Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Per Se (New York)

January 2012

10 Columbus Circle #4, New York, NY 10019, USA
Tel: +1 212 823 9335

Having grown up continuously hearing and reading of rave reviews about Thomas Keller and French Laundry (and having used the French Laundry cookbook as one of my favourites), it has always been a dream of mine to somehow have the chance to dine there. However, given that I have never had cause to fly halfway across the world to the US West Coast, this was one which remains unfulfilled. Hence, it was with quite some excitement that we managed to secure a reservation at Chef Keller's newer (and arguably more in-vogue) restaurant in New York, the 3 Michelin star Per Se.

The restaurant was booked solid for an entire month from the time we had finalized our trip to New York, but fortunately, our concierge at our hotel, the Mark, was able to get us a table, albeit one at 5.30pm. In preparation for what we had heard was going to be a very large meal, we skipped lunch that day to save space for the early dinner.

Per Se is located in the Time Warner Centre at Columbus Circle on the top floor of the atrium. We thought we had arrived there early as we tried to open the blue wooden door and found it locked. It was only 10 minutes later when another group of diners arrived and walked through the sliding glass doors on the side of the blue wooden door that we started to feel slightly foolish! Fortunately, during the time we were standing outside, we saw Chef Keller arrive (looking quite grumpy, I have to say) with his flustered assistant in tow and enter his restaurant through the back kitchen door. It was an exciting moment for us not because we were thrilled to see him per se (pun intended), but because he was going to be in the kitchen hence our expectations for the food that night were raised.

The dining room was smaller than we had expected, and consisted of a row of tables by the windows (giving guests a gorgeous view of New York's skyline, Columbus Circle and Central Park) and more tables on a raised platform nearer the kitchen. The centerpiece of the dining room was a cozy fireplace which gave the room a warm and homely feel despite its otherwise swanky interior. We had been given a table away from the windows, which though didn't have any views, but felt more private (the tables by the windows were alongside the corridor and hence had to bear waiters and guests walking by quite frequently).

While we were going through the menu and wine list, we were served some canap├ęs; namely gougeres and the salmon tartare cornets (which were straight out of the French Laundry cookbook, I remembered).

Despite a winelist dominated by big french names and numerous American ones as well, I found at a reasonable value a familiar wine, the Paolo Scarvino Bric Del Fiasc. Moreover, it was a very good year of 1996 (which we also feel is better value than the 1997 which tends to be overpriced). True to form, it was a very big wine despite its age and got better as the dinner went on.

The one thing which struck us very early on in this restaurant was the level of service. Generally we think the service levels at New York's top restaurants are very high, but Per Se's was just that much better than anywhere else. In addition to being knowledgeable about the food and the wines, the waiters were genuinely sincere and attentive, made the appropriate amount of small talk without being bothersome and served the food and cleared the tables with such little fuss and no little skill in such way that did not interrupt our conversations and dining experience. They would also constantly refresh our bread to ensure that we had warm and fresh bread at all times, which were divine, especially with their butter.

We were only given one tasting menu for dinner that night, which included a few choices and supplements. I don't think we saw or were given an a la carte menu. Not that it was any inconvenience as we had intended to have a big meal in any case.

"Oysters and Pearls" - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar: This was simply superb and an excellent start to the meal.

"Terrine" of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras - Navel Orange, Endive Marmalade, Black Walnut Puree and Red Ribbon Sorrel: This looked like a classic au torchon from French Laundry and tasted as good as I would have imagined it. It was accompanied by 6 different types of salt for flavour, and a buttery and sinful brioche. We paired this with a glass each of Sauternes.

Dover Sole - "Mousse de Truffle Noire", Young Leeks, Sunchoke Puree and Frisee Lettuce: Another superb dish; the juicy and succulent fish was well flavored by the intensely rich and concentrated black truffle mousse.

Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster - Spiced Bread, Butternut Squash, White Wine Poached Bartlett Pears, Parsley Shoots and Brown Butter Emulsion: A small but highly satisfying lobster tail sweetened with the pairing of the poached pears and brown butter.

"Epaule de Lapin" - Arrowleaf Spinach, Tokyo Turnips, Pearl Barley and "Sauce Dijonnaise": Rabbit meat cooked to perfection with the barley flavored with dijon mustard giving it a tangy flavour to counter the slight gamey taste of the rabbit.

Rib-Eye of Elysian Fields Farm's Lamb - Per Se "Falafel", Romaine Lettuce Puree, Pickled Heirloom Carrots and Cilantro Shoots: Another gorgeous piece of red meat which was as good as it could be.

"St Haonnois" - Medjool Dates, Pistachio, Cauliflower "Florettes" and Golden Pea Tendrils: A rather simple piece of cheese with some fruits and nuts on it.

Coconut Sorbet - Marinated Pineapple, Young Coconut Water and Pineapple Chips: Fruity and refreshing palate cleanser to prepare us for dessert.

Salted Chocolate Peanuts - Candied Spanish Peanuts, Smoked Chocolate Pudding, Peanut Butter Nougat and Graham Cracker Ice Cream: My wife opted for this, she loved the savoury nutty flavours alongside the chocolate in this dish.

"Champagne Apples" - New York State Apples, "Sable Breton" Champagne "Parfait" and Bay Leaf Juniper Ice Cream: This was my pick. I felt that the apples were slightly sour and this overpowered the rest of the dessert. Should have gone with the chocolate peanuts dessert my wife had.

Just when we thought that we couldn't possibly eat any more, a box of chocolates was brought out for us to pick the ones of our choice, and then it was followed by a large bowl of chocolate truffles and a multi-tiered tiffin box of macaroons. And despite our best efforts, we couldn't even put a dent into it.

And to round it off, we were served French Laundry's famous 'Coffee and Donuts' which was a fitting end to a fantastic meal. There was a good pace to the dinner, and despite the knowledge that there was going to be another seating probably at 9 or 9.30pm that night, we didn't feel at all rushed even though there were many courses. We finished our meal comfortably and was about to leave at 8.30pm (and headed off to Dizzy's Club next door for some live jazz).

Final Thoughts: Despite being wary of its hype, we were nonetheless pleasantly surprised and highly impressed by the quality of our dining experience, from the interior to the service, to the wines and of course with the food. Though it may have been the most expensive meal for us in New York on this time round, it was still very much worth the trip. Every course was perfectly executed and was well thought through, and this was complemented by the superlative service we received that night (though it is interesting to note that this was the only restaurant on our visit to this city which automatically included a 20% service charge into the bill; but because the service was so good, we left an additional tip). This was probably our best meal in New York ever (only very slightly shading Eleven Madison Park).

Monday, January 30, 2012

Minetta Tavern (New York)

January 2012

113 Macdougal Street (between West 3rd Street and Bleecker Street), New York, NY 10012, USA
Tel: +1 212 475 3850

Nestled in the West Village is an old but admittedly hip bar and restaurant. Curiously, Minetta Tavern has one Michelin star but given that Peter Luger had one too, it didn't really surprise us. Stepping through the door and heavy curtains, we were greeted in near pitch dark by a wall of noise, and the narrow interior was packed with guests at the long bar and diners at the small tables along the side. It looked pretty much like an old-school tavern/bistro, which accounts for part of its charm.

It was notable that this was an establishment with very attractive staff. From the gorgeous Sca-Jo look-alike at the reception to the male waiters who could be or probably are aspiring young actors, the restaurant had a very young and trendy vibe despite the very old and traditional interior. The tables were very tightly spaced together and we were practically eating elbow to elbow with the next table, but it was very casual and from the boisterous laughters and chatter around, it was clear that people were having a very good time.

Despite eying some very interesting items on its menu, especially its steak (which was served at the next table and looked delicious), we had just come from lunch at Peter Luger just a few hours before and was realistic about how much we could really eat that night. So we settled for a mesclun salad with warm goat cheese and a duck liver terrine for our starters, both of which were very good (especially the nicely toasted bread which accompanied the foie gras).

For the mains, we each had a different burger, I tried the Black Label burger, which was a selection of prime dry-aged beef cuts with caramelized onions and pommes frites. This was the more expensive burger choice as it used 'gourmet' cuts of the beef, and hence the taste was richer and fatter. It was a really good burger.

My wife had the Minetta Burger with cheddar and caramelized onions, which was less flavourful than the Black Label Burger but was nonetheless juicy and tender. Also a very good burger. In conclusion, despite the price difference, each of them was good in its own right, but I'd go for the Minetta Burger next time (as it was a proper burger whereas the Black Label was too fancy for my liking).

It was a quick and 'light' meal and we skipped dessert having already gorged ourselves that afternoon on cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery along Bleecker Street.

Final Thoughts: Every bit a tavern in term of its ambience and buzz, but with superb service and great gastropub food. It's a fun and casual place but be prepared to rub shoulders with people in the next table and eat off small tables.

Peter Luger (New York)

January 2012

178 Broadway, Brooklyn, New York, NY 11211, USA
Tel: +1 718 387 7400

Peter Luger is a New York institution, having been around for over a century and is arguably the most famous steakhouse in the City. It has one Michelin star, which says more about its standing in New York than its ability to meet all the criteria normal for a Michelin-starred restaurant. Located in Brooklyn just across the Williamsburg bridge from Manhattan, it has a traditionally adorned interior reminiscent of a German beer hall.

Despite their menu having a variety of food like burgers, fish, pot roast etc, there's really only one thing we wanted to try: their aged porterhouse prime beef steak. It comes in sizes of 'for one, two, three or four' and is served still sizzling on the plate. Peter Luger is quite proud of their special sauce (which can be bought in supermarkets), it was good, but was good with the breads and too sweet for the steak (good steak never needs sauce anyway).

When served, our porterhouse was pre-cut into smaller pieces with the meat on the bone left on the place in case we want to gnaw at the bones.

The steak? Amazing flavourful and juicy, with the right marbling (did not taste too fatty) and grilled to perfection.

In addition, the side order of creamed spinach was amazing as well, and the vegetable was neither too bitter nor buttery which is the flaw of this served elsewhere.

Golden brown fries were very good as well, although we were saving our stomachs to finish to steak and largely left the fries untouched.

Final Thoughts: Memorable steak lunch, we really enjoyed the sides as well. Best steakhouse? Hard to say, but it was darn good nonetheless. Service was good that day despite some reviews which suggest otherwise sometimes, but it could have been because we were there at 1130am on a Monday and the restaurant wasn't full. In some ways, Peter Luger reminded us of another favourite beef steak place of ours in Italy, Da Sostanza, in that when we were there the focus was purely on the food and the ambience, service and interior decor becomes a distant secondary consideration. If compared with the other steakhouse in New York we ate at a few days before, Quality Meats, we'd say that Peter Luger's steak shaded it as the flavour was more intense, but Quality Meats had the better variety of other foods/wines in the menu and a much cooler vibe.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gramercy Tavern (New York)

January 2012

42 East 20th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA
Tel: +1 212 477 0777

Gramercy Tavern is a one Michelin star American restaurant and another one in Danny Meyer's stable of eateries. It has an impressive bar area at the entrance (which serves food as well - no reservations for its tables though) and a fine dining restaurant at the back. Despite being named as a 'tavern' it has the decor and vibe which corresponds more to a upmarket wine bar than the traditional beer hall.

The restaurant was comfortable but we were started getting annoyed with the gruff and condescending manner of the wait staff, as well as a bread waiter whose english we couldn't understand. Service at our table was quite hurried and brusque that night.

This was a Sunday dinner and we had already lived through three Sunday breakfasts/brunches by that time and feeling the worse for it. And it was a godsend that the restaurant had a vegetable tasting menu which would have allowed us to take it easy on our stomachs after the past week of non-stop eating.

We were served a single cheese puff with some cheese shavings each, which looked a bit lonely on the plate. It was a quite cold and hard.

Winesap Apple - sorrell, buttermilk and horseradish: This was a cold dish which was all fruit and vegetables. It was a good palate cleanser but was surprising served as a first dish (when we thought that it would work in between two heavier dishes).

Kabocha Squash and Endive Salad - spicy maple dressing: I liked this salad quite a lot. It was quite well put together.

Sunchoke Soup - belgua lentils, lobster and parsnips: We were surprised to see lobster in our soup (given that this was a vegetarian tasting menu) but the soup (with the lobster in it) was very good nonetheless, so no complaints.

Ruby Crescent Potatoes - celery root, radish and trout roe: The potato puree at the base to the plate was quite a nice touch to the dish. The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the ingredients went well together. One concern we had was the rather careless manner in which this dish was served on our table, such that the sauces were sliding off the dish. Not sure what the chef would have thought of that after spending time arranging the food on the dish.

Spinach Fettuccine - shiitake mushrooms and chili: We did not understand this dish. The pasta was soggy and it tasted homemade (but not in a good way).

Tasting Dessert: the pineapple sorbet as pre-dessert and the coconut and passionfruit ice cream as the main dessert were very executed and we enjoyed them.

Petit four was decent with a nice selection of chocolate and macaroons.

Final Thoughts: Less than satisfactory service marred this dining experience for us. The food was good but not exceptionally so and despite this restaurant being promoted as a 'tavern', the atmosphere was inexplicably snotty. We had read that the bar menu was better but the bar seating did not take reservations and as it was a Sunday night, we did not want to take chances. In hindsight, we should have tried to eat at the bar area instead of the restaurant.

Daniel (New York)

January 2012

60 East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065, USA
Tel: +1 212 288 0033

Update: Daniel lost one star in 2016 and is now a two Michelin star restaurant.

Daniel Boulud is perhaps one of the least hyped of the three Michelin Star chefs in New York at the moment, but nonetheless has retained its reputation for excellence. A familiar name nowadays as far away as Singapore (where he opened a DB Moderne more than a year ago), his main restaurant, Daniel (which has three Michelin stars) on the Upper East Side just off Park Avenue remains the bastion of modern classical french fine dining in the City, not just in terms of the cuisine but the restaurant interior, wine list and overall experience.

Nestled on a short but quiet East 65th Street just off Park Avenue is its relatively discreet and dimly lit entrance, but upon entering is the large bar and lounge area with the dining hall in a separate room at the end. One thing we noted was the impressive collection of contemporary art on its walls, in contrast with the classical fixtures, pillars and cornices in its interior; an indication of its cuisine philosophy perhaps?

We were there for dinner at the late seating and were given a nice cozy corner seat in the 'corridor' overlooking the main dining room (like box seats at the balcony of the theatre). This meant that our table was very private and we had a good view of the rest of the room, however, it also meant that the lighting was nonexistent and it made it almost impossible to take any proper photos of the food.

For the dinner, we opted for the 6 course tasting menu with the accompanying wine pairing. We were served some amuse bouche but regrettably we have forgotten what they were now (not to say that they weren't good).

Duck Terrine with Marcona Almond - honey crisp apple confit, sauternes glazed date mache salad, hazelnut-cider vinaigrette (paired with 2008 Dr F. Weins-Prum Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmekreich, Mosel): Simple but executed perfectly, with a very suitable wine pairing of a riesling which was only slightly sweet and not overpoweringly so.

Maine Peekytoe Crab Salad - hearts of palm, finger lime, pickled chayote, red ribbon sorrel (paired with 2010 Domaine Bailly Sancerre Cuvee Chavignol, Loire Valley): Delightfully sweet and sour and was complemented well with the very dry white wine.

Spinach Raviolini with Scottish Langoustines - littleneck clams, young turnips, riesling sauce (paired with 2010 Domaine Terrebrune Bandol Blanc, Provence): the langoustines dominated this dish, to the extent that I felt that the raviolini was slightly overpowered. That said, this would be preferable to the opposite outcome, especially when the langoustines were sweet and fresh.

Pan Roasted Wild Turbot - trumpet royale, braised tardivo radicchio, pine nut arancini, sherry barrel aged balsamic (paired with 2009 Copain Pinot Noir Tous Ensemble, Anderson Valley): Though I generally do not like my turbot panfried or roasted (as it usually ends up too dry), this was done just right without compromising the moisture in the fish. Also, the sauce was very good and the dish as a whole was quite light.

Roasted Veal Tenderloin with Creamy Polenta - poached cheeks with parsley pasta, crispy sweetbreads with hedgehog mushroom and crosnes (paired with 2005 Chateau Robin Cotes de Castillon, Bordeaux): My wife really liked the very tender and juicy veal with rich and delicious sauce, and the sweetbreads were a welcome addition to the dish.

Duo of Beef - braised black angus short ribs with lentil coulis, seared wagyu tenderloin, roasted beets, black trumpet, barberry-mustard oil (paired with 2005 Chateau Robin Cotes de Castillon, Bordeaux): Very well cooked pieces of beef with sauce done in a very classical manner. Done as it should be done.

Caramelized Pineapple - tropical mousse, lime, almond crumble, passion fruit sorbet (paired with 1996 Domaine du Rancy Rivesaltes Ambre, Roussillon): This was light and refreshing, but I felt that the pineapple was slightly sour which led it to be a bit more acidic than it could have been.

Warm Guanaja Chocolate Coulant - liquid caramel, fleur de sel, milk sorbet (paired with 2005 Chateau Robin Cotes de Castillon, Bordeaux): My wife thought that this looked quite ordinary when it was first served, but could not stop raving about it after she finished cleaning out the plate.

This was followed by coffee and some petit four and madeleines which in particular were very good.

Final Thoughts: A superb meal at an impressive restaurant. As close to a classical French fine dining experience without actually being in France. This is a place where you'd wish you came in your evening best, such is the grandeur of the dining room and the professionalism of the staff. Each dish was technically brilliant and the wine pairing was well put together.