Thursday, May 30, 2013

My View on the Four Kinds of Tasting Menus (food)

I used to be a much bigger fan of tasting menus than I am now. In recent years, I've leaned toward ordering the prix fixe and a la carte instead at many top tier restaurants such as Jean Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin, and Marea. When you save up for a splurge at a fine dining restaurant, it's natural to want to be able to get as much out of the experience as possible. But the truth is that many chefs don't design dishes to be part of a tasting menu, and many tasting menus are mere afterthoughts.

To me there are really 4 kinds of tasting menus.
1. The ones at tasting menu only restaurants. Examples from the best restaurants in NYC include Eleven Madison Park, The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Per Se. They do it right because that's the only thing they focus on. The menu is planned and well crafted.
2. Seasonal tasting menus featuring dishes that are not on the regular menu. They may not be the sole focus, but there's enough attention dedicated to them and it usually highlights additional ambition and care on the part of the chef. Examples of fine restaurants offering these kinds of tasting menus in NYC include Jean Georges, Kyo Ya, Tocqueville, Gramercy Tavern, Louro, and many others.
3. A selection of signature dishes from over the course of the restaurant's lifetime. These will often come from successful, ambitious restaurants that are continuously innovating but have dishes that regulars just continue to ask for. Examples include the vault at WD-50, the signature tasting menu at Jean Georges, and the 25th anniversary tasting menu at Alain Ducasse restaurants.
4. Tasting menus slapped together from items already on the menu. Usually used to appease people who can't decide or for people who may not be able to frequent the restaurant often and so want to "taste" as much as possible in one sitting.
5. There's also in fact a fifth kind, which is the fake tasting menu. Many restaurants take a 3 or 4 course prix fixe and call it a tasting menu to attract diners.

The 4th kind of tasting menu is the one that I see most often in restaurants nowadays, and is the one that I have the most problem with. Often, the restaurant will try to disguise these tasting menus as the 3rd kind of tasting menu, saying that these are the standout dishes on the menu. But if they are in fact so much better, what's the point of the other items on the menu? In the words of Marco Pierre White, "When I go to a restaurant, I want a starter, a main, and a pudding. If I like the food, I'll come back and try the rest of the menu."

More often than not, the choices on those tasting menus are not in fact the best, but rather the safest to market to indecisive eaters and easiest to divide into smaller tasting menu sized portions. If you are likely to know what you like by looking at a menu, my recommendation is to order it a la carte or as part of a prix fixe. Sometimes people won't be as adventurous and choose as boldly as certain items on some tasting menus. But if you trust the quality of the restaurant (there's so much research out there that can be done nowadays), that shouldn't be a problem. And if you have a huge appetite like I do, you can just add dishes a la carte. Why only have a menu of two-bite tastes of dishes that were designed to be bigger?

I'm not against tasting menus. It's just that they're not all created equal. You can't just go into a restaurant, order the tasting menu, and assume that the chef has specially put together a menu of his best stuff. A lot of times, especially if the tasting menu is composed entirely of dishes from the regular menu, you're not getting the best, most exciting things that are coming out of the kitchen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Revisiting Eleven Madison Park (food)

Eleven Madison Park (EMP) was recently ranked the 5th best restaurant in the world according to the World's 50 Best Restaurants list organized by Restaurant magazine and sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. With that ranking also came the title of best restaurant in North America, as the next highest North American entrant on the list was Per Se at 11th. In fact, I've written extensively about EMP before, including a very thorough account of a recent dinner there, split into parts 1 and 2.

So why am I writing about EMP again? Well, the World's 50 Best site describes EMP as a restaurant that "offers a masterclass in surprise... ...little can be anticipated." So what happens when some of the surprise is gone for a repeat visitor? I wanted to see how well EMP stood up to a revisit. Since this post is specifically about whether EMP is just as good on a repeat visit, I will not go into detail regarding dishes that I've already covered in my earlier in-depth posts. My last meal was near the end of winter while this meal was in the early stages of spring.

Let's begin with how the menu is structured and changes. EMP officially changes its menu 4 times a year in accordance with the seasons. However, the changes are continuous and not abrupt, meaning that different parts of the menu undergo changes as the seasons progress. The current tasting menu mainly consists of a selection of canape courses, a couple of grand interactive themed courses, and then a more traditional progression of courses (appetizer, seafood, vegetables, meat), followed by dessert courses. The grand themed courses presented table-side do change, but can be among the slowest to do so because it can take 6 months or longer for one of those courses to go from ideation to actual execution at the table.

One reason to revisit EMP is to be able to taste both the duck and the beef main courses. Usually you choose from one of the two for the whole table, but it is also possible to have a taste of both in one meal with a $45 supplement. However, if you choose to do that, they will adjust the portions of each. You'll get more food, but it's not a straight doubling up of the entree. They do this so that you don't get too full and become unable to fully experience the meal all the way to the end.

CHEDDAR - Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple
The meal began the same way as last time.

PEAR - Gelée with Foie Gras and Tarragon
The gelée is made of both clarified pear juice and lemon juice, and is studded with bits of diced pear, shattered foie gras, tarragon plouches, and topped with a lemon vinaigrette. With a clean and pretty presentation, it is a refreshing starter with components that work both individually and together to awaken your taste buds.

ASPARAGUS - Custard with Caviar and Rhubarb
Another elegant preparation featuring blanched white asparagus and violets on top of rhubarb gelée. But underneath the rhubarb gelée are layers of white asparagus mousse and lobster consommé combined with caviar set with gelatin. Combining all the layers in one spoonful creates a harmonious marriage of sweet, tart, saltiness, umami, and richness that was still light on the tongue.

I did notice that both of these canapes were more involved dishes as opposed to one-bite canapes that they have served before (eg. single oyster, chickpea panisse, yogurt lollipop, etc.). They told me that this is in fact their new approach. I think it works perfectly and plays to chef Humm's classic culinary background and his strengths in layering and combining flavors in a composed dish.

The first of the grand themed courses is usually either the sturgeon or the clam bake. Due to my friend's dietary restrictions, we chose the sturgeon. This worked out well since I had the clambake last time.

STURGEON - Sabayon with Chive Oil
The first part of the sturgeon course involves smoked sturgeon sabayon flavored with vermouth, diced smoked sturgeon, and chive oil served in an open egg shell. To me, the best part of this is the chive oil, which is not only flavorful, but has an earthiness that rounds everything out and brings it all together. Since the chive oil is at the bottom of the egg, it is important to stir it up a bit to make sure you get a little bit of everything in each bite.

STURGEON - Smoked with Everything Bagel Crumble, Pickles, and Caviar

Bibb lettuce salad with poached quail egg and everything bagel crumble, caviar with cream cheese mousse.

Cucumber pickles and toasted rye bread.

This refined take on appetizing comes together beautifully as the thick slice of delicious smoked sturgeon is combined with the crispy, sweet, salty, tart, rich, and creamy sensations of the accompaniments.

EMP's in-house bread and butter with aged beef fat mixed in.

FOIE GRAS - Seared with Pencil Asparagus and Potato Crumble
Seared Hudson Valley foie gras, souffléd potato, potato crumble, pickled asparagus florets, sliced chives, chive blossoms, blanched asparagus, and balsamic vinegar reduction

FOIE GRAS - Terrine with Black Truffle and Asparagus
Hudson Valley foie gras terrine layered with black truffle puree and asparagus gelée, raw pencil asparagus, shaves of jumbo asparagus, black truffle-sherry vinaigrette, and miner’s lettuce

While both preparations were excellent, I continue to believe that EMP's seared version stands out more when compared to other top tier restaurants in NYC.

ASPARAGUS - Salad with Green Almond, Buttermilk, and Miner’s Lettuce
For my friend who couldn't have foie gras, this featured blanched and trimmed jumbo asparagus, buttermilk fluid gel, bitter almond crumble, green almonds, buttermilk snow, miners lettuce, and Dairyere Cheese crisps.

The second big interactive presentation is currently the carrot tartare. This dish actually came about when they first wanted to do a take on a classic beef tartare. They had to come up with a vegetarian version to cater to diners who couldn't eat beef, and ended up with this ingenious carrot tartare. The carrot tartare itself is so "meaty", they didn't think the meat eaters would miss not having the beef, and I think they're right. From what I hear, this should remain a staple of the menu until about late fall.

CARROT - Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments
Spicy carrot vinaigrette, mustard oil, pickled quail egg yolk, English pea mustard, chives, broccoli flower, smoked mackerel, raw English peas, sunflower seeds, grated horseradish, Amagansett sea salt, and pickled mustard seed. With a few minor differences, the condiments were pretty much the same as when I had it last time.

LOBSTER - Poached with Snap Peas, Morels, and Sweetbreads
The lobster was poached in beurre blanc, and accompanied by morels braised in cream and vin jaune, snap peas, pickled snow peas, glazed sweetbreads, and lobster bisque with saffron. I think there may have been some meyer lemon too. The lobster was cooked perfectly, and the presence of the pickled snow peas and meyer lemon(?) added just the right amount of bright acidity. But what really made the dish for me was the presence of small nubs of glazed sweetbreads, which brought a contrast to everything else on the plate with its crispiness, saltiness, and mineral earthiness.

HALIBUT - Seared with English Peas and Variations of Egg
For my friend who could not eat lobster, they had Atlantic halibut seared and glazed with citrus buerre blanc, English pea puree, cured pheasant egg, duck egg salad, grated egg yolk, reduced fumet blanc, pea tendrils, and English pea relish.

NETTLES - Creamed with Fingerling Potato and Goat Cheese
The vegetable dishes at EMP are often a wonderful assortment of many different preparations brought together harmoniously on one composed plate. Here, it was nettles creamed with milk and garlic confit, potato puree and olive oil, pickled potato, meyer lemon, peanut potatoes glazed in smoked butter, Lynnhaven goat cheese, nettle chip, and green garlic foam. Everything was tasty and the components could be enjoyed both separately and together in a variety of combinations. As I don't have much personal experience with nettles, it's hard to comment and draw comparisons.

The main course is usually composed of a small bowl of broth, the entree, and a potato mousseline filled with some more meat and foie gras. As we added the supplement to taste both the beef and the duck, our broth was beef and our potato had duck.

BEEF - Beef Broth
BEEF - Grilled with Mushrooms, Amaranth, and Bone Marrow
The 140-day dry aged ribeye tasted even beefier this time, and had a stronger grilled flavor than last time.

DUCK - Roasted with Pistachio, Rhubarb, and Fennel
DUCK - Braised with Foie Gras and Potato
The Duclair duck is dry aged for 2 weeks and glazed with lavender honey, Sichuan peppercorns, coriander, and cumin. It was served with pistachio puree, butter braised fennel, shaved fennel, braised rhubarb, toasted wild rice, and pistachios. Even for a signature dish as iconic as EMP's duck, which will pretty much never be taken off the menu, they continue to experiment and try to improve upon the dish. In the past, they've used Muscovy ducks from California, while currently they use Duclair ducks, a heritage breed, from Stone Church Farms in Rifton, NY. The accompanying dish had duck leg braised in red wine, mixed with foie gras torchon and potato espuma.

GREENSWARD - Pretzel, Mustard, and Fruit
The picnic course is essentially the same except instead of a small bunch of grapes, they now have a "fruitcake" made of blueberries compressed with honey and sunflower seeds.

MALT - Egg Cream with Vanilla and Seltzer

CELERY ROOT - Cake with Apple Sorbet, Walnut, and White Pepper
Composed of celery root mousse, white pepper steam cake, mutsu apple sorbet, apple vinaigrette, walnut crumble, candied celery root, and poached apple, this dessert was refreshing and interesting in that one doesn't normally associate things like celery root and white pepper with desserts. However, it didn't wow me as much as the maple bourbon dessert did last time and just didn't produce that comfortable sated feeling one usually gets after eating a great dessert to finish off a great meal.

SHEEP'S MILK - Cheesecake with Mango and Peanut
I'm not a big mango fan, but the mango sorbet and mango puree that came with the aerated sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake worked really well with the honey, candied peanuts, and peanut shortbread.

The trick has not changed, but continues to be a whimsical distraction. The deck of cards used is gorgeous.

PRETZEL - Chocolate Covered with Sea Salt
CHOCOLATE - Sweet Black and White Cookie with Apricot
The pretzels are actually deconstructed and reconstructed, with the pretzels ground and combined with white chocolate, then enrobed with Mast Brother’s chocolate and Amagansett sea salt

As opposed to the apple brandy from last time, EMP has worked with Laird's to produce an aged apple brandy for the restaurant. This one is more of an acquired taste, and it doesn't feel like was meant to reinvigorate like the previous apple brandy.

WIDOW'S KISS - Applejack, Yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine, and Angostura Bitters
My favorite part of the kitchen tour this time was that we were led further into the kitchen and I got to see the grill that they use for the beef entree. They use Japanese wood that comes in larger log-like pieces, and slowly burn it, treating it essentially like charcoal. This method imparts such wonderful flavor and texture into the meat. For a cut like the ribeye, I prefer it much more to the seared and sous vide or pan roasting methods that many other top restaurants use to cook beef. There was also a recent NYT article about the resurgence in the popularity of wood-fired grilling among chefs.

For those who have been to EMP and are thinking about whether to go again, I would strongly recommend doing so. Switching between the sturgeon and the clambake and between the beef and the duck, along with the seasonal changes in the rest of the menu, will allow the meal to feel just different enough to experience surprise anew. Furthermore, I hear that there's a new interactive table-side presentation in the works, which will be an ode to an American pastime. That one might debut by late summer.

I remember asking chef Humm while in the kitchen, now that he has a 5th in the world ranking, along with the 3 Michelin stars, James Beard awards, and whatever else he's won, what's next? His reply was, "Well, there are still 4 restaurants ahead of us." Regardless of how you may feel about the San Pellegrino list, I believe that this kind of ambition is what helps to make Eleven Madison Park a great restaurant for both new and repeat diners alike. And repeat dining is actually still possible, whereas it was recently reported that El Celler de Can Roca, ranked #1 on that same World's 50 Best list, is booked through April 2014!

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave
(at 24th St)
New York, NY 10011

Saturday, May 18, 2013

2012-2013 NBA Playoffs Conference Finals Preview (sport, gambling)

And so, four teams remain...

Memphis Grizzlies (5) at San Antonio Spurs (2)

As much as I would like to see the Grizzlies win as I think they're the only team left that could beat Miami, I just don't see them getting past San Antonio. The Spurs should be able to shoot just well enough to hold off the stifling Grizzlies defense, while the Memphis offense can't put up big numbers like Golden State did which caused all kinds of trouble for San Antonio. Both of these teams play exceptionally well at home, so I see this series going the same way the regular season series did, with each team winning all their home games.

Prediction: San Antonio 4-3
Possible bets: Bet San Antonio to win the series. Current price around -140.

Indiana Pacers (3) at Miami Heat (1)

The Pacers match up pretty well with the Heat, with good interior size and tough defense that aims to slow down opponents' transition baskets. However, they face the same problem that the Grizzlies have against the Spurs in that they play exceptionally well at home but don't have home court advantage for the series. Indiana still looks like it's missing that one final piece to get them to the next level.

Prediction: Miami 4-3
Possible bets: Bet the under on every game. I think there are going to be a lot of quarters where both teams score less than 20 points.

Let's look back and see how my second round predictions went.

Overall Series Predictions vs Actual Result:

Prediction Memphis 4-2, Actual Memphis 4-1
Prediction San Antonio 4-1, Actual San Antonio 4-2
Prediction Miami 4-1, Actual Miami 4-1
Prediction Indiana 4-2, Actual Indiana 4-2

Those predictions were pretty spot on. I got all the winners right, two of the series exactly, and the other two series were only off by one game each. Much of the analysis hit the mark as well, including Golden State's sloppy play costing them (lost 14 point lead with 4 minutes left in game 1), and Indiana stealing a game on the road early before winning all their home games. Let's see if I did as well on the bets:

MEM to win the series. Win one unit.
Over in GSW@SAS games. 2-4 for the series.
MIA 4-1 specifically. Won, but not all books have these bets.
Under in IND@NYK games. 3-2-1 for the series.
IND to win the series. Odds were at about +150, so win 1.5 units.

Overall results: 7-6-1 +0.9 units

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Early Mother's Day Dinner at Yakitori Totto (food)

Those who know me personally or have read enough of my food reviews should know that I can eat a large amount of food in one sitting. So when I recently took my mother to Yakitori Totto for an early mother's day dinner, I ended up having 28 skewers while my mom had 27. Trust me when I say that this is not normal. However, it also means I have notes on most of the menu.

I already had a good idea that we were going to eat a lot of skewers, so I put together a game plan to tackle it in 4 waves. Even though the skewers were served as soon as they were ready, the pacing was pretty good overall, and we only asked the chef to slow down a few times during the meal. Since chicken is usually the main focus of yakitori, we started off with skewers of various parts of the chicken.

With a sprinkle of salt, this had a robust mineral flavor and a nice soft, yet rich texture.

I always thought of the oyster (a rare part near the thigh revered for its tenderness) like a filet of beef. Tender, but not memorable as it's not particularly flavorful. Here they did a masterful job with a little bit of sauce and salt, and added to the texture by crisping up the outside. About as perfect as I would have imagined chicken oyster could be.

This had a rather unique, but enjoyable, texture that was not quite like fat and not quite like collagen, but along those lines.

The meat was tender and silky, streaked with fat but without that fatty mouth feel. I also appreciated the delicate cutting and portioning that went on before it was skewered.

The fragrant smell of grilled fat hits your nose immediately. The skin is crispy and the fat is somewhat rendered, but there is still a rich oiliness to each bite.

It was like eating chicken feet in a (good) way. Trying to get what little meat there was off the bone while biting through little bits of cartilage and soft tissue.

This was one of our favorites. Excellent texture that was toothsome but tender. Great flavor like you would expect from inner organs without being too strong.

The chicken thigh pieces came with pieces of grilled onion in between pieces of meat. The sweetness of the onion worked well in highlighting the aroma of the tender chicken.

As we finished up the different cuts of chicken, our second wave involved seafood and vegetables.

Nice and plump, but rather simple.

It looked like one decent-sized scallop that was thinly cut across into thirds. This allowed it to not get overcooked and remained sweet and juicy. I was disappointed that there was no coral (roe sac), which I've had before among the yakitori offerings at Soba Totto.

GARLIC $2.50
Another fragrant offering, the flavor was not overpowering at all as the cloves were served whole. The charred skin offered a hint of smokiness when I bit into it to extract the clove inside.

The shishito peppers were flavorful without being assertive, creating a delicate balance with the chicken meatball stuffed in it. The texture match was also great, and everything came together completely in each bite.

Perfectly cooked meat with the head still slightly runny. It smelled great and was a sizeable prawn, but did feel a tad expensive all things considered.

This was lightly salted and not fishy at all. Smelt has lots of roe, so it could be a surprising texture for those who haven't had it before.

Another possibly surprising taste for someone who's never had it before. It has a unique flavor that can be a little nutty, a little bittersweet, and a finish that reminded me of corn flavors.

Our third wave consisted mainly of heavier proteins such as pork and beef.

KALBI $4.50
Chose this one with salt as opposed to sauce, and the salt comes through slowly, creating a very appetizing feeling with each bite.

The sweet sauce balanced well with the spicy mustard, coming together with the robust but not too fatty pork.

This was one of the specials of the day. You don't really get much with the initial bite, but there is a lot of concentrated lamb flavor that comes out slowly. I thought the subtlety was great as I'm used to eating lamb where the flavors come at you pretty hard.

Great flavor and texture, although I didn't think the onion fit in as well with this one as it did the other skewers.

The bacon was not too assertive and didn't mask the lighter tasting enoki. The mushroom was tender without being stringy or chewy as it often can be. Perhaps they cut it finely lengthwise before wrapping it. EDIT: Looking back, I think these were eringi (king oyster mushroom) and not enoki.

This was one of those moments where we had to ask the chef to slow down as the pork neck, bacon enoki, and duck all arrived almost at the same time. I believe that was to blame for my lack of a picture. The duck had a rich flavor without being fatty while the scallion was a good foil.

This was the most disappointing skewer of the night. While the initial chews were fine, it just didn't melt away in the mouth like I've often come to expect of beef tongue, and became a chore to finish.

This one really felt like a complete dish. Excellent wagyu beef wrapped around enoki (eringi?) and vegetables was accompanied by some lightly grilled firm tofu in a very sweet and hearty sauce. It was very satisfying and a great skewer to have near the end of the meal. It's one of the more expensive skewers on the menu as it has wagyu beef, but well worth it.

The final wave consisted of repeats of the ones we liked most, including the chicken hearts, kalbi, shishito tsukune, and chicken thigh. This time around, two of the peppers on my shishito skewer were very spicy! I wonder if they just hadn't cleaned out the seeds properly.

I also wanted a repeat of the lamb leg steak, but the server misheard me and brought us the lamb chops. Contrary to the subtle lamb leg steak skewer, this one had a very strong flavor that hits you right in the face as the dish arrives. The meat is well done, but tender, and has a decent charred flavor. At $7 per chop, it's much cheaper than a steakhouse, but compared to all the other skewers on offer, I didn't think it was worth it.

Overall it was a great meal with lots of yummy food. The variety on offer was great, but what I really enjoyed was that many of the skewers were well composed and balanced in their own right, not just one random cut of meat among many.

Yakitori Totto
251 W 55th St between Broadway & 8th Ave
2nd Fl
Manhattan 10019