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Europe Trip Fall 2014 - Arpege, Quique Dacosta, In de Wulf, Etxebarri and Others

Akrame – I normally do not pay a second visit to a restaurant unless there has been a significant event like an uptick in the reviews I am collecting or Michelin awarding a restaurant an additional star. Okay, I happen to like Akrame Bennellal personally, and that weighed in his favor as well. Unfortunately, the meal did not deliver on that promise, and what we found was some good ingredients, prepared in a manner that did not appear precise enough to warrant Michelin’s promotion. And we know Benellal has it in him as a lobster dish was so good that it was worthy of a three star restaurant. I was a bit surprised that the meal wasn’t better. Recommended + ½.

AM par Alexander Mazzia – Repeat after me. Alexander Mazzia, Alexander Mazzia. Have it ingrained in your head. I say that because, providing that he has the capital to build a restaurant that is worthy of the honor, there is a good chance that sometime in the future you will see the Michelin Guide awarding him two, if not three stars. Where this guy came from is a mystery. He spent time in Martin Berasetegui’s kitchen (in fact after he told me that I could see the influence), but his cuisine is about as original as have found in a long time, and finding a dish that has both chocolate and wasabi, balanced about as perfectly as humanly possible, is typical of his style of cooking. His smoked milk and fish roe dish is destined to become a classic. Recommended ++ 1/2

Arpege – Arpege remains my favorite restaurant in the world. In fact, whenever I am being interviewed and the journalist asks me to name my favorite restaurant, not only do I quickly blurt out Arpege, I go on to tell them that each year when I am tabulating the voting for the OAD Top 100 European Restaurants, I secretly hope that Arpege takes the number one spot. And I say that despite the fact that the cuisine isn’t anywhere as unique as it was when I visited the restaurant in 2004, which was the height of Alain Passard’s vegetable revolution. Since I am an exile from the music industry, I always think in terms of musical examples. In that light, Passard is like Bach, and he has created a series of lasting harmonies which are codified into his dishes, and which a slew of other top chefs that range from Pascal Barbot to Dan Barber, incorporate into their cuisine. Still an amazing experience. Must Go.

A.T. – Just around the corner from La Tour D’Argent, Atsuki Tanaka’s charming little restaurant has garnered some terrific reviews from OAD members. So why wasn’t the meal that Mrs. P and I experienced up to the level that people were describing? To be honest, I am not exactly sure. I found the style of cuisine to be lacking a bit of focus. Tanaka is a graduate of Quique Dacosta’s kitchen, and dishes like oyster with kombawa and Campari, tuna hidden under thin slices of kohlrabi and quince, and pigeon with camouflage (easily the best dish) were appropriately modern. The cuisine didn’t sing if you know what I mean. A list of mostly natural wines did not help either. I would be willing to go back to see if it was an off night. Recommended +

Dabbous – Overhyped by the media (it took me over a year to book a table), I was not expecting much from this restaurant. So I was pleasantly surprised when Dabbou’s cuisine demonstrated a light touch in the kitchen, along with an ability to add a touch of Middle Eastern flavor when appropriate. There were some super-ripe tomatoes on a slice of toasted bread brushed with olive oil, and some perfectly cooked shoulder of veal which was seared before being sous vide, a technique that made the liquid that formed in the sack have a slightly charred flavor which was delicious. Not an important restaurant but I would be happy to go back anytime for the casual, tasty food. Recommended +

Ekstedt – It’s funny how my taste is so different than many of the other diners who participate in the OAD Survey. Of all of the restaurants that are on the Scandinavian circuit, reviewers blow both hot and cold about this restaurant. For my money, after considering all of the big boys, I enjoyed my meal at Ekstedt more than at any other restaurant in the region. Why is that? Because Nikolas Ekstadt does an amazing job of combining Etxebarri-style cooking with such a high level of finesse and elegance that you would never guess that there isn’t any electricity in the kitchen and everything is cooked over a wood fire. The concept peaked with a dish of bone marrow (still in the bone) that had a slightly smoky flavor from it being cooked over wood, topped with vendace roe and peas. A stunning dish that would make Etxebarri’s Victor Arguinzoniz proud. Recommended ++ 1/2

Etxebarri - How convenient to review these two restaurant back to back. This was my second visit to Victor Arguinzoniz’s restaurant. The first was around five years ago, and while the meal was enjoyable, it felt short of the types of raves the restaurant gets from other reviewers. This meal was easily a step or two up, and some of the preparations were dazzling. Besides excellent servings of expected late summer dishes like homemade chorizo, fat fava beans, meaty ceps and sweet and plump gambas, a serving of tuna, which looked like chutoro from where I was sitting, which was so lightly cooked and doused with some oil and coarse salt, was easily the best preparation of cooked tuna I have ever experienced. Recommended +++

Gastrologic – Three nights of Scandinavian cooking in a row (Gastrologic, Ekstadt & Kadeau specifically) gave me a bit of insight into the cooking of the region. To me, the issue about Scandinvaian cooking comes down to whether one prefers Danish-style rusticity or Swedish-style finesse. I say this because the same exact ingredients pop up on menus on both countries. But while one country might coarsely chop their sea buckthorn berries, the other purees them until they are smooth as silk. For my palate, Zohan-style silky smooth trumps rusticity, as it gives the chefs more of a chance to show off their chops. Otherwise the menu is filled with Scandinavia’s greatest hit ingredients, like a dish of chicken skin with flowers, fruits of peas and leaves and possibly the largest scallop from Norway I have ever seen served with fresh onion with wood sorrel. Recommended ++

Ibai – If you are an ingredientista (someone who craves ingredients of exceptional quality that are simply yet perfectly cooked, this quiet asador, located in the basement of a tapas bar on a side street of San Sebastian’s shopping district, will be among your favorite restaurants in the world. Unfortunately, that description does not include me, and I prefer a meal where the chef adds a bit of dazzling culinary technique to the mix. The middle ground of “really good" is about where I fall on Ibai, and both the ingredients and cooking of Basque standards like kokotxes, squid with its own tinto and a giant sole was exemplary. A lovely place for a large party to share a meal. Recommended ++

In de Wulf – Each meal that I have had at In de Wulf (this was my third) gets more and more refined. In fact one might say that Kobe Desramault’s cuisine has come a long way since I first ate at the restaurant eight years ago. In fact the cuisine is getting so refined that there are moments where certain dishes transcend the naturalist cuisine genre, and you can imagine them being served at almost any top restaurant. Desramaults served wonderful local mussels that he roasted over and open fire, and which you ate with your fingers, squid from the North Sea with a sweet corn emulsion and herbs, cauliflower in a sauce of whey and mussel juice, a tranch of delicious Belgian beef, and Kobe’s piece de resistance, 45 day old aged pigeon. Usually Kobe hangs the pigeon for only 30 days but last time I was at the restaurant I told him to try and hang them for 60. Let me tell you that 45 days is plenty and is was funky and a half! Excellent meal, excellent place, and I am proud that a restaurant so worthy earned the top spot on the OAD Top 100 European Restaurants. Recommended +++ 1/2

Jin – Now that I have visited Tokyo, I understand what people mean when they say that most of the top sushi restaurants in the West are nothing like sushi restaurants in Tokyo. But now that I visited Jin, I can say that this wonderful little restaurant on a quiet street just off the bustling rue Saint-Honore in the 1st Arrondisement is as close to the real thing as possible. The vision of Nina Nikkhou, who grew up in Tokyo as the daughter of an American Father and Japanese mother, who left Japan first for Duke University, and then for Paris, which became her newly adopted home. She brought in Sapporo native, chef Takuya Watanabe, and along with Paris-based architect Jun Yonekawa, they have created an experience that is as authentic as it gets. Tasty, tasty. Recommended ++

Kadeau – I must be an outlier. I say that because after either hearing about or collecting numerous rave reviews about Kadeau, I found it to be just another Danish restaurant serving a bunch of weeds on a plate. All right, that is a bit harsh, though it makes the point in a sort of Plotnicki-ian way. Truth is the the meal was fine enough (terrific company from Very Good Food’s Trine Lai) although sitting here writing it up, I can’t recall a single dish, even after looking through my pictures. What I can tell you is that when the restaurant wanted to feature an ingredient, the quality was high, especially a lovely tranch of Norwegian lobster. But whatever they are serving is either coated with a mini-forest, or paired with some unusual vegetable which more often than not, sounds better than it tastes. The rating is based on my memory of how I felt about the meal at the time I ate it. Recommended + ½

Le Bristol – My least favorite type of restaurant experience is to go to a restaurant featuring classic French cooking, where the chef and kitchen have not taken the changing tastes of the dining public into consideration, and updated their cuisine accordingly. After all, cooking is about technology and if your kitchen does not avail itself of the improvements to culinary technology, your food becomes as obsolete as a bowler hat. This is the case at Eric Frechon’s restaurant, whose kitchen appears to specialize in dishes that are, over-sauced, over-reduced and sticky. Even Frechon’s signature dish – macaroni stuffed with foie gras, truffles and artichokes – was a mess, and showed about as much finesse as finger-paintings made by a group of kindergartners. A shame because the ingredient quality was high. One could make the argument that even in spite of these flaws, there was enough merit to the meal to recommend it. But, it left such a bad taste in my mouth that I feel compelled to say Can’t Recommend

Likoke – If you are a fan of food where there are too many ingredients on the plate, which on occasion might include an odd combination or three, and where the preparations and concepts are so overwrought, and presented in overly complex ways, this restaurant is for you. On the other hand, I hate that style of dining and after 2-3 dishes, I couldn’t wait for the meal to be over. It’s a shame too as Piet Huysentruyt and his son Cyriel are both lovely people, and Piet has access to some terrific ingredients. Plus his restaurant benefits from an exceptional setting in the heart of the Ardeche. But the dining experience should not be drowned out by an avalanche of ingredients, which appear as if they have been thrown onto the plate with reckless abandon. And if 100% of the dishes on your menu need to be served in a variety of boxes and contraptions that could easily be the props used by a Las Vegas magician, you have lost the plot about what the dining experience is supposed to be about. Acceptable.

Lyle’s – Lyle’s reminded me of Hereford Road. And there is good reason for that as the chefs for both restaurant, James Lowe at Lyle’s, and Hereford’s Tom Pemberton, both ran the kitchen for Fergus Henderson at St, John Bread & Wine. One of the major differences that Lowe has brought to the equation is the introduction of a set menu at dinnertime. The other is a nod to foraged cuisine, which he combines with Ferguson style meatery. So do not be surprised when dishes like deep fried cod tongues & Ramson capers and monkfish & seaweed turn up on the menu. Pleasant room in that sparse, St. John sort of way. Pleasant staff as well. An easy place to have supper. Recommended

Mercatbar – I am always weary of second restaurant from famous chefs. I am even more suspect of third and fourth restaurants. So without pinning down exactly where this restaurant goes on that list, how come we thought the food at this casual tapas restaurant in the center of Valencia was so tasty? Maybe that’s because Quique Dacosta is not like other celebrity chefs, and he cares enough about what he puts his name on to make sure the quality is good. A few of Quique’s classic preparations are on the menu, like dishes served with hairfrost, but everything we ordered, from the tempura of asparagus with a tomato and hazelnut praline to the bargain priced (12 euros), crystal baguette with slices of foie gras, honey syrup, dried apricot and orange peel, was delicious. Recommended

Pure C – Now that he has shuttered Oud Sluis, those who are longing to enjoy Sergio Herman’s cooking should book a table at this restaurant in Cadzand, only a short drive away from Sluis. Herman has installed Syrco Bakker in the kitchen, and his cooking exhibits a high level of maturity for someone of his age. Baker also does a terrific job of continuing Herman’s legacy. Bakker showed off his chops in dishes of gambas, served cooked and in a tartare, with verbena, algaes and lime, sea eel from Oosterscheide wrapped in nori and served in a green sauce, an some exceptional filets of North Sea sole that were poached in butter. An additional bonus is a lovely setting on the third floor of a hotel that overlooks the North Sea, and an outdoor terrace that diners can grab some air on in between courses. Recommended +++

Quique Dacosta – I first visited Quique Dacosta’s restaurant back in 2007. It was called El Poblet back then, and shortly after the meal I concluded that it was the best restaurant in the world. A lot has changed at the restaurant since then, including the name: El Poblet has moved to Valencia and this restaurant is now known as Quique Dacosta Restaurant. Along with the change of name, the experiential cuisine that Dacosta featured back then, has been replaced by a 40+ course tasting menu that is much more focused on ingredients instead of techniques. However, one thing has remained the same. Which is that no other chef in the universe knows how to utilize progressive culinary technique in a way that yields so much flavor from ingredients. Dacosta’s black truffle mochi is a case in point, which is so good that Mrs. P and I asked if it was possible to buy a box of a dozen of them that were frozen so we could take them back to NYC. Must Go.

Restaurant Story – The best way to describe the food at Tom Sellers restaurants is to imagine that the Fat Duck and Noma had a baby. The waiter delivers a candlestick to your table, whereby he lights the candle so it can drip into a dish. It turns out to be beef drippings, which the restaurant serves in lieu of butter or olive oil. It’s a lovely parlor trick, but unfortunately it tastes like crap. In fact I would go as far as to say that the food at Restaurant Story sucks. One wonders if Sellers actually tastes the food he is serving. If he does, one wonders how someone with a palate that is so out of whack, could rise to his level. Tis’ a shame as I happen to like cuisine with a theatrical component. Can’t Recommend

Ricard Camarena – Asian-fusion cooking is a style of cooking that few chefs know how to practice well. Still, with chefs such as Tim Raue, William Leduil, Adeline Grattard and Hideki Matsuhisa of Barcelona’s Koy Shunka, there have been many advances in the art form among European chefs. However, Ricard Camarena’s cooking does not qualify to be on that vaunted list. Rarely have a I found a chef who is so clueless about what makes fusion cooking work. A case in point was Camarena’s grilled tuna rice, a dish that might qualify as the worst tuna dish I have ever had in a restaurant. The key to a good tuna dish is to cook the tuna so that oil of the fish is not released. Yet Camarena’s dish was drenched in tuna oil making it inedible. Ten blechs. Okay, the rest of the meal was nowhere as bad but every dish had at least one flaw. Acceptable.

Restaurant David Toutain – It is rare that a whiz kid like David Toutain comes along. After spending a term with Paul Liebrandt at Corton in New York City, he took the reins at Agape Substance and created a veritable sensation among the dining community. But after spending a year and a half turning the restaurant into one of the hottest tables in Europe, he decided he had enough, and took a sabbatical. Slightly more than a year later, this comfortable restaurant appeared on the Rue Surcouf. But while everyone was happy that Toutain was back, it also meant the debut of a more conservative cuisine, which while showing flashes of brilliance, was nowhere as progressive as his cooking at Agape Substance. What is unusual about the situation is that while there is always disagreement about a chef’s cooking among the OAD reviewer base, the vast preponderance of reviewers say the exact same thing that I just said about this restaurant. Recommended + ½.

The Jane – Sergio Herman has built what has to easily be the most unusual restaurant in Europe. Set in a converted church in an area of Antwerp that is being gentrified, everything from the Piet Boon designed space to the stained glass windows designed by the firm Studio Glass, is superb. Typically, when this much effort goes into a restaurant, the idea is to attract want I will term as social diners, and the food becomes an afterthought. But we are talking about a three star Michelin chef here, and he has installed his protégé, Nick Bril, to be in charge of the kitchen (which is exceptionally beautiful) which is in plain view as it has been installed on what would otherwise be the location of the pulpit. While the cuisine is not at the same vaunted level as Oud Sluis, Herman and Bril have done a terrific job crafting a more formal and interesting version of the casual dining experience. This could be the most difficult reservation to get in all of Europe. Recommended ++ 1/2