Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day's tribute: Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar

To be fair, there are lots of great places serving superb food in Hong Kong (especially as far as noodles), so I don't mean to act blase or sort of complain about my present condition. However, I really miss Momofuku's ramen a lot (dashi, berkshire pork, ramen and poached egg make for such a wonderful combination). But, first and foremost, I miss the pork buns: so delicious that even the best cha siu bao cannot compete with them (native HKers are going to hate me for such a statement but it's just the plain truth after all).

I've already had the opportunity to expand on the above dishes and Noodle Bar in a previous post last year but I take the opportunity of this July 4th to pay a tribute to my 2 favorite restaurants in New York. I also wanted to share the vivid memory I keep of the first dinner I had at Ssam Bar when it was not yet on the foodie's radar screen as it is now. I was blown away by the veal head terrine (one of the best, if not the best, I've ever had), Ssam Bar's take on the Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich containing 3 terrines/pates), the simple yet fabulous sweetbreads (just grilled and served with a little sea salt on the top and a wedge of lemon for quick squeeze) and a dish of uni/tapioca/whipped tofu that I still consider one of my greatest food experience ever.

In a sense, I think I also miss Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar because, in my opinion, they represent the best New York's restaurant scene can (from time to time) churn out: great and unpretentious restaurants with (deceptively) simple food beautifully executed, gently priced with a no-reservation (thus democratic) policy. I also love the so-American success story aspect to it where a man makes it although the odds are stacked against him, at least initially.

Of course, since David Chang, the chef-owner at the helm of the Momofuku franchise, has been hugely successful (although still insecure as depicted in the sublime New Yorker's profile) and received prestigious awards, one might argue those places have lost their "underground" touch. But frankly, who cares as long as standards remain uncompromising and food stays consistently delicious. I wish I could have also tried Ko or the Milk Bar before leaving NY a few months ago. Next time maybe. In the meantime, I'll continue to miss you Lucky Peach.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

La Cachette getting its first star in the upcoming Michelin Guide France 2009? (Yes, they did it!)

The above-picture was taken at La Cachette in Valence, my home town, a few weeks ago, during a delicious and inexpensive lunch there with my parents (more on this later). The rumor has it that the restaurant and his chef-owner Masashi Ijichi could get a first Michelin star when the 2009 guide for France is released this coming Monday. It would be well-deserved. Flaveurs, also located in Valence, is also expected to be awarded a star. I haven't tried this one but it is on my radar screen for my next trip in December. Overall, it would bring Valence to a total of 5 stars (Pic having already 3). Not bad for a 65,000-people city...

Update (June 2009): La Cachette was actually awarded a Michelin star by the Red Guide in 2009. I'm also uploading below the pictures of the lunch I had there earlier this year. At 26 EUR, the lunch menu is a steal (the others are fairly affordable as well). Not to be missed if you stop by Valence some day.

La Cachette
16 rue des Cevennes
26000 Valence, France
Tel: (33) 4 75 55 24 13

Sunday, February 8, 2009

L'As du Falafel, Paris

If you stop by le Marais, forget about all the addresses you might have read / heard about or all the overpriced and overrated brunches that abound in the neighbourhood. Just stop by l'As du Falafel, order a falafel sandwich to go and enjoy it with your friends standing in the middle of the street (remember the way you did it back in the days when you were in college) and watching the restaurant's hawkers joking and taking the orders of the soon-to-be-dazzled customers.

Falafel is a fava or chickpea fritter. It is served at l'As in a pita bread stuffed with a crunchy cabbage salad, fried eggplants and hummus. I like it with "sauce blanche" or white sauce (made from tahini or sesame paste). Although my pictures, taken with my BlackBerry camera, do not do it justice entirely, the falafel is superb, i.e. crunchy on the outside and smooth inside, and the toppings make it even better.

As is the case with all things delicious, it takes some patience before getting the coveted sandwich as you might have to stand in line for long minutes. But this is worth every bit of your time as it is one of the best fast food / quick bite experience you might have in Paris (and beyond) and certainly a great bang for the buck at 5 EUR. As their sign rightly says: "Often imitated but never equalled".

L'As du Falafel
34 rue des rosiers
75004 Paris

Friday, January 16, 2009

US triple tariffs on Roquefort cheese

(Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

I've just read that on Reuters. Come on. You can't be serious. What's the point of doing that? Punishing the French for not importing US beef. It's not even going to work (we can be so stubborn you can't even imagine). And Roquefort is such a delicious cheese. The result will be that only rich people will afford it. So unfair. The guys making these decisions must have been raised eating tasteless hormone-fed meat...Poor ignorant people.

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to taste it, Roquefort is a blue cheese, also known as the king of cheeses, made since the eleventh century with ewe's milk in Southwestern France. To the amazement of my parents, I used to eat loads of it when I was a young kid (I've become much more reasonable since then for obvious breath-related reasons). I've tasted great blue cheese in the US too but nothing really coming close to Roquefort's (strong) flavors.

Anyway, I kind of like this conclusion by Jose Bove, the anti-globalization activist who also happens to be a Roquefort cheese producer : "Europeans will have to eat more Roquefort cheese to make up for the loss". Better start right away man...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cafe des Federations, Lyon

As promised in a previous post, more on my last trip from a few months ago to Lyon. Just so you know, I'm not exactly from Lyon. I'm from Valence, a much smaller city 100 kms south of Lyon, which also happens to be the hometown of 2 contemporary great chefs. So for me, Lyon is synonymous of day trips. When I was a kid, we used to drive from Valence (and later from Vienne, home of Fernand Point's La Pyramide) for the day and every time, in addition to visiting the city, we would try a new bouchon (the lyonnaise version of a bistro), which was for me the highlight of the trip. Visiting FNAC, a department store specialized in consumer electronics which at the time had only a presence there and in Paris, was a close second though. Later, I was also lucky enough to spend two fabulous years there in business school and have great meals (while also making lifelong friends) often following the recommendations of Le Petit Paume, a restaurant guide published by students of my school.

However, one restaurant I had heard a lot about from my father but never had a chance to try was Le Cafe des Federations. My father had even offered me an apron bearing the name of the restaurant as well as a pig head as a hint we should go there sometime.

Cafe des Federations was founded in the beginning of the twentieth century and is now owned by Yves Rivoiron. It's the typical Lyonnais Bouchon with its old-style decor, the famous checkered red and white table cloths, a zinc (or counter where you stand to have a drink) and sausages hanging from the ceiling.

Food is pure Lyonnaise with no long, fancy and complicated menu but a 19.5 EUR prix-fixe with an appetizer, an entree (chosen among 9 traditional dishes) and a dessert. And food is quite superb given the very low price (that did not include the pot of refreshing Morgon we had also ordered though).

The appetizers were excellent pig sausages (rosette or saucisson) as well as very good caviar de la croix rousse (lentil salad), named after the Lyon neighborhood where it originated and excellent cabbage/herring salad. Then each of our table's guests had a different entree: the poulet au vinaigre (Chicken with vinegar), the joues de porc bourguignonnes (pork jowl with a red wine sauce), the tete de veau sauce ravigote (calf's head with an herb/capers/shallot/egg veloute sauce) and, for me, a quenelle de brochet sauce nantua (pike quenelle with a creamy crayfish sauce). Every entree was perfectly executed and delicious. As were the desserts (especially the tarte aux pralines roses) and the cervelle de canut (fromage blanc with shallots and fine herbs).

As far as the service, it is quite efficient but the waitresses tend to push the enveloppe in terms of humor, hazing and making fun of the clients. There is nothing mean behind their long-rehearsed retorts, the intent being to create a family atmosphere. But, for some people, I suppose it can be just too much. However, given the bargain offered by the lunch menu I guess it's worth a little pain, isn't it?

Cafe des Federations
8-10 rue Major Martin
69001 Lyon
(33) 04 78 28 26 00

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Charcuterie Bonnard, Lyon

It's not that I'm obsessed with charcuterie today although I might actually be...But I've just found these pictures I had taken at charcuterie Bonnard during a trip to Lyon last year. The shop is owned by Jean-Michel and Francoise Barbier. And the funny thing that I've just learnt is that Francoise Barbier is Gilles Verot's sister (see my post on Bar Boulud). Charcuterie's world is a small one.

This is an amazing shop that sells some of the best charcuterie in Lyon. The cervelas pistache truffe and Saint-Marcellin that we bought there were delicious. Cervelas is a Lyonnais sausage (in that case with truffles and pistachios) that you boil and then can eat with potatoes (boiled or mashed). Saint-Marcellin is a cow-milk cheese (fantastic when it is well done). More on this trip to Lyon in an upcoming post.

Charcuterie Bonnard
36 rue grenette
69002 Lyon

Bar Boulud, New York

When Bar Boulud opened last year, I was disappointed. Not so much by the food (more on this below) but by the slow service and the behavior of the hostesses that kept you waiting for long minutes event though you had a reservation. But this got fixed and I must say I now derive a great pleasure from each of my visits.

The name might not ring a bell to you but one of Boulud's partners in this venture is Gilles Verot, whose charcuterie shops are among the finest in Paris and France. Gilles Verot has sent one his most trusted man, Sylvain Gasdon, to Bar Boulud to act as chef charcutier. And the results are outstanding. The award-winning fromage de tete (head cheese terrine) is simply divine. So are the pates that stand among the best I've ever had. The smooth and melting boudin blanc is also sublime while the truffle mashed potatoes coming with it are just perfect. I also strongly recommend the gateau basque in the dessert sections.

The rest of the menu is less impressive but, at the exception of the salmon dishes maybe, rather good (especially the croque monsieur/madame and the pappardelle with lamb ragu). And, not least, the quality is consistent from one visit to the other, which was already Boulud's trademark at Daniel, Cafe Boulud and DB Bistro Moderne.

In an nutshell, Bar Boulud is THE place in New York for great charcuterie. I know it is also supposed to be a wine bar but I haven't had a chance to drink too much there recently. In any event, the wine selection is large and interesting although wine by the glass does not offer a good bang for the buck in my opinion. Overall, although they are not unreasonable for New York, and in particular for a Boulud restaurant, prices are not cheap either. So I would suggest you pay Bar Boulud a visit for brunch on Sunday around 2pm. The waiters will be available and nice and you will pay only USD 29 for an appetizer and an entree (USD 38 if you add a dessert). And that, my friend foodie, is a great deal for phenomenal charcuterie.

Bar Boulud
1900 Broadway (64th Street)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Bouchon Bakery, New York

Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center is a mystery to me.

Some dishes are consistently fabulous like the soups, the quiches and the desserts (especially the tarte au citron that is one of the best I've ever tasted). The butter is to die for.

However, some others are fairly inconsistent. The bread can be just great or borderline stale. The sandwiches can taste fantastic or like microwave reheated. The salads are at times perfectly seasoned or not at all. The ham and cheese sandwich can be either at par with the best ones you would have in Paris...or not. And the pate de campagne is consistently oversalted.

Other dishes like the terrine de foie gras (bland when I had it) or salmon rillettes (extremely dry) are plain disappointing.

And the worst part I must say is that I've already seen Thomas Keller wandering around (and hopefully inspecting) the restaurant. Which makes me say that he must also have tasted its food and should have realized something was (sometimes) wrong.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should not go there. As I said it can be really good and it is certainly the best affordable (although it's not that cheap) option in the Time Warner Center. My problem is that you expect more from Thomas Keller. So I just keep on returning in the hope to get a perfect meal. Hopefully that will happen before I leave New York. Or maybe it's just me after all since people keep on waiting sometimes for 40 minutes to eat there.

Bouchon Bakery
Time Warner Center - Columbus Circle
New York

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Pasta match: Batali vs. me?

No, just kidding. I can be (overly?) critical at times of Batali's restaurants but I must admit that Batali knows his pasta, especially when it comes to ragu.

While reading Caroline's post about her meal at Enoteca San Marco, I remembered that I too had tasty bucatini all'amatriciana there when we were in Las Vegas a few months back. Despite all the kitsch of the Venetian's decor, I felt like I was in Venice for a few minutes. OK, maybe not, but that dish and the antipasti we had before were totally delicious. Not cheap by the way but good.

The above slideshow also contains a picture of Spaghetti alla Bolognese I had cooked. The recipe is inspired by that of Batali, published in Wine Spectator in 2007. I had substituted white wine for red one and celery for leek...and also slightly adjusted the quantity of meat (but the 1/3 rule of thumb for each type of meat is quite spot-on).

Enoteca San Marco
The Venetian
3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV
Tel: (1) 702 677 3390

Bistronomiques 2008 - Le Chateaubriand, Paris

Inaki Aizpitarte, Le Chateaubriand's chef, is one of those young (and self-taught in his case) chefs who are breathing new life into French bistro food, turning traditional dishes into avant-garde and creative cuisine. Inaki never forgets though that the ingredient is king and that it is it that must shine. Therefore don't expect to find a long menu in his restaurant. Here, for dinner, the only option is a 5-dish prix fixe with seasonal and fresh ingredients.

And it works great. Like this rectangle of boudin noir (blood sausage) served with small cubes of green apple, mango, banana and passion fruit puree as well as two light touches of wasabi. A modern, colorful, almost Asian interpretation of the traditional boudin aux pommes recipe. A sublime combination and balance of opposite textures and flavors. Miles away from the so common stupid fusion and sweet and sour idiocies that come out from so many professional kitchens.

Or this rouget aux petits legumes. Perfectly cooked, the fish shines. The vegetables play perfectly their role, giving some crunch, color and an earthy flavor to this marine dish. Nothing superfluous, like a sauce or a jus, that could have overpowered the purity of the ingredients.

Or this Beef fillet. It could have been boring. Just another beef fillet after all. But a white asparagus lying on top brings some extra texture, some bitterness to each mouthful of the perfectly rare and tender fillet while anchovies happily act as a guest-star condiment. Again it looks simple (it looks, I said) but it's just plain smart.

But sometimes, things go wrong, the chef pushes the envelope a flavor too far and there comes the flop. Like this dish where a bland tofu and the acidic green apple destroyed each other and turned the appetizer into a real disaster. But that's so unrepresentative of the whole meal, that you just think: "oh, well, after all, only the one who doesn't take risks, doesn't make mistakes". And at 43 EUR for 5 dishes, this dinner looked like a steal.

Although it might be considered (by some) exaggerated to rank it number 60 in the World's Best Restaurants, Le Chateaubriand and its chef provide for a sublime (and cheap) dining experience. Fred Peneau and his gang of bearded, Inaki-like sexy waiters also do a great job at the front of the house.

Le Chateaubriand
129 avenue Parmentier
75011 Paris
(33) 1 43 57 45 95

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pierre Herme, Paris

On this sad day for the art of pastry, I thought I would post a few shots taken at Pierre Herme during my last 2 stays in Paris. Herme was a Lenotre apprentice at some point and gifted student as you can guess (or know if you have tasted his sweet delicacies).

Herme's Vaugirard shop also has the huge advantage to be located close to where two of my best friends live. So I obviously never miss a chance to stop by the beautifully designed store when I visit them in order to pick up some chocolate delicacies and macaroons.

My favorite pastry there is "Plaisir Sucre" (sweet pleasure in English). It is described in Herme's catalogue as a "Biscuit dacquoise aux noisettes croquantes,praliné feuilleté, fines feuilles de chocolat au lait, ganache et chantilly au chocolat au lait". The recipe is available in Dorie Greenspan's book "Chocolate desserts by Pierre Herme" if you want to give it a shot. Not sure I need to translate the description for you. It's beautiful as it is and sounds like music to my ears. And the taste and textures are incredible. The kind of sweet that keeps you warmer on a sad chilly winter day like today. Those are the moments I miss Herme...and Paris the most.

Pierre Herme
72, rue Bonaparte
75006 PARIS

185, rue de Vaugirard
75015 PARIS

Gaston Lenotre has just died at 88

(Picture from AFP)

The master pastry chef Gaston Lenotre, who had trained, among other great chefs, Ducasse and Herme at some point in their respective careers, has just died at 88. He had created an empire with shops in 12 countries and a renowned pastry school in France. He was also a household name in France and the rest of the world whose name had become synonymous with excellence in the art of pastry. He will be sorely missed by all the passionate professional and amateur chefs.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Chinatown Brasserie, New York

Chinatown Brasserie is by far my favorite venue for weekend brunches. And the reason I repeatedly visit this place is simple: dim sum! I fell in love with these dumplings when I sampled my first Har Gau as a teenager.

Chinatown Brasserie's dim sum are really fabulous and more than rival those I've had a chance to taste in great Hong Kong places (no wonder it is so since the chef, Joe Ng, is a Cantonese from HK). The variety is stunning (the menu includes nearly 40 different types), the combinations (shrimp/pork/watercress, shrimp/snow pea, shrimp/chives, ...) strike the right note and the presentation/bright colors are enthusing. In a nutshell, a dumplings lover's paradise. Don't forget to taste the Shanghai soup dumplings as well (who knew the flavor explosion had been invented in China and not by Grant Achatz?)

Except for the BBQ tenderloin and the wonton soup, the rest of the menu is rather forgettable (and may have cost them a second star in the NY Times) but, remember, you go to Chinatown Brasserie for dim sum. They are the real stars of the show there.

Chinatown Brasserie
380 Lafayette Street
New York City
Tel: 212-533-7000

No Reservations is back

(Picture by Travel Channel's website)

Quick reminder that Tony Bourdain's acclaimed show kick starts its season 5 at 10pm ET on Travel Channel tonight. Don't miss Tony's adventures in Mexico. I understand that Venice and DC are next in line and that this season's upcoming shows will also feature Azores, Chicago, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. So stay tuned.

Diary of a Foodie

I've just realized that the season 2 full episodes of Diary of a Foodie (the James Beard Award winning PBS series) are now available on Gourmet's web site. Of interest in particular (even though every episode is extremely cool) the ones dedicated to Hong Kong, Food Bloggers, French New Garde and Fine Fast Food (with my hero David Chang, shown on the above image). Don't miss it. Second to no other food TV show (Bourdain's No Reservations being the only exception for me).

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Alinea, Chicago, August 2006

What was I thinking? Why wouldn't I take pictures when I dined at Alinea? I guess we'll never know. In any event, it was one of the most fantastic culinary experiences I've ever had and, in my opinion, molecular gastronomy at its best (I mean where ingredients and flavors are perfectly respected).

Fortunately, there is always another serious foodie to have the same meal as you at about the same time (in this case kudos go to Gerald). Also, the restaurant was kind enough to send me the menu (see below) plus I have great memories of the truffle explosion, the lamb, the Kobe beef and the hot potato in particular (the rest was sublime too if you ask me). And, last but not least, I can now reflect for long hours reading the recently published Alinea cookbook and logging onto the Mosaic website. The pictures are absolutely gorgeous (much better than those I could have taken obviously) as are the texts by Achatz, Ruhlman and Steingarten. The most adventurous and skilled cooks will also give a shot at some of the numerous recipes contained in this masterpiece.

For more about Grant Achatz, Alinea's celebrated chef-owner, its food, trajectory and fight against oral cancer, you might want to read the profile from the New Yorker published last year. Very well-written (as usual) and moving too.

Here are also links to Gerald's photos on Flickr: Corn, Yuba, Tomato, Mackerel, Hamachi, Bacon, Kobe Beef, Black Truffle, Squab, Menthol, Verjus, Yoghurt, Shellfish, Langoustine, Porcini, Peach, Lamb, Hot Potato, Pork, Sassafras, Raspberry, Chocolate, Coffee, Dried Caramel.

Alinea Restaurant
1723 North Halsted
Chicago Illinois 60614
Tel: 312-867-0110

Sushi Yasuda, New York

In my opinion, one of the best sushi restaurants in New York City. The extremely reasonable prices, the freshness, the variety of fishes as well as the talent of the sushi chefs have made Sushi Yasuda a favorite among raw fish eaters. Here your best option is to sit at the bar and get fed. Each menu can even be ordered omakase-style (where the chef will choose for you). No need for extra soy sauce or wasabi. Everything comes perfectly seasoned and ready to be eaten (using hands only for sushi). I strongly recommend the toro, scallop and sea urchin that are to die for. In the same street, don't miss Yakitori Tory (by the same owner as Yakitori Totto).

Sushi Yasuda
204 East 43rd Street
New York City 10017
Tel: 212-972-1001

Memory: a dinner at Guy Savoy, Paris

The pics are not clear (my first in a restaurant if I remember correctly) but I keep a vivid memory of this dinner at Guy Savoy in Paris. It was in 2005 and the second time I had the opportunity to dine in a 3 michelin-star restaurant.

I was particularly impressed by the variety of textures and the clean flavors of the Tout Petits Pois. The signature Soupe d'artichauts aux truffes was also a highlight of this wonderful dinner. Overall, a very classic French Cuisine but one with a perfect execution. I also remember that the service was at a level I have rarely found again since then.

Restaurant Guy Savoy
18 rue Troyon
75017 Paris
Tel: (33) 01 43 80 40 61

Gougeres (savory choux pastry with cheese)


Since I'm so not into bakery, or pastry for that matter, I'm really proud to introduce the gougeres I had prepared for New Year's eve. Can you believe they were a success? I still can't. I've seen so many people around me (except for my friend Bertrand who will always remain my favorite master baker) blowing this dish that I cannot resist to show them to the world. Enjoy. By the way, I used the recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook (also available here). However, you might want to add each egg separately (and not all at once as recommended in the book) and wait for a few minutes to let the dough rest before adding the eggs. I baked them at 400 F for about 20 minutes.

Momofuku Noodle Bar, New York

In addition to being pork-belly obsessed, David Chang is a culinary genius as demonstrated by the consistently out-of-this-world pork buns (my favorite fast food/sandwich ever) or ramens (much better than in most Japanese ramen restaurant) or anything else served at Momofuku's Noodle Bar. And despite all the success, the accolades and awards, he's managed to stay a great guy (see the fantastic profile published in the New Yorker last year). So if you haven't done it yet (and even if you have by the way), try his food. The newly renovated and expanded dining room has considerably reduced waiting time (no reservations taken), so you have no excuse. One of the places I will miss the most when I leave New York.

Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Ave. (between 10th and 11th)