August 17, 2015

25 for 25: A Fine Kettle of Fish

It took me all my life to learn how to salt a tomato 
Chef Eric Ripert

T.S Eliot may have thought that April was the cruelest month, but I’m guessing he never visited New York City in February.  Short dreary days; snow and slush at every step; a damp that can seep into your bones and settle in to stay until the spring thaw.

But there are ways to make even a New York February weekend transcend the elements.  Take one opera, two stellar restaurants, three days and four fabulous friends, stir, season liberally with laugher and healthy helping of libations and you have it: our next adventure in our quest to eat at the top 25 World’s Best restaurants (you can read about that here).

New York is that miracle of a place – so many not just good but really great restaurants that your head can spin trying to decide where to eat. Luckily our options were pre-determined: of all those restaurants, Michelin stars, Zagat rankings and NYT four star reviews notwithstanding, only two were on the “list”: Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin. 

The weekend was going to be hectic. I was flying in from Shanghai on Thursday night, and meeting up with Richard, Silvia and Jeff at the hotel.  We’d grab a late dinner somewhere.  Lunch at Le Bernardin on Friday, Carmen at the Met on Friday night, Eleven Madison on Saturday night.  In between, squeezing as much out of New York as we could, weather and energy permitting.   

Friday dawned brisk and crisp.  Coffee for breakfast and barely much more…we wanted to be ready to savour our lunch at Le Bernardin.  A luxury indeed: the whole afternoon ahead of us, a rare treat to have a gourmet meal on a weekday.  

The restaurant is tucked away on 51st Street between 6th and 7th, the sign subtle, easy to walk by and miss.  Once inside, however, the atmosphere could not be more welcoming. Le Bernardin is a soothing, beautiful clubby space with old school glamour and sophisticated details.  Gleaming wood in a rich coffered ceiling, a silvery wall lit from below that has the shimmery effect of gently lapping waves, artfully arranged cherry blossoms towering over delicate orchids, all exuding a Zen-like calm and a measured cadence. 

Chef Eric Ripert, he of the silver hair and dazzling smile, has been at the helm of Le Bernardin since the age of 28. Within a year, the New York Times gave the restaurant four stars, an honour it has maintained in the 20 years since, repeating the feat four times. A man of seemingly singular focus, Monsieur Ripert is that rare celebrity chef – one who is still cooking in the kitchen. He's also a Buddhist, and perhaps it is that which seems to create an air of complete serenity at Le Bernardin.  

We opt for the eight course Chef’s Tasting menu. As with Arpege, the singular focus on a family of ingredients creates a special kind of mastery. Here, seafood is the star.  Subtlety shapes every dish, delicate flesh translucent and raw, or perfectly cooked with a restrained sauce that lets the sea shine through.

And so begins the meal.

A crudo of bay scallops and sea urchin done ceviche style with a Granny Smith apple 
and Meyer lemon vinaigrette

 Warm king fish sashimi, generously topped with Osetra caviar and 
finished with a light mariniere broth

Sautéed langoustine, topped with a perfect shave of black truffle and sprinkled chanterelle mushrooms, unexpectedly paired with an aged balsamic vinaigrette

 White tuna and Kobe beef, with fresh kimchi, Asian pear and a soy-lemon emulsion

As the meal progresses, we notice a prevailing theme of earth and sea; whether in the use of the black truffle or chanterelles, the umami flavours complement but never overshadow their oceanic plate mates.   

With the arrival of each dish, there is a reverent pause and then a collective groan of approval from the four of us. Around us the restaurant is full, the steady hum and laughter of diners well satisfied.  So deeply are we into the meal and our lively conversation that Richard’s sudden refrain “There he is” “There he is”  “THERE HE IS”, said in an increasingly loud and urgent whisper, take the three of us a few minutes to register.  And indeed, there he is, the Chef himself, making his way quietly to the captain’s station, and then, impossibly, towards our table, stopping for a brief gracious moment to say hello. 

Our friend Silvia is never at a loss for words.  But as Chef Ripert quietly shook our hands, and we thanked him for a wonderful meal, she could only nod silently in assent.  At such times the moment crystallises and becomes perfect, a memory captured that is fleeting but never forgotten. Words become irrelevant when the gift of a great food experience is this good.

It seems only fitting that the final dessert is distinctly Canadian in character: a maple candy cap cremeux with huckleberry confit.  

The captain approaches our table, asking if perhaps we would like to see the kitchen?  Bien sur!  Lunch service has wound down and the kitchen team is busy preparing for the evening's onslaught, each stainless steel surface wiped clean and gleaming.  Although Chef Ripert is not in the kitchen, that same air of watchful calmness prevails and we can imagine that even at the height of service, there are no raised voices or crashing plates.

If we had to sum up this, our second in a list of 25 world class meals, all of us agree that there are three words that spring to mind to describe it: subtle, sophisticated and refined, executed with an intense concentration and precision.  I'm thinking it's the same precision that led Chef Ripert to learn how to salt that tomato perfectly.

Two down, 23 to go.  If Arpege and Le Bernardin were numbers 25 and 23 on the list respectively, how great could good get?

Stay tuned for more...

Elizabeth and Richard

Next up: A Big Apple showstopper

Eric Ripert's Fish Fumet (Fish Stock)
from the Le Bernardin Cookbook
Makes 3 cups

I suspect a whole ocean of fish fumet has flowed through the kitchen at Le BernardinThis recipe, like everything at Le Bernardin, is simple and delicious.

2 lbs. heads and bones from black bass, red snapper or halibut
2 tbsp corn oil
1 medium onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 leek, very thinly sliced
15 white peppercorns
½ tsp fine sea salt
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
1 c dry white wine
3 c water

1.  Remove the gills and the eyes from the fish heads or have your fishmonger do this for you.. Cut the heads and bones across into 4-inch pieces. In a shallow pan filled with cold water, add the heads and bones. Cover, and let stand for 1 hour, changing the water twice.

2. In a large stockpot set over medium heat, add corn oil, onions, fennel, leeks, peppercorns, salt, parsley, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the vegetables are soft but not browned, about 4 minutes.

3. Transfer heads and bones from water to the stockpot; discard water. Stir periodically until bones and flesh around bones turn from translucent to white, about 12 minutes.

4. Add the wine and 3 cups of water; bring to a boil over high heat. Boil fumet 10 minutes, skimming off the foam as it rises to the top. Remove from heat; let rest for 10 minutes.

5. Strain the fumet through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois, pressing firmly on the solids to extract as much of the flavourful liquid as possible. If you have more than 3 cups of fumet, place the liquid in a clean saucepan over high heat, and boil until it reduces to 3 cups. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator up to 3 days, or in the freezer up to 2 months.

July 19, 2015

25 for 25: What's in a Number?

Last weekend we ate at Alinea.   It was the ninth meal in our quest to eat at the top 25 restaurants in the world this year, in celebration of our 25th wedding anniversary.

Except there was one small problem with eating at Alinea on July 10.  The World’s Best list, which we’re using to plan our culinary journeys, comes out with their new list on June 1.  What that meant for Alinea was that, overnight, the restaurant had gone from being ranked #9 in the world on the 2014 list to #26 on the new 2015 list, just shy of that “top 25” mark. 

Two weeks ago the same thing happened.  We ate at Restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm on June 27.  Franzten was #23 on the 2014 list; after June 1, it had slipped to #31.
But here’s the thing.  Those two meals alone were possibly the finest we’ve eaten so far on our culinary quest; and quite possibly ever.

It got us thinking: what’s in a number?

And more importantly, it got us thinking: what makes a meal – and therefore a restaurant – great? 

It’s no surprise that we’ve concluded there is no one answer, nor is there one authoritative source. 

Restaurant critics do a lot of heavy lifting for us.  The best visit the same place more than once, going with different diners, to form an opinion that is shaped over time.  The very best can distinguish between consistently excellent experiences that may on occasion be distorted by variables beyond a restaurant’s control: an off night for the kitchen; a food delivery gone astray; a crucial shortage of staff on a night with a full house.

And of course today, every diner has become an instant expert.  Whether we’ve been designated a “senior reviewer” on Trip Advisor; an “elite” contributor on Yelp or we frequent Chowhound forums imparting local knowledge to strangers that rely on us to make their precious restaurant reservations, everyone, as the saying goes, is a critic, with a decided point of view. 

The simple alchemy of Bjorn Frantzen's  brown butter, with a taste that lingers still

As we’ve reflected on the nine meals we’ve had so far – each extraordinary in some way, each with a touch or more of pure culinary magic and wonder – what we’ve concluded is this. 

Numbers, lists and designations do matter.  But they are merely there as guideposts, markers that help us decipher and choose where to eat from amongst an ever increasing pool of restaurants that spring up like mushrooms, too numerous to count, too many to frequent. 

A dining experience, after all, is a most personal thing – a moment that you and your dining companions alone have, bringing with you to the table all of your expectations, biases, hopes and desires.

The wonderful meals we’ve had in the past few months have been part ballet, part magic show and all theatre.  Watching a team working the room, gliding seamlessly around each other and between tables, is performance art, happening all around you.  Each employee – whether cooking in an open kitchen in front of you, or shyly describing a dish they’ve made, a wine they’ve selected, the provenance of your knife or edible flower – is partnering with you in your dining adventure and what they bring to the table goes far beyond the plate.

At the heart of it all is the chef as artist.  Whether we’re amateur eaters or professional critics, the same subjectivity that makes us prefer a Pollack to a Degas is at play here. And just as in art, trends start as underground movements and before you know it, we’re all foraging for our next meal.  

(left: Grant Achatz's dessert as art creation, composed in front of you with sugar instead of paint)
The World’s 50 Best is but one measure of a restaurant’s greatness.  We’ve had people weighing in with very strong opinions about what we should do with these two lists –  Stick with the original 2014 list! Use the new 2015 list!  One thing we know for sure. What nine meals have taught us so far is that  - regardless of number – all of these places live in rarified air.  And what delicious rarified air it is.

Coming up next: a fish tale and making it nice in the kitchen in New York.

Until next time,
Elizabeth and Richard