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

May 31, 2015

25 for 25: Cooking for the Senses at Arpege

The first restaurant report in our series 25 for 25, in which we chronicle our dining adventures at the world's 25 best restaurants.  Richard shares our meal at L'Arpege in Paris.

Elizabeth and I had happily accepted friends offer to ring in the New Year in the south of France.  Our friends' restored farmhouse is perfectly located in the heart of the "golden triangle" of Provence, in Maussanes-les Alpilles, and a short drive to the delicious wineries of the Rhone, concentrating almost exclusively on the Syrah varietal, featuring Cote-Rotie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and of course, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps the best known wine of the region. 

Having ate and drank our way into 2015 in the sleepy ambiance of off-season Provence, and with Maussane-les-Alpilles being a hop, skip and a jump (otherwise know as a train ride) from Paris, we decided we would end our French holiday by adding a couple of days in Paris, one of our favourite cities and - more importantly - the home of Arpege, number 25 on San Pellegrino World's 50 Best list.

So..come hell or high water, we werent leaving Paris without kicking off our culinary marathon. Chef Alain Passard, one of Frances greatest and most influential chefs, opened Arpege in 1986 and within a year, Chef Passard had collected his first star from the Michelin firmament. By 1996, Arpege had three Michelin stars, which the restaurant has held onto since, firmly establishing Arpeges position as one of the brightest beacons in the restaurant constellation.

Our reservations were secured for eight pm the night before we were to leave Paris. Even though Arpege is tucked away in the 7th arrondissement at the corner of Rue de Bourgogne and Rue de Varenne, our taxi driver knew exactly where it was.

The elegant yet unassuming Art Deco dining room is warm, comfortable and intimate. On the dark and chilly Monday night we dined, the cozy room was full, but not crowded. Old school formality, crisp white linens, everyone from a young family celebrating a birthday, a table of business colleagues on a splurge, to two Asian tourists minutely examining every bite and a young couple on a date.

Over a perfectly chilled glass of Marguet Champagne, we reviewed the menu and agreed that the Terre et Mer 12 course tasting menu was the way to go. Although the tasting menu features meat and fish, Passard's true mastery is with vegetables, with the restaurant for a time only serving vegetarian fare. All the vegetables served at the restaurant come from one of the restaurant's organic gardens in the Sarthe, Eure and Manche regions of northern France.

Chef Passard cooks for the senses - his philosophy evident from the very first palate pleaser. Each course striking, at various levels, our sense of taste, smell, sight and even our sense of touch with the many different yet subtle textures.

His passion for all things vegetable is evident through out his career as well as his cooking. Since 2002, with the help of six farmers, Chef Passard has not only grown his own vegetables but at his garden in Fillé sur Sarthe, has created an entirely pesticide-free ecosystem where, with the help of a beehive, pollination is ensured and honey is produced. Perches, trees and shrubs planted to welcome birds and raptors, ponds to support amphibian life and strategically placed stones to house weasels, hedgehogs and reptiles. Thus joining the hands of the grower with those of the cook.

The first official course in our degustation was Chef Passards famous Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable: Warm-Cold Egg with Maple Syrup. Reminiscent of a soft boiled egg and served in its shell, the magic of this dish rests in its simplicity: a warm egg yolk at the centre, surrounded by a room temperature cloud of lightly whipped cream with a splash of Sherry vinegar and finished with a touch of maple syrup.  C'est magnifique! 

The attentive and knowledgeable staff brought at a leisurely pace course after course, suggesting wine pairings to go alongside. Although the tasting menu listed 12 courses, by the end of the evening, we would count 17 courses, including several amuse bouche and one or two additional dessert bouchées.just because.

Even these several months later, the tastes still dance on our tongues. Each dish truly a marriage of "Terre et Mer" - earth and sea.  Below a description of a few of our favourites.  From left to right:

 Bouquet de homard de Chausey acidule au miel de notre jardin: A "bouquet" of ceviche-style Chausey lobster acidified with the farm's honey, served on paper thin globe turnip. A marriage of earthiness and delicacy. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Huitre de Marennes-Olerons au vinaigre dOrleans: One perfectly plump and briny oyster from Marennes-Olerons with a soupcon of Orleans-style vinegar and finished with new garlic and black truffle. This was my favourite amongst a standout menu. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable: Airy, delightful and unexpected. See below for the recipe. Served with: Singulier Clos de Renards 2013 (Chenin)
Celerisotto cremeux au caviar krystal”: A "risotto" made of perfectly braised and creamy celery with Parmigiano Reggiano and topped with plump, briny and buttery caviar. Served with Leon Beyer Cuvee des Comtes d'Eguisheim 2013 (Riesling)

Pot Pie a la Louise Passard: Okay this isn't what this was really called but for some reason neither Elizabeth nor I can recall the name of this dish, nor was it named on the menu.  Was it a special extra treat? We don't know but what we do know was that it was a creamy mix of chicken and winter vegetables encased in the most flaky and delicious pâte. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

Jardiniere Arlequin et merguez vegetale a lharrisa: Elizabeth's favourite dish, this was a simple showcase of the harvest of Passard's seasonal garden: beets, black radish, artichoke, carrots, dressed with harrisa. Served with: Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2011 (Chardonnay)

Grande rotisserie dheritage Louise Passard: A dish hearkening back to the chef's grandmother, Louise Passard (whose portrait graces the restaurant's dining room), veal was the star of this dish, perfectly pink, meltingly tender and flavourful. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

Peche cotiere du Golfe du Morbihan au Cotes du Juras”: Coastal turbot served with black truffle and a smoky sauce. Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2011 (Chardonnay)

Comté Grande Garde exceptionnelle á la truffe noire: One generous slice of exceptional Comte cheese, even more generously shaved with fresh black truffle. Served with: Tenuta Enza la Fauci Obli 2010 (Nero d'Avola blend)

A beautiful meal, and an auspicious start to our culinary journey. If this was number 25, who knew what further amazing food adventures awaited us?

Until the next meal,

PS. See below for the recipe of Alain Passard's Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable. 

Up next: A new list and a new journey?

RECIPE: Alain Passard's Chaud Froid dOeuf au Sirop dErable
(from The Paris Cookbook, Patrica Wells)
6 servings  

4 tablespoons heavy cream
About 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar, or to taste
Sea salt to taste
6 very fresh eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh chives
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
About 2 teaspoons maple syrup

An egg cutter or a very sharp knife, 6 porcelain egg cups

1. Place a bowl in the freezer for at least 30 minutes. In the chilled bowl, whisk the cream until soft peaks form. Season with the sherry vinegar and sea salt. Set aside.

2. Place an egg in your hand, tapered end up. Using an egg cutter of a very sharp knife, carefully slice off about the top third of the eggshell. Carefully pour the egg white out of the shell into a small bowl, holding back the yolk with the flat side of a knife. (Reserve the white for another use.) With a damp paper towel, wipe the bottom of the shell. Place the shell in a porcelain egg cup. (If you return the eggs to the egg carton, they are likely to stick and will be impossible to remove later.) Repeat with the remaining eggs.

3. Select a large, shallow skillet that is large enough to hold the eggshells in a single layer. Add water to about 2 inches in depth. Bring just to a simmer.

4. Carefully lift the eggshells from the egg cups and place them in the simmering water (the eggshells should just bob on top of the water). Cook just until the yolk begins to set around the edges, about 3 minutes. Using your fingertips, carefully remove the eggshells from the water and return them to the egg cups.

5. Sprinkle each cooked egg yolk with minced chives. Season with sea salt and pepper. Then carefully spoon the whipped cream over the yolk up to the rim of each egg cup. Drizzle with maple syrup, and serve immediately.

May 15, 2015

25 for 25

In 1990 Alain Ducasse was the youngest chef ever to receive 3 Michelin stars, at Restaurant Louis XV. The world’s biggest McDonald’s opened its doors in Moscow in 1990, and the introduction of a new food pyramid that year once again admonished us to eat a variety of foods, maintain a healthy weight and choose a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and grains. 

That was also the year we got married.  Neither a lover of McDonald's nor a gourmand with aspirations to go to Monaco, it was enough that I was trying in my own small way to learn to cook for two in a tiny kitchen that was no bigger than a walk in closet.

It wasn’t until 1995 that we had our first Michelin dining experience.  Paris.  A beautiful June day. The Place des Vosges, and a coveted table at L’Ambroisie. Je suis désolé de le dire seulement une table à déjeuner est disponible, madame. Only a table available at lunch? C’est pas grave! We’ll take it. It was our first trip to France, and we were in the gourmet capital of the world, n’est pas? Surely a Michelin meal was in order.

A menu full of phrases even my French speaking husband didn’t quite understand.  Mine without prices, my husband quickly calculating that the cost of the simple seasonal soup was more than our entire dinner the night before.  The sommelier expertly opening our prized half bottle of wine and swirling, tasting, discarding! the first precious sip before delicately pouring us a glassful. Predating the ubiquitous iPhone, and certainly the brashness of food bloggers whipping out a camera to digitally record every mouthful and amuse bouche, the meal remains a blur of sensations, at once elevated, subtle and oh so French.   

While we’ve had our share of memorable Michelin meals in the years between that Paris lunch and today, stars were not the lens through which we judged a meal’s greatness.  And yet the quest for the next delicious taste – whether a burger or a bouillabaisse – has remained insatiable.  Planning a trip starts with not “what shall we do?” but “where shall we eat?”

Fast forward to 2015, and our 25th wedding anniversary.

It seemed inevitable that we would go on a trip of some sort – after all, this is the age of the “experience", the “moment”, or the collection of moments; trips that can fill a memory card and a memory bank full with stories to talk about, perhaps even to brag about a little.  Where, however, was another question.

And that’s when my brilliant husband conceived of the best journey of all.

“Instead of going on a trip,” said Richard, late last November, “why don’t we try to go to the Top 25 Restaurants in the world over the course of 2015?"

My heart stopped and then raced forward. A grand adventure! Full of food and planes, exotic locales and crazy chefs, foraged ingredients and time honored traditions. Of course I knew which 25 restaurants he meant. Ever since Restaurants magazine introduced the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best list in 2002, the imaginations of food adventurers the world over have been captured, each year's list revealing new innovators alongside the elder statesmen of cuisine.  We knew Noma was number one the current list, but as to who rounded out the rest of the World's 50 Best, I could only guess at.  It didn't really matter. I was in.

And so has begun a journey of a thousand bites.  Scaling the Mount Everest of food has its perils and pitfalls.  Would we really be able to go from Stockholm to Singapore, from Lima to London, from Modena to Manhattan, in a mere 12 months? And what would happen when the new list came out on June 1, midway through our trek? Would we change course? Or would we approach this more organically, choosing 25 from that illustrious list of 50, position be damned?

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure of the answers to all of those questions. What I do know is that we have thus far had six amazing meals (yes, we are seriously off pace!); that each experience has been delightful, delicious and slightly surreal; that our mad adventure has begun to capture imaginations and that we've never had so many people want to join us for dinner before.

So, dear readers, consider yourselves invited.  We'll be chronicling our adventures here at duckandcake and sharing every delicious morsel, including our favorite dishes, must have treats, behind the scenes peeks when we can (we've visited four kitchens so far), and travel tips of destinations both dearly familiar and wonderfully new.  Richard and I will take turns with the writing, and perhaps you'll be able to guess rather quickly which of us has a weakness for fois gras and who chooses chocolate first.

But really, in the end, it's not about the list or rankings.  As we celebrate a very special moment in our lives, above all, we want to share that celebration with the amazingly passionate teams of people who spend their waking hours dreaming about food, and creating magic with the simplest of ingredients, every single day.

We hope you enjoy the journey as much as we do.

Elizabeth and Richard

First on the menu: a Parisian classic that elevates the humble vegetable to delicious heights

October 05, 2014

Bidding Tomatoes Goodbye

Sunday morning.  Early October.  The topsheet on the bed is as crisp as the air outside, inviting burrowing underneath the suddenly too-light summer duvet.  While it's not quite frost season, it's time to cut the garden back, bring in the bougainvillia, fortify the birdfeeders.

Breakfast is an easy choice.  The last of the season's tomatoes are on the kitchen counter, lovingly chosen yesterday from amongst the farmers' market baskets and trestle tables.  Beautifully misshapen and scarred, they bear no resemblance to the artificially red and wooden too-perfect orbs that pile abundantly in the supermarket.

I bite into my warm toasted tomato sandwich, mayonnaise and salt mingling with the impossible-to-describe sweet tartness of my tomato treasure.  The long winter is ahead and I'm already counting down the days until next August's harvest.


April 18, 2014

Delicious Dish: Versatile Parmigiana di Melanzane

Just about this time of year I start dreaming about Italy.  Well, truth be told, I’m always dreaming about Italy, but now, as spring creeps forward on tippy toe feet and the pale green shoots are breaking ground in my barren garden, I imagine a more fertile, far-away landscape. 
Places linger, but people make every moment in Italy come alive, and nowhere does this happen than through the glorious food of Italy, and nowhere is it more delightful than when you get to eat - or better yet make - that food alongside a passionate Italian.  

Lunch at Fattoria di Montechiari winery in Tuscany 

I was reliving one of those moments when I pulled out a recipe for parmigiana di melanzane recently.  Let’s be clear.  I don’t mean eggplant parmesan, that greasy, gooey and way too cheesy stuff slathered with tomato sauce that’s a shade too red for comfort.  No, this is the real deal, made with care in a few simple steps with truly excellent ingredients.  The best thing about parmigiana di melanzane is its versatility: an elegant starter for a dinner party; part of brunch spread, or even as a lovely side for grilled meats.

The wizard behind this brilliantly simple and delicious recipe is Paola Zocchi, co-owner with her husband Stefano of the magical La Palazzetta del Vescovo in Umbria.   If you are venturing to the green heart of Italy, as Umbria is known, seek out this secluded gem of an inn within viewing distance of Todi.  

Breakfast al fresco at La Palazzetta del Vescovo

While there is plenty to do and see in the area, one of my favourite memories was the afternoon we spent in Paola’s immaculate kitchen, learning to cook Italian classics.  Paola's recipe for parmigiana di melanzane has become a go-to staple.  The perfect make ahead dish, and freezable to boot, these mini melanzane treats are a great addition any meal, all year long.

 Paola in her element in the kitchen, making pasta and preparing gelatin for panna cotta

Paola’s Parmigiana di Melanzane
makes 8-10 individual ramekins

3 medium eggplants
Kosher salt
3 large mozzarella balls, preferably bufalo di mozzarella, chopped into ½ cubes
1½ c finely grated parmigiano reggiano cheese; more as needed
Tomato sauce, either homemade (see recipe below), or any good quality unseasoned commercial tomato sauce, about 2 cups  
Breadcrumbs (optional)

8-10 1 c ramekins; aluminum cups work fine here too! 
1. Preheat oven to 350˚F/180˚C.

2.  Line two large cookie sheets with paper towels.  Peel the eggplant, cut into ½ inch slices, and lay out the slices, slightly overlapping to make them fit.  Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and let sit for 30 minutes.  

3.  Rinse the eggplant to remove the salt and dry the slices well by laying them out on fresh paper or tea towels.  Using a griddle pan, stovetop grill or barbecue, lightly grill the eggplant slices until golden.  Set aside.

4.  To assemble: spray the ramekins with nonstick spray and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.  In each ramekin, place one slice eggplant, followed by a tablespoon or two of tomato sauce, a few cubes of mozzarella, and a tablespoon or two of parmigiana.  Repeat until each ramekin is nearly full. Finish with a slice of eggplant, tomato sauce and final sprinkle of parmigiana.

 5.  Place ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, golden brown and bubbling.

6.  Cool slightly and serve warm or at room temperature.  If freezing, cool completely before freezing.

Paola's Homemade Tomato Sauce 
makes about 3 cups

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, whole, peeled
1 whole, dried peperoncino or red pepper flakes (see note below)*
1 700 ml bottle Italian passata**
Two pinches salt, or to taste 
½ tsp sugar 
1.  Put the oil, garlic and peperoncino in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and heat until the garlic and peperoncino are fragrant.  Remove garlic and pepperoncino.

2.  Add passata and about 1¼ cups water.  Add two pinches of salt (or to taste) and 1 tsp of sugar.  Simmer for one hour. Can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen.

*Peperoncino: You know the shaker jars of red pepper flakes at your local Italian restaurant?  That is the more common version of peperoncino that is readily available in the spice section of your bulk food or grocery store.  Do try to find the whole small peperoncini (about the size of your baby finger); they will impart a bit of barely perceptible zing without overpowering your sauce.  If you are using the flakes, tie a small quantity in a bit of cheescloth so you can remove them easily.

**Italian passata: There's a link above that explains what passata is: basically a very pure version of uncooked tomato puree.  If you can't find this at your grocery store or you don't have an Italian grocer nearby, use whole peeled canned tomatoes, pureed and strained to remove seeds and skin, enough to measure approx 3 cups.

August 26, 2013

A Taste of Summer: Perfect Peach-Ginger Pie

There are certain foods that have a fleeting life, their peak flavours sharpened by memory and desire.  Tomatoes have long been my obsession;  I can't bear the thought of not having my fill of that juicy, sweet and acidic burst of summer.

But lately I have a new diversion.  How is it that I never noticed how perfect a perfectly ripe peach really is?  The joy of finding one that is both firm and juicy, not too soft, the juices running down my chin, the flesh ripping away cleanly from the stone at the centre.   

When I can buy them by the basketful that’s when the fun really starts.  Peach salsaButtery peach briochePeach-plum ginger jam. And my newest peach obsession: peach pie.   

I wanted to think about how to create a new flavour profile for this pie; something that added depth without overpowering the indescribable taste of a fresh peach.  The lovely ginger zing of my peach-plum jam was playing in my mind, but I knew that, sadly, the lone piece of ginger in the house was well past its due date.

As with so much of cooking, the answer was right in front of me, or rather right in my fridge.  At this year's Big Summer Potluck, I came home with a treasure trove of Gourmet Garden goodies.  Do you you know Gourmet Garden? It's the brilliant solution to having every fresh herb you could wish for at your fingertips, beautifully preserved and ready to use a dollop at a time.  No more soggy cilantro or past-its-prime parsley.  Best of all, no more withered stub of gingerroot hidden at the bottom of my crisper.
With a tube of Gourmet Garden's fresh ginger paste at hand, I knew I had the perfect complement to my perfect peaches - and the makings of a peachy pie.  Fresh made easy, indeed.

Peach Pie
makes one 9" pie

2 ½ lbs peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
¾ c sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice (Meyer lemons if you have them)
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger or 1 tbsp Gourmet Garden Ginger Paste
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp mace
¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp instant tapioca, ground
½ c ground gingersnaps 
Your favourite pie dough, enough for a double crust pie. Mine is here.  
1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Preheat oven to 425F.

2. In a medium saucepan, cook peaches, sugar, lemon juice, zest, ginger, cinnamon, mace and salt over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.  Take off heat and stir in tapioca.

3.  Prepare pie dough by rolling out a 10" inch round for the bottom.  Fit the dough into your pie pan and sprinkle the gingersnap crumbs evenly along the bottom.  Let the dough rest in the fridge for 10 minutes before proceeding.

4.  Pour the peach mixture evenly into the pan.  Brush the edges of the dough with the beaten egg.  Top the pie with another round of dough and crimp the edges.  Make a few decorative slits on the pie top.  Let the dough rest again for 10 minutes before baking.  This pie is very pretty with a lattice top too.*  

5.  Bake the pie on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes at 425F.  Lower the heat to 350F, and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes, or until the top is golden and the juices of the fruit are bubbling.

*Hint for lattice top lovers: make the lattice top on a piece of parchment paper, and once done, slip it on a cutting board and into the freezer for a few minutes.  It will be much easier to position on the pie.