfresne has more medical equipment in his WD-50 kitchen than some small-town hospitals; and Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck is researching the physiology of taste; some claim Cantu may be the most experimental of all. How would his cuisine compare against El Bulli, Mugaritz, Fat Duck, or WD-50? Would the food have any relation to our traditional concept of food? Would it taste good?

In short, this was a very average meal that did not compete w/ the others of its genre. If judged on its creativity, I’d put him near the bottom. He had 2 tricks – turning anything into a puree and liquid nitrogen. If judged on taste, he is at the bottom – too many artifical tastes, an unnecessary sweet tooth, and poorer-quality ingredients. If judged on value (a novel concept w/ this blog?), the meal is an expensive failed experiment – 21 dishes with 4-5 that could be rated as very good. If this meal were $100 or less, I’d give it another go but it’s far too expensive to be the chef’s guinea pig.

1. Edible Menu w/ Dahl & Cucumber Consomme
The promising starter – the cucumber consomme was excellent. I *hate* cucumbers but this was very vibrant and completely refreshing. Sweet w/ the tang of the yogurt. Excellent.

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Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) – Approaching an Apex

If you read my blog, it’s no secret that Manresa is one of my favorite restaurants in the US (and the world for that matter.) While some decry it’s a little too experimental or nouvelle to be thoroughly “enjoyable”, it is a restaurant that seeks to offer an elegance and purity of dishes and flavors. The dishes are rarely muddled, the flavors rarely misplaced; instead, the dishes are pure expressions of a flavor or ingredient. While I have a soft spot for the antics of the chemists and the desire to try something daring and new; it’s a cuisine of elegant ingredients-focused simplicity that probably pushes my buttons most. That is Manresa.

L’Arpege in Paris is known the world over for their perfect vegetables. Over the years, the chef has retreated from fancier preparations to focus on the perfect expression of his vegetables. Yes, “his” because he planted his own garden to ensure vegetables were grown to his specifications of superior quality. Manresa is following this blueprint – this summer’s menu is the first that utilizes Manresa’s own garden vegetables. The garden has been in development for over a year and now we finally get to enjoy its harvest. Given the obvious uptick in quality with this meal, it’s a wonder more chefs don’t commission their own gardens.

The dishes below come from 3 meals this summer. 3 visits may seem like a lot but I’ve actually wanted to go 5-6x. The vegetables are spectacular; the chef continues to make seemingly impossible improvements; and the restaurant is hitting an apex – just in time for the Michelin folks.

1. Radishes and creme fraiche
Small, subtle, a perfect introduction for what was to come

2. Rhubarb horchata
A fruit cocktail of rhubarb, citrus, and horchata foam. Wonderful contrasts of flavor – the tanginess of the rhubarb and citrus with the earthy finish of the essence of rice. There was a touch of grit at the end from the rice – one of my favorite things about horchata. Excellent.

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French Laundry (Yountville, CA) – Consistently Regal

Many consider The French Laundry to be America’s best restaurant. It will appear on some lists as the best restaurant in the world and Thomas Keller is always mentioned as one of the world’s best. After my first meal many years ago, my cynical side decried that anyone wanting to open a successful business should hire TFL’s PR agency. My Per Se meal (a sister NY restaurant) merely confirmed that. Suffice to say, the meals did not live up to their mythical status.

My European adventure showed me that some American restaurants are up to the task of competing w/ their European brethren. Jean Georges, the late Bastide, Manresa, and Bouley could absolutely hold their own in Europe. But what about TFL? My Per Se meal last year was mired in inconsistency and disappointment; could the mothership deliver a true 3*** experience?

I’ve since had 2 meals at TFL – one lunch and one dinner. I didn’t take notes for the first meal but the menus were similar enough. The overriding theme? Consistency. TFL takes less chances than my favorites, and while it’s harder to hit highs, their philosophy assures they do not miss. It’s a safe meal by today’s standards, but its consistency make it one of the better meals.

1. Oysters and Pearls

2. Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine”
Served w/ santa rosa plum “confiture”, shaved celery branch, toasted “brioche”, and 100 year old aged balsamic, served w/ 3 different sea salts: jurassic (montana), hana pepper (hawaiian), & brittany. The foie is some of the best i’ve ever had – airy light & deliciously rich. the brioche is switched out after 2 minutes and one feels obligated to eat it. The hana pepper salt complemented the foie best. The balsamic was applied tableside as 3 drops – for the $30 supplement, you’d think they would spare a touch more. Very Good.

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