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Monday, July 23, 2012

L20 (Chicago)

(Visited: July 2012)

After a week of OK to mediocre to frankly quite vile eating in Evanston, IL, for work, we decided that on our last night we deserved something with that je ne sais quoi... so off we go to Chicago.

As soon as you enter L20 (of illustrious multi-starred fame, currently holding 1* Michelin under chef  Matthew Kirkley) you realise you are not in an ordinary place. The low lighted room is modern, cool and grand, yielding a sense of oriental calm, open yet affording a multitude of environments at the large, well spaced tables (there also an inviting separate tatami room).

There's a four course a la carte selection ($120) and two tasting menus, one 'basic' (a manner of speaking as we shall see) at $150 and one luxury (called 'Singular') at $180. Not in the mood for choosing tonight, we go for both.

This time we won't comment on each individual dish and let some photos do most of the talking, but here are the menus we had: they deserve reading because they make clear the interest for seafood ingredients that characterises L20:

turbot • ceps, champagne, brown butter, parsley

'Basic' tasting menu
  • ahi tuna tartare • avocado, caviar
  • mussels • clams, corn, zucchini, lardo
  • agnolotti • artichoke, ricotta, clarified barigoule
  • bouillabaisse • scorpion fish, daurade, mussels, fennel, tomato confit
  • lamb loin • zucchini lattice, sweetbreads, squash blossom
  • lemon tart • rhubarb, basil
  • grand marnier soufflé • orange
lamb loin • zucchini lattice, sweetbreads, squash blossom
Singular Tasting menu
  • Maryland blue crab en gelée • fennel cream, basil
  • grilled abalone • royale of sweet corn, black truffle, chorizo
  • turbot • cepes, champagne, brown butter, parsley
  • st. pierre • foie gras, cabbage, matelote
  • 28-day dry aged ribeye • lobster, spring onion, brioche, civet
  • fromage blanc • apple, calvados caramel
  • praline soufflé • hazelnut anglaise

grilled abalone • royale of sweet corn, black truffle, chorizo

 Every dish was a pretty composition, executed with great precision, on a foundation of classical techniques and little space for all-too-obvious modern pyrotechnics, the flavours complex but clean, tending to the subtle and restrained rather than 'in your face': real class.
Maryland blue crab en gelée • fennel cream, basil

Hard to choose in that feast, but two dishes especially will stand out in our memory. The ahi tuna tartare, 

ahi tuna tartare • avocado, caviar

the first item from the basic menu, made us understand early on how modestly described the dishes are, concealing the amount of work they embody: the tartare was encased in a beautiful and minutely constructed avocado sphere, the feel on the palate luscious, the caviar not merely a thrown in standard addition but a fundamental element to elevate the dish. 

And the ribeye with lobster from the luxury menu, with the ribeye glazed with soy and the stunning combination of flavours from the excellent produce, took our breath away.

28-day dry aged ribeye • lobster, spring onion, brioche, civet
But tonight, really, everything was masterful. And judging from the quality of the beef and lamb, the impression is that if this seafood specializing venue transformed itself into a meat restaurant it would be no less impressive.

lemon tart • rhubarb, basil

The only minor negative was that, for our taste, the meal lasted too long. This is a bit of a place for special occasions (and they see themselves in that way), given the complexity of the experience and the investment in time and money needed - the wine list is expensive too (how lucky we could have no alcohol that night....). It would be nice if they also gave food lovers the chance of returning for multiple visits of a less demanding nature.

Service was, from booking to final greetings, one of the most professional we've seen (only margin for improvement is in the description of the dishes, which should be slightly less rushed).

What struck us in the cooking style tonight was how thoroughly logical it was, every element in the dish having a clear function, and the lack of pointless, childish gimmicks despite the high techniques used. A sober style that we very much appreciated. After dinner we had the chance of seeing the lengths they go to to source top quality seafood: in the enormous kitchen they have huge tanks with live Abalone clams and Brittany lobsters, and the fridge was full of fantastic FedExed fish from Europe. This was very impressive, mature top level cooking, that makes L20 an obligatory stop for gourmets in Chicago and beyond.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Kai of Mayfair (London)

(Visited: April 2012)

Venturing in money-oozing Mayfair, here are some quick comments from memory about a recent lunch at one of the local institutions, the upscale Chinese Kai. 

This an expensive restaurant for dinner, and we are not sure whether the experience justifies the prices, but the lunch option is very approachable and very good value at £27 for three courses (£39 with matching wines).

For some reason (perhaps some negative review read and forgotten but lingering in the subconscious) we didn't have high  expectations, but we were positively surprised by the quality of the produce and of the cuisine. 

Slow cooked pork belly in particular was impressive for the elegant presentation, apt cooking and deep flavour lightened and lifted up by the condiment (ginger, cinnamon, soy...) by someone who clearly knows how to treat pork, oh yes he/she does, look at that sticky glistening dark colour:

Perhaps even more impressive was a 'spice route' lobster (£12 supplement, deserved), the spices a a complex affair that yet respected, and indeed formed an elegant flavour robe for, the good produce:

Whoever the chef is, he/she can strike several chords, not only powerful grand flavours: a starter of Loh Bak Goh Turnip cake was ever so airily crispy and fresh and cleanly presented, a delight to eat.

So was the other starter, a crispy duck that is definitely not your local Chinese version (well, unless you live in Mayfair, that is):

Desserts were quite good too, with an intriguing 6 textures of chocolate and peanuts

and a not earth-shattering, but pleasant and waistline-friendly almond curd with fresh fruit:

Service varied from charming to uninterested to poor. Houston, you've got a serious problem in this department. The wine waitress (an Italian) was particularly incompetent. She didn't know, or didn't want to tell us, the optional matching wines. She only assured us that she would tell us at some point before serving. This was already quite incredible and bad enough, but after a few minutes she was trying to fill Man's glass, without showing the wine bottle, and with no word of explanation. We'll spare you the tense exchange that ensued... the conclusion is that no blood was spilled but we had tea, which  was excellent. 

And aside from the matching wines, the prices of wine on the list really go too far in their aiming at the superwealthy Mayfairites:  tea looks like a better option.

Well, no single dud dish today, and a couple of impressive ones. And at £27 in Mayfair! We were satisfied with the food at Kai. Compared with Yauatcha, for example, this is a more stayed, less hip but also more elegant experience. Mayfair vs Soho, you understand. So satisfied were we in fact that we left with the intention of trying, at some point, the more wallet-busting, but also even more ambitious, dinner menu.


Monday, July 9, 2012

The Kitchin (Ediburgh): Force of Nature

(Visited: June 2012)

We generally tend to dislike chefs who are too media-savvy... but we'll make an exception for Tom Kitchin by virtue of a recent stunning lunch at his restaurant. 

Away from media fluffiness, when he commands his kitchen, there's an admirable substance and power to his cooking style.

After a promising, fresh and vegetable-dense amuse... will be hard to forget the sumptuously greasy, both moist and crisp, deep-flavoured pig's head that forms a pair with the langoustine tail in one of Kitchin's signature dishes (including a picturesquely vertical and shadow-casting crispy pig's ear):

A truly majestic lobster a la plancha (special of the day) with an ever so fine cuttlefish garnish and a fantastic condiment made us think it would be hard to have a better lobster (only a Thermidore had at the Peat Inn is a match in our memory):

In a starter of scallops and asparagus, what lovely, lovely ingredients, what a graceful presentation: 

And a stuffed rabbit with crispy legs and the kidneys in ragout on the side, again, featured a rich harmony of flavours and texture:

A previously weaker point in our (very) modest opinion were the desserts. Now we are left without gripes, as even those are excellent. Here is a delicious and supremely airy oat and cherry souffle' (inclusive of a well-made ice-cream), care of the dedicated pastry chefs:


The previously uncomfortable chairs have been replaced by comfortable upholstered ones, with other improvements to the furnishing: larger tables, new curtains etc. Also gone is the bread trolley (last year's innovation, but apparently they decided they have too many trolleys in the room). Talking of bread, if one really nitpicks, well the crust could have been better: on the day, probably due to the horrible weather and high humidity, the bought-in bread lacked the perfect crust we remembered from a previous visit. We wish one day they will accompany their splendid dishes with the splendid home made bread we're sure they're capable of.

We had the coffee and (very good) petit fours while slouching on the comfortable sofa of the bar area at the entrance:

Prices are high, true, but in line with Edinburgh Michelin starred dining. Look at the £200 mark for three courses for two with acceptable wine.
Given the very positive words we're using, just remember that unlike some fellow bloggers we are always paying customers...

Kitchin is a force of nature in the kitchen. Dishes of great power and clarity encapsulate minute attention not only to flavours but also to textures. His direct, muscular style, so different from that of his starred (and also excellent) Leith Neighbour Martin Wishart, reminds us a bit of the great Koffmann, albeit with more elaborate dishes than in Koffmann's current bistro style. A great restaurant with a chef at the heights of its powers; we're so happy for the positive tweaks, and we'll definitely return. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Apsleys: to pamper yourselves

(Visited: April 2012)

(Previous review here)

Oh go on: pamper yourselves. 

Apsleys is the place where to do it. Everything is luxurious here. The grand bright room:

The ingredients: foie gras of the highest quality is never far off:


Bread is one of the best in London:

We hadn't been here for quite a while, and we wanted to remind ourselves of that most clever of Heinz Beck's creations, fagottelli carbonara. Yes, they still have us drooling, that explosion in the mouth feel, those rustic flavours of old trattoria memories so refined and sublimated here:

The other primo, pheasant tortelli with black truffle and pumpkin, was also a sublimely made pasta dish, rich and sweet on the palate, though to be honest the truffle, even by black truffle standard, was not the best we've ever had

Conversely, a pork thigh, presented theatrically thus

before being cut at your table and served with a myriad of supervegetables, was among the most glorious and succulent and best cooked ever:

 We weren't in the mood for desserts, and we even had no wine, but classy petit-fours were generously brought all the same in spite of our diet-induced remonstrations:

We've been several time at Apsleys, and this was the first without the excellent Max Blasone at the stoves. We can witness that the new chef is as capable and continuing the tradition of all the attractive features we love here: top ingredients whose clear flavours take firmly centre stage, cuisine that is only apparently simple but hides enormous technique, a sense of great generosity, impeccable service. Prices are high as you'd expect in such a luxurious environment (say well above £200 for three courses for two with reasonable wine). Especially the wine list is clearly targeted at people who don't much care about money. But there's also a modestly priced set lunch of great value. And anyway, even without a corporate account, once in a while, it's nice to be pampered. And if you ARE on a corporate account: what are you waiting for?


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