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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

dishes of the year, 2010

My selection of the best dishes I ate this year
Everyone seems to be doing one of these lists at the moment, so here comes mine!
These are in no particular order, as it is an impossible task to choose between some of the fantastic plates which have been put in front of me this year, as I have eaten at a vast range of styles and standard of restaurants, which is why they are labelled by letters rather than numbers,but here goes.....
A. Parmesan 'egg' with migas- Minibar by Jose Andres, Cafe atlantico, D.C.
A stunning, modern dish from Washington's adopted chef, Jose Andres. he has revolutionised eating out in D.C. with his selection of restaurants which are all within 8 blocks of each other in the U.S. capitol. Minibar is the flagship of all his eateries and showcases the cutting edge of american cuisine. This dish is made by infusing a parmesan flavour into a light stock, which is then 'spherified' with a quail's egg yolk in the centre. it is simply presented in a bowl, looking just like a poached egg, but carrying a massive parmesan flavour. the migas, are essentially crostini, but named as migas as a nod to Jose's Spanish heritage. a clever, tasty and entertaining dish.
B. Normandie tart- Le Relais de la poste, Damville, Normandy.
Don't bother trying to find this restaurant in any of the big guide books- it wont be there. When I visited Michel Cluizel's chocolatrium in Damville in November, we were taken to this family run restaurant for lunch. despite humble furnishings and simple presentation, this was a great meal, the highlight of which was this classic French apple tart. buttery short pastry, sweet firm apple filling and rustic presentation all combining to create a perfect pudding.
C. Salad of spring vegetables with walnut oil, parmesan and a warm pheasant egg- The Ledbury, London.
Brett Graham seems to be going from strength to strength whether it be at the Ledbury or The Harwood arms. This dish is one I sampled at a lunch arranged by the Caterer magazine in April, and it was the most talked about of the day, several different vegetables-all treated differently, puréed, dried, boiled crushed and pickled amongst the techniques. with a walnut oil mayonnaise and a warm, soft boiled pheasant egg. seasonal, fresh, interesting, technical and just damn tasty.
D. Piggy burger-Bar Boulud, london
This is a regular highlight on anyone's visit to bar Boulud-a recent addition to the dining options at the mandarin oriental hotel in knightsbridge. a good sized beef pattie, topped with jalepeno mayo, barbecued pulled pork, lettuce all wrapped up in a cheddar bun. this restaurant does not take itself too seriously, and as a result serves up some good, fun simple food. Of all the dishes we tried here, this was a stand out winner.
E. Paella- Jaleo, D.C.
Another of Jose Andres' fine establishments, this time his Spanish tapas venue. My meal here was a birthday treat, and I couldn't have chosen a better one. Our table tried a total of 12 different tapa's, and a large dish of chicken and mushroom paella, which is a passion of Jose's- he has a large variety available at jaleo-and has even enlisted some experts in the field to train his staff, and it shows. the rice is perfectly cooked, the flavours are bold, and as an eating experience it is a real sharing plate worth indulging in.
F. Crispy pigs tail, dijon vinaigrette-Poste moderne brasserie, D.C.
We took in the '20 bites' menu by Robert Weland at the showcase restaurant of the Hotel Monaco, smack in the centre of Washington. A great concept, well executed, and this was one of the highlights- braised pigs tails, shredded and mixed with Dijon mustard, coated in panko crumbs and fried. served with a devilled quails egg and a little micro cress bound in the vinaigrette. its again a simple dish, yet refined and succulent.
G. Scallop 'curry'-Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham.
When I ate at Sat's eponymous restaurant with rooms, I had been working on a dish revolving around the flavours of scallops, cauliflower and spices. As I sat at the chefs table right next to the kitchen, and got presented with this dish, I felt upset. upset that this eclipsed everything Which I had dreamt of. The same concept, just better.
Sat was really good about it when I jokingly told him he had pissed me off by showing me how far ahead of the game he is, and said it was a dish they have been adjusting and improving for ten years. The dish comprised a single, large (really large!) scallop, poached sultanas, cauliflower beignets, sliced dried cauliflower, diced apple, apple jelly and puréed mango chutney. the scallop had been rolled in Indian spices before being roasted. amazing.
H. Bubblegum,long pepper, hibiscus, creme fraiche-Alinea, Chicago.
A real fun course, part of the 20-odd I was served. This comes in a glass tube in three sections- the long pepper and hibiscus were a jam, and the creme fraiche was flavoured with vanilla and the final section was the bubblegum part made of sago, cooked in a 'hubba bubba' stock. You are advised to put the 'jam' end in your mouth and suck. it makes a very loud slurping noise and reminds you of the experience of bubble gum as a kid, not only in flavour but in texture too, as the sago needs to be chewed at the end. Great fun.
I. Black truffle explosion- Alinea, Chicago.
I know- another from Grant Achatz? who would of thought...
This is a modern classic, a real signature dish of his. incredibly thin pasta enveloping a potent black truffle stock, which literally explodes in your mouth. So much so, you are advised before you eat it to close your mouth once its in there and keep it shut. The whole thing seems to double in size as you put it in your mouth!
J. Souffle aux pistaches et sa glace-Koffmanns, Knightbridge.
Another chef, another signature dish, this time one from the old school. I enjoyed my meal at Koffmanns on the whole, but the stand out dish was the dessert, a real strong pistachio flavour, and a great presentation, including a little theatre with the waiter lifting your sorbet into the heart of the souffle. A great dish and well worth going for.
K. Spot prawns 'en brioche'-Minibar by Jose Andres, Cafe Atlantico, D.C.
People accuse me of being a Jose-stalker, but if he keeps putting dishes like this on the menu, I have no shame in keeping my eye on his restaurants. I have eaten at Minibar twice this year, the first time I ate a different incarnation of this dish, with langoustine sandwiched between two crostini, a lovely concept, like a prawn cocktail sandwich. This next step, was two large spot prawns, poached in the waterbath, and briefly seared on a plancha, then served with a brioche flavoured espuma, or foam. wonderfully yeasty and buttery at the same time, and perfect with the textures of the prawns, which were both crusty from the plancha, and tender from the waterbath.
L. yuba, shrimp, miso, togarashi- Alinea, Chicago.
I didn't know what to expect from Alinea, having read the book, and seen lots of reviews of the place, but this really let me know I was in for something different as this was about the fourth course I was presented with, and it was incredible. I spent about five minutes just looking at it, before starting to eat. It comprises a long crisp made from dehydrated soya milk skin (I know- stick with it!), a length of raw shrimp wrapped around it, an orange shrimp toffee drizzled over it, and a miso mayonnaise dipping sauce. the whole menu was incredible, but this was the one I would eat all night long. Umami, sweet, salt and bitter flavours all in one. Magical.
M. I don't think that anyone who knows me and has discussed food with me will be surprised to know that I have one more dish from Alinea on this list. I cant let my list of the best of 2010 go by without mentioning my final dessert course. A simple dish of chocolate, peanut, apricot and honey. Only it wasn't simple. It was incredible, and it was plated for me at my table, ON my table by chef Achatz himself. There is a video available on youtube HERE. It is a bit long, and the first four minutes are just the waiters setting up and talking about the wine, so skip to 4:15 and enjoy.

Well thats it, its been a great year, and 2011 already looks to be another cracker, with Tom Aikens, Galvin at windows, les deux salons, Harwood arms, el Bulli, el celler de can roca and dinner by Heston already lined up. I hope you enjoyed this list, and try a few of the places I have mentioned.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Alinea- part 3

It has been two months since I ate at @GAchatz's Alinea restaurant in Chicago, so I must again apologise for being so slow in posting this final piece on what was, for me, the meal of a lifetime. You don't need to know the ins and outs of why its taken so long to get around to this post, so i will just jump straight in to it.....

A restaurant like Alinea is hard to define. It is not only unique, it is hard to imagine the thought process behind how it came into being. Like el Bulli in Spain, to have once looked at what is now one of the finest restaurants in the world when it was in the early days and create what now stands takes real genius. sure, it has taken time and evolution to reach this point, but both Achatz and Ferran Adria (of el Bulli) must have had the final model somewhere in their minds when the whole process of planning and creating started.
I use el Bulli as a comparison, to gently alert anyone who finds this blog interesting that I am planning on going there in January with my best friend and former work colleague Kevin-follow him on twitter @kevinbarron07.
El Bulli is also a fair comparison as it is also famed for its deconstruction of dishes, creative presentation and the barrier crushing inventiveness of its dishes.
Grant Achatz takes the familiar-leek and potato, bubblegum, pineapple and bacon-to name a few of the combinations I experienced- and twists them in presentation and service technique, so far that if it wasn't for the excellence of flavour, and taste memories they invoke, you could not get your head around what the heck they are. We all had a pineapple and bacon pizza in our time I'm sure, but who ever thought of pineapple purée, dehydrated to a see-through wafer with smoked Virginian ham? Chef Achatz did. and that's just one example.
Every bite of my meal at Alinea is still in my memory, as each bite was an extension of a previous memory-something in-built, which we carry round each day subconsciously, until we taste bubblegum, truffle or apple again. Its the ability to recreate these memories which sets Alinea apart from the rest. An ability which should be explored and celebrated.
Back to the actual meal, and as i previously mentioned in part 2, there is only one course which I have not yet described to you, my main dessert-chocolate, apricot, honey and peanut. when i was preparing to go to Alinea of course I looked around the internet for info, menus and images. several searches uncovered videos of chef Achatz 'plating' guests dessert course on their table. not AT their table, but ON it. While I was sat at my table on the second floor of the north Halstead restaurant, I did everything I could not to watch what my fellow diners were getting as I was trying not to spoil the surprise, but I couldn't help but notice that every single course they ate was from a plate, spoon or bespoke stand. Not once did anyone in whites venture into the dining room to assemble anything in plain view of the diners. Until my final course, When a waiter asked me to remove everything from my table so he could roll out a table sized mat which would form the 'plate' for the highlight course of my meal. what followed is best explained through the following video which I took, as my words aren't enough.

(sorry its a youtube link, so right click and select 'open in new tab')

The video takes a while to get going, but fast forward to 4.15 to get to the point...

As you can see, i made a bit of a fool of myself, when i misheard chef Achatz describing one of the components, due to his softly spoken tones and me forgetting the American pronunciation of basil (bay-sil) when I thought he said diesel. I know. Sorry.
watch the video a couple of times to take it all in, the honey liquid which is poured in the cylindrical glass mould then sets as it cools and is turned into a brulée, the nitrogen poached chocolate mousse which is solid yet melted in my mouth as I ate it, the artistry of the way all the different elements are assembled, and just the sheer concept of doing the whole thing in front of me or anyone else for that matter. It harks back in a way i guess to the old school restaurants of the big hotels where a any maitre D worth his salt would flambé crepes or fillet fish or create sauces in front of diners.
The dessert was the perfect finale to my meal and the Alinea experience, and I hope my journals have done enough to keep you interested, informed and wanting to try it for yourself. Here are a couple of shots of the finished dessert. Thanks for reading, if anyone would like any more info, email me on chefbennett@ymail.com, or tweet me on twitter.com/@chefbennett01.