Friday, October 4, 2013

Le Parc Franck Putelat (Carcassonne)

July 2013

80 Chemin des Anglais, 11000, Carcassonne, France
Tel: +33 468 71 8080

Ninety minutes drive north from the Spanish border through the Pyrenees is the awe-inspiring fortified city of Carcassonne. An ancient fortified city with a storied past, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is also known as the largest intact castle in Europe. Throughout its history, it has been occupied by the Celts, the Romans, the Visigoths among others, and has been the centre of the Cathar legends in the Aude region. Its seemingly impregnable walls has made it a highly strategic city in the heart of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, as its capital and the defensive lynchpin at the border with Spain. The restorations which were started by the famous architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century thoroughly rebuilt the city walls and towers (which had fallen into disrepair), and according to some critics, brought a very gothic look to the castle (which was fashionable at that time), with its pointy towers. Apparently, the Carcassonne castle was the inspiration behind the original Disney castle.  And in fact, many similarities can be found between the two (and not just from the crowd of tourists which inhabit both). Carcassonne is now one of the most visited landmarks in France.

A stone's throw from the city walls of the old Carcassonne Castle is the compound of Le Parc Franck Putelat, a french restaurant which was only this year awarded its second Michelin star. It also has several guest rooms at the back, and we stayed in one for two nights when we were here. The rooms were very new and comfortable, and it was a sensible decision on our part to base ourselves here as it was literally walking distance to the old city yet far from the noisy and dense crowds.

We had booked ourselves a table for lunch on the day we arrived. Interestingly, due to the lovely mid-summer weather outside, they got us a table outside in the garden, where every other guest was seated as well. Despite the outside temperature hitting 30 degrees Celsius, under the shade it was cool and breezy. Sitting out in the open with the fresh air and quiet of the French countryside was truly therapeutic, and we were feeling very relaxed after our long drive from Barcelona.

They had a very good value set lunch, but being hungry as we were, we went for the tasting menu instead. First up came a selection of amuse bouche, which included foie gras macarons, turnips, sundried tomatoes, dark and white chocolate grissinis, and a gazpacho.

The Japanese-inspired small bowl of edamame with sesame cream and bonito flakes was very addictive.

Piemontaise - Frogs legs, potatoes, yuzu: Despite this sounding like something from Northern Italy, this was a classic french salad dish made of peas, carrots and potatoes. This was a more luxurious version with frogs legs and black truffles, with a touch of tanginess from the Japanese citrus.

Meuniere - Arctic char, vanilla butter, red wine of Corbieres: This was a perfectly cooked fillet of fish with a rich red wine sauce and pan-fried in butter.

Pan Con Tomate - Red mullet, tomatoes, Bellota ham: Despite the name of this dish referring to tomato bread (the type we have been used to eating in Spain), this was two fillets of red mullet (which were grilled to look like tomato bread) accompanied by a side of sautéed potatoes, onions, ham and carrots. This was excellent.

Chaud-Froid - Rack of veal, scampies, eggplants: French cuisine is ultimately defined by the sauces and this dish provided us with a reminder of all that is good in French food. The sauce was so brilliant that they could have served us anything else with the sauce and it still would have tasted good.

Cheeses - Fresh and matured from Aude area and from elsewhere: Another thing which others try to follow but cannot fully replicate is the excellence of French cheeses. All our usual favourites were here and it was a challenge to pick the ones to eat amongst such a wide variety.

Linzer Torte - Raspberries, hazelnut, cinnamon: This was a very light and refreshing summer dessert.

Ile Flottante - Nyangbo chocolate, salty toffees, freeze coriander: We loved this dessert. It was gorgeous and innovative. The coriander ice cream was clever and the chocolate sauce brought together all the flavours on the plate.

We finished our excellent lunch with a leisurely coffee, enjoying the relaxed ambience and perfect outdoor temperature of the patio.

The next day, we were back here for dinner. We had intended to pop down for a short while to have a very quick and light dinner (after having quite a heavy lunch at Le Vieux Puits), but couldn't resist the breads and butter presented to us. We decided to skip the appetisers and go straight for the main courses (from the a la carte menu).

Sweetbread - artichokes: This was a special of the day and off the menu. It was a perfectly deep-fried sweetbread with an excellent sauce. No one does sweetbreads like the French.

Beef filet served Bocuse Gold January 29, 2003: On the menu was the highly recommended steak. This was the version which won chef Franck Putelat the gold medal at the 2003 Bocuse D'Or Contest, where he also won the silver overall award. The sauce blew us away. It was a stunning dish.

Vacherin revisited in strawberries and seaweeds, vinegar of Savagnin ice cream: The a la carte desserts here were also very impressive. Prepared by Remi Touja, France's 2013 dessert champion (according to the description in the menu), they were more elaborate than the usual desserts. The strawberry dessert was unexpectedly complex, and was a mix of textures and an appropriate balance between sweet and tart.

Satin pineapple, lime, juniper berries sherbet: The pineapple dessert was no less enjoyable. Again the combination of the well-matched sweet and sour flavours produced a refreshing yet substantial dish.

Another wonderful meal ended with some petit four enjoyed with the remnants of our wines and some tea in the cool night air of French countryside.

Final Thoughts: Le Parc is a beautiful establishment in the idyllic French countryside. Moreover, its location (walking distance to the Carcassonne castle) makes it ideal as a base to explore the region of Languedoc. We had a most memorable two nights stay there. The accommodation was luxurious, the service superb and the cuisine superlative. Throughout our meals there, we were also very surprised by the quality of the local wines which were recommended for our meals by the sommelier. Our meals there really reminded us of the impossibly high standards set and maintained by the top French restaurants in France.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Comerç 24 (Barcelona)

July 2013

Carrer Comerç, 24, 08003, Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 93 319 21 02

Comerç 24 is the flagship restaurant of Carles Abellan, an El Bulli alumni and one of the succeeding proponents in Barcelona of the avant garde gastronomy of the now-closed institution. Located at the address from which it is named, it has one Michelin star and is the sister restaurant of our favourite tapas bar in Barcelona: Tapaç 24. The restaurant opens out into a rather busy street just off the El Born, and throughout the night, the colourful lights in the restaurant attracted countless pedestrians on the street who came in to find out what kind of place this was. There was a mix of normal tables, bar counter seating and high table seating as well, and the vibe was quite relaxed yet trendy. The service was warm and friendly throughout the night and we settled in comfortably and looked forward to having the smaller tasting menu with some wines by the glass.

Monkfish with black sesame and black garlic, cauliflower with vinegar and ginger: There was a very heavy Japanese influence in this dish, with the use of soya sauce, black sesame and seaweed. The very thinly sliced monkfish was fresh and had a springy texture, but we felt that there was too much soya sauce and this resulted in its over-dominance over everything else in this dish.

Filo, parma, basil and lemon: This was a light cream-filled filo-pastry (the filo was very thin, like a love-letter), and it was quite good.

Pizza 24: When chefs create a special name for one of their dishes, you'd expect that this will be something quite unforgettable. In this case, this was supposed to be a trademark interpretation of the pizza, with a thin cracker as a base, topped with mozzarella, tomato, salad and some vegetables. It vaguely tasted like a pizza but was otherwise unremarkable.

Sponge cerviche: We did not like this at all. It was too spongy, chewy and tasteless.

Sardine with orange and fresh wasabi: We thought this was a good dish; the pairing of the strong fishy taste of the sardine was well balanced-out by the citrus and nuts.

Tuna tartare: The tuna tartare was very good too. It was finely chopped up and marinated in a manner similar to a steak tartare.

Kinder egg: This was Comerç 24's signature dish. A truffle-infused egg custard similar to the Japanese chawanmushi was in an egg shell and had to be eaten with a teaspoon. It was good but didn't blow our minds.

Codfish with chard and miso: The fish was delicately cooked but we felt that it was over-salted.

Duck rice with foie: This was actually a very good idea and an excellent pairing of flavours, but there was too much foie gras ice cream and this overwhelmed the entire dish.

Lemon ice tea: This was a refreshing pre-dessert.

Recuit "Napolita", Apple/Saffron, Nougat with twin cigar and Conguitos C24: The variety of desserts was good and each was decent enough but we would have preferred a proper main dessert to wow us. This felt more like petit fours than dessert.

Oreo vanilla and black sesame, Wild pine, Gold bar and Matcha tablet: Of the petit fours, we were particularly impressed by the "Oreos" which were better than the actual ones.

Final Thoughts: This was a meal where our dining experience exceeded our enjoyment of the food. For most part, the dishes were quite clever but we felt that many of them lacked the subtlety required to separate the good from the great. In some cases, the food was too salty and in others, the flavours were quite unbalanced. The timing of the food was quite inconsistent, due to (we suspect) the way the kitchen prepared each dish (needing to make larger portions of each dish before subdividing into serving sizes for each guest, resulting in delays caused by the differing eating pace of each table). However, the excellent service more than made up for the long wait we had to endure between some courses, as we were constantly being entertained and checked on by our server. Also, the restaurant had the vibe of a cool cocktail bar, and we were quite happy to sit back and enjoy our wines while waiting for our food.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

El Suquet de L'Almirall (Barcelona)

July 2013

Passeig de Joan de Borbo, 65, 08003, Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 932 21 62 33

Barcelona is beautiful in the summer. Though it tends to get very hot and sunny, the cool sea breeze and relatively low humidity (and long days) make its beaches extremely popular with the locals as well as other European tourists. The beach at the Barceloneta, in particular, is packed on Sunday afternoons. Sundays in Barcelona are also days where it may be difficult to find a nice place for a meal as many of the restaurants and tapas bars are closed. Fortunately, the locals love to have their leisurely seafood lunch on a Sunday, so the restaurants by the beach tend to be open in the day.

In Barceloneta, and in particular, along the main road of Passeig de Joan de Borbo, there are countless dining options, some more legitimate than the others (you can tell by which has a waiter outside touting and which don't). We looked up our trusty Maribel's guide and made a booking at El Suquet de L'Almirall (which I think is Catalan for "the stew of the Admiral"). Despite the 30 degree celsius temperature, the shaded temperature was closer to 20 so it was quite pleasant to sit under the large umbrellas outdoors. Moreover, the views from the outdoor seating were much better and we spent the whole afternoon having a slow and relaxing lunch and watching the interesting rabble of beach-goers walk past.

The seafood at El Suquet was very fresh and their cuisine was to cook it in the simplest manner possible. For example, their prawns were lightly pan-fried and tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper. 

The cured anchovies with red peppers and lettuce was also very good.

The food came with a side dish of sautéed onions, peppers and tomatoes.

Although the house special was its paella, we were unable to have such a heavy meal, so instead had the salt-baked seabass which was very fresh and succulent. This was paired with a nice glass of white wine and was delicious.

In this heat, the ice cream that they had made sense. The lime sorbet (but the creamy sort) was very good and the mojito sorbet was also very refreshing.

Final Thoughts: El Suquet was a nice and casual seafood restaurant from which to people-watch and chill out on a hot summer's day. The food was good and reasonably priced too.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lasarte (Barcelona)

July 2013

Carrer de Mallorca, 259, 08008, Barcelona, Spain
Tel: +34 93 445 32 42

Lasarte is the 'second' restaurant of Martin Berasategui, an iconic Spanish chef whose eponymous restaurant in San Sebastian was where we had probably our best meal of 2012. Named after the little town in San Sebastian where the flagship restaurant is located, it sits along the busy Passeig de Gracia and is adjacent to Hotel Condes. It has two Michelin stars in its own right but we were curious to see if it was a good standalone restaurant or a 'lite' version of Martin Berasategui (MB) in San Sebastian, very much like how we felt that Moments (based on our meal there) was a lesser mirror image of Sant Pau.

One thing we noticed straightway when we stepped into the restaurant was how formal it felt. The interior was one of quiet elegance and understated luxury, and the guests were rather well dressed (relative to the usual dress code of the diners in other fine dining restaurants in Barcelona, especially in the summer). It was also a rather old crowd, and we felt like the youngest diners there. That said, the service throughout the night was excellent, and this reminded us strongly of our experience at MB where the service there was also standout (although MB felt slightly less formal compared to Lasarte).

Five different flavours of butter (which included, in addition to the normal salted butter, beetroot, herb and mushroom butter) plus salt and olive oil were served with the bread basket.

Millefeuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions and green apple: As an amuse bouche, we were served one of our favourite dishes of MB (albeit in a smaller portion). This was a very nice touch.

Tomato gazpacho with clams: The cold soup was quite interesting. It was cold, slightly sour yet went quite well with the clams at the bottom of the bowl.

Trout tartare and orange and curd cucumber: This was another cold dish. It was quite a subtle dish and was very refreshing.

Lightly smoked oyster on the grill, soft cream of Figueres, small squid ragout and potato bread: This was very good.

Vegetable leaves salad, herbs, sprouts and petals with lettuce cream: This was similar to something we had at MB. What we liked about this was the tasty stock which had the slightly gelatinous texture of egg white.

Tempered beef steak slices on foie gras curd, iodized salad and mustard ice cream: The beef was very lightly cooked such that it tasted more like beef tartare. The foie gras and mustard ice cream were delicious when eaten together with the beef.

Red prawn on a seabed and fennel with its coral mayonnaise: The coral mayonnaise had seaweed which gave the prawn a taste and texture which was reminiscent of the sea.

Home yolk with toasted butter, black truffle toast, cauliflower, crunchy black garlic with piment d'Espelette: Probably our favourite dish of the evening. It was creamy and the rich.

Low-temperature cooked grouper fish settled on onions and paprika marmalade, braised endive, barnacles gelee and fried breadcrumbs: It was at this point where we started to feel really full and tired. Our jetlag had started to hit us quite badly during this meal. We had already stopped drinking our wine a few courses ago and were now struggling with our food. This fish course was good but other than that we couldn't remember much else about it.

Roast pigeon, pork stewed, dry tomato and lemon, apple cream and interiors toast: The roast pigeon was the last main course and we could only take a bite of it. It was perfectly cooked and very tasty, but at that point we could eat no more.

We had never 'abandoned' a meal at a fine dining restaurant before, and this would be our first time. Fortunately the service staff was very understanding and accommodating of our situation. We asked to skip dessert altogether, which was something totally out of character for us. To help with our digestion, we asked for some mint tea and they infused it at our table.

The petit fours which they served with our tea were very good. In particular, we loved the hazelnut sweet which would melt in your mouth.

Final Thoughts: Our impressions of Lasarte would ultimately be tainted by our jetlag and our inability to fully enjoy the meal. However, we had eaten enough to be very impressed with the quality and execution of the food. Many things about the food reminded us of Martin Berasategui but with a slant towards the french style. We were most impressed with the service. Throughout the night they were attentive and friendly, and despite our travails, they were patient and understanding. Though we did not ask for it, they even charged us only for the smaller menu despite the fact that we had gone for the grand menu. We owe it to ourselves to eat at Lasarte again.