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European Catch Up - First Half of 2015

Astrance (Paris, France) – I know it seems like I am always eating at the top French restaurants, but the fact of the matter is, I rarely do. Case in point, my visit to Astrance this past February was my first visit in more than 9 years. Well it was my good fortune that I went back as the quality of both the products and the cooking was so outstanding that it reminded me of why I used to love this style of dining. Pascal Barbot is in what I will describe as a fruit phase these days, and many of the dishes included small bits of fruit which added both sweetness and acidity to the dish. But the way he did it was sooooooooooooo perfectly balanced. The only thing that prevented me from giving the restaurant a Must Go is a lack of creativity compared to other restaurants who are focused on pushing the envelope. Recommended +++ ½

Bon-Bon (Brussels, Belgium) – With a cuisine that is more French in style than the Flemish naturalist cooking that surrounds this restaurant and which has become so popular in Belgium, Christophe Hardiquest’s cooking is somewhat overlooked. But if you are a fan of contemporary French cooking, this is among the most enjoyable versions I have experienced. Dishes were both well thought out and well executed, and included some excellent Fera that was sourced from Lac Leman, cauliflower lacquered in a Chinese style, and a wonderfully plump cinnamon spiced duck breast which was roasted in a salt crust. The setting in a mansion in Brussels’ diplomatic quarter is a perfect fit for the cuisine. Recommended ++ 1/2

Chapeau (Bloemdaal, Netherlands) – Set in an upscale suburb of Amsterdam, Chapeau might have been my least favorite meal during my recent European trip. While the cooking is highly competent, and ingredients they have sourced are of a high quality, the cooking lacked the type of imagination and inspiration I am looking for at this level of meal. Making things worse was a cuisine that was completely void of a sense of place. One wonders why anyone would go to Bloemdaal to eat this style of cooking when you could probably throw a dart at a map of France and have it land on a restaurant that not only serves this type of cuisine, but does a better job of it. Granted, I have a number of friends who do not care if there is anything local about a cuisine as long as it comports with a high French culinary standard.But from my perspective, a sense of place contends for being the single most important aspect of a meal as that is one of the primary elements of what differentiates one restaurant from another. Recommended +

Chef & Sommelier (Helsinki, Finland) – If someone forced me to compare the cooking at Sasu Laukkonen’s intimate restaurant located in an upscale part of Helsinki, I would say that calling it a Finnish version of Relae is an apt description. Highlights of my tasty meal included a tartare of a rare breed of Finnish cow, a savory pie of nettles and cheese and an exceptional 6 month old parsnip that was served in a sauce of 1 year old apple cider and brown butter. Small and intimate, Sasu is committed to his cuisine in a way that is addictive and you can’t help but love him after you meet him. Recommended + ½

Clove Club (London, U.K.)– 18 months ago, after collecting a number of enthusiastic reviews about Isaac McHale’s restaurant, I decided that checking out the Clove Cub might be worth my while. Of course my meal was disappointing, and I wondered what all of the fuss was about. Well the positive reviews kept coming in so I figured I would give it the restaurant second chance. A wise decision on my part;can I say that this is my new favorite place to eat in London? Not a fancy place, or a fancy meal. But really good local ingredients prepared in a careful way. If you enjoy eating at the top bistronomy places like Septime/Saturne/Relae/Kadeau, you will love this place. Recommended + 1/2

D’Etoile-sur-Mer (Paris, France) – After moving his restaurant into spacious new surroundings in the 6th, Guy Savoy has turned his original rue Troyon location into a seafood restaurant. The much beloved, Clement Leroy, is in charge of the kitchen, and in three short weeks he has already created a number of signature dishes including a perfectly cooked tranch of exceptional quality trout sourced from France’s Basque region which Clement paired with a watercress sauce, and a Pot au Feu of Tarboureich oyster served with a side of toast topped with oyster tartar and bone marrow. Other dishes seemed to be more from the Guy Savoy playbook, which I found less interesting. I suspect that if the menu was 100% Clement rather than just 50%, the rating would be at least one interval higher. A restaurant and chef to watch. Recommended + 1/2

De Leest (Vassen, Netherlands) – I had always wondered why restaurant’s in the Netherlands are overlooked by the destination dining community. In fact I was so curious about this phenomenon that I decided to plan a trip to Amsterdam for a weekend of fine dining. And it only took me three short days to learn why this condition exists: The top restaurants in the country cook contemporary French food, and their cuisine has little to do with Dutch cuisine. Which begs the question: Why would anyone go to Holland to eat French food instead of France? Now that I have dispensed with that criticism, they do a pretty good job of making the food half interesting here, and my dinner included perfectly cooked examples of dishes like Oosterschelde lobster with a coconut flavored sauce and a low temperature cooked veal served and a sauce of vaudovan. Stunning wine list at superb prices. Recommended ++

Dersou (Paris, France) – Given that Paris is filled with hipsters, the city has been slow in producing restaurants that cater to a hipster crowd. The duo of Taku Sekine (Beige, Fish, Saturne, Clown Bar) and Amaury Guyot (mixologist extraordinaire) have done their best to correct that at this lively restaurant that feels more like Williamsburg than the 12th arrondisment. Sakine churns out a series of small plates like smoked Iberian pork with Mexican rice and harrisa, or a plate of Challandaise duck with Japanese curry, which Guyot pairs with mini-sized cocktails that he has crafted for each dish. If you want to go large you can order the 60 day aged Cote de Boeuf for two. Reservations taken only for the tasting menu. Recommended +.

Distfrutar (Barcelona, Spain) – All you have to do is to enter the dining room of this stunning restaurant to see that Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Mateu Casañas have extremely high ambitions. And why shouldn’t they? The trio served as the Chefs de Cuisine at El Bulli in its final years, and it is fitting that they now have an important restaurant of their own. I thought the meal broke down into two parts: The amazing amuse and snacks at the beginning of the meal were both reminiscent, and as good as, what the trio used to serve at El Bulli. But I thought that the main courses were not quite as focused, and the trio need to sharpen them a bit to bring them up to the same level as the snacks. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was the highest new entry on the 2016 OAD Top 100+. Recommended ++ 1/2

Esperanto (Stockholm, Sweden) – One of the problems I have with the cooking at New Nordic restaurants is that the growing season in the region is so short, the ingredients available to the chefs are quite limited and the dishes begin to get repetitive after a few days of eating in the region’s restaurants. Sayan Isaksson does a good job of managing this problem by his putting an Asian spin on the region’s cooking, which he combines with a minimalist approach that yields an extremely pure version of the ingredients, This results is that dishes like a lightly poached langoustine -- finished at the table with a blowtorch -- and served in broth flavored with Verbena, and a perfectly cooked hunk of 4 week dry-aged Holstein beef, really shine. Recommended ++ 1/2

Het Gebaar (Antwerp, Belgium) – Considering this type of cooking is not the style I prefer, Mrs. P and I found our lunch at Roger Van Damme’s restaurant to be quite a pleasant experience. The formula of the meal is a simple one. Van Damme offers a two-course meal and you choose a main dish from among five different choices, and then a dessert. And if you are really hungry there is a single appetizer that changes daily. The cooking is sort of a Flemish-ized version of French nouvelle cuisine (think a more classical and fancified version of Hof Van Cleve), But where the Van Damme’s cooking really shines is in his desserts. And why not, he is the country’s most famous TV pastry chef. Recommended +

Hija de Sanchez (Copenhagen, Denmark) – Is there anyone in the world of cuisine as compelling as Rosio Sanchez? The daughter of Mexican parents, Rosio left her hometown of Chicago at an early age in order to become a pastry chef. After cutting her teeth working under the great Alex Stupak at WD-50, she moved on to Noma, ultimately adopting Copenhagen as her home. But though Rosio was able to put some physical distance between herself and her upbringing, she couldn’t abandon her heritage. Now she has opened a taqueria in the city’s Torvehallerne Market, where the tasty tacos come with a reminder that authenticity, both in people and in cooking, is a trait that can’t be manufactured. Recommended

Inter Scaldes (Kruinigen, Netherlands) – Though the border is a mere 20 minutes away from his restaurant, Jannis Brevart’s cooking is more highly influenced by the cuisine of France rather than the more progressive culinary scene in nearby Belgium. Seafood is Brevart’s thing, and visitors can rest assured that some top quality ingredients will find their way on to your plate. Unfortunately while the product is great, Brevart is not taking any chances. The result is a perfectly proficient meal, but one that you can have in dozens of restaurants in Europe. Two things in its favor are a lovely manor house with well-appointed rooms, and a really good list of white Burgundy’s to go with the fish. Recommended + 1/2

Kitty Fisher’s (London, UK) – Oliver Milburn, Tom Mullin and Tim Steel admire the great Basque restaurant, Elkano, to such an extent, that they had this crazy idea that they could open a restaurant in London that replicated Elkano’s cuisine. The result of their efforts? Sheer pandemonium among London’s dining community with access to reservations almost as difficult as being able to secure a bottle of Romanee Conti in a good vintage. Thomas Parry heads up the kitchen, and if he happens to be offering the 10 year old Galician beef on his menu that day, make sure not to miss it. Cozy, fun and friendly. Rumor has it the trio are already looking for a larger space. Recommended +

L’Alcove (Paris, France) – It was a Monday night in Paris and after a week of fine dining, I decided it was time for a night off. Cous cous seemed a good way to break the run of rich food, and I resorted to a recommendation from my go to guide for where to get a good casual meal in Pari which is David Leibowitz’s website. David listed two places that he recommended for cous cous: The famous Omar in the 3rd and a second place I had never heard of which was located in a former butcher shop in the deep reaches of the 14th named L’Alcove. I opted for the latter and found a charming little restaurant that specializes in grilled meats and four different daily cous cous preparations. I shall return, especially when I need the night off. Recommended

L’Huitrade (Paris, France) – Guy Savoy and Clement Leroy have opened this small but sweet oyster bar across the street from Guy Savoy’s former location on rue Troyon (now the location of D’Etoile-sur-Mer.) As to be expected, this is not your typical oyster bar, and on any given day, Clement will offer diners eight different types of oysters, each one sourced from a different artisan. Order a platter of one of each type and you will get a lesson in the art of oyster eating that cannot be had elsewhere. And after you are finished slurping them down, Clement is likely to show up at ypur table carrying a basket of Pied de Cheval: Oysters that have been cultivating for 20 years or longer and have grown to be the size of a man’s fist. Recommended

Le Baratin (Paris, France) – If you want to spot some of France’s top chefs having dinner on their night off, or after they have finished service, head to this super-casual restaurant in Paris’s Belleville District. That is where Raquel Carena and her husband Phillipe cater to the crème de la crème of the city’s gastronomic society. Considered the mother of the Bistronomy movement (IInaki Aizpitarte of Chateaubriand fame cut his teeth in Raquel’s kitchen), Carena served up a copious and enjoyable portion of sautéed sweetbreads, while my dining companion was presented with a Flintstone-sized shoulder of lamb. A fun place and the energy in the room is amazing as the people who are there absolutely love to eat. Recommended

Passage 53 (Paris, France) – Having visited this restaurant three years ago, it reappeared on my radar because of the numerous rave reviews I have been collecting about over the past two years. Given the word of mouth, it seemed prudent to give it a second try. And since Mrs. P had never been, I decided to book it for dinner on our only night in Paris. Well, little has changed since I was there last ( and the best way to describe my meal (which was totally enjoyable) is “Astrance lite." Co-owner and Maitre’d, Guillaume Guedj, does his best to make the experience as delightful as possible, and he makes for a good example of how much a host can add to your experience if he is good at his job. Recommended ++

Rakultur (Stockholm, Sweden)– Owned by the same group that operates the restaurants Esperanto and Shibumi, I ordinarily wouldn’t have chosen to have dinner Rakultur as it attracts mixed reviews from the OAD voters. But it was a Monday evening, and hardly anything in Stockholm was open. It was warm enough to be able to sit outside, and along with a terrace that was filled with diners, there was a lounge area and a DJ spinning dance music. It became apparent rather quickly that it was not a serious sushi restaurant, and it was more about serving patters of various rolls and pieces for dramatic effect. It wasn’t bad, but I was a bit disappointed at the quality of the fish which I thought would have been better given the quality of the cooked fish you find in Stockholm’s restaurants. Recommended

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (London, U.K.) – A number of people have told me that Clare Smyth has reinvigorated this restaurant where Gordon Ramsay first made his name. So I decided to pay the restaurant a visit for the first time in more than a dozen years. What you won’t find at the restaurant is anything in the way of new cooking. Having said that, it was a very pleasant meal and served with the type of panache that only the best French restaurants can offer. And as far as Clare’s cooking goes, as my British friends would say, it is “spot on." But when we left the restaurant, my dining companion turned to me and said, “I enjoyed that but I can’t think of a reason why I would want to eat that again." Recommended +1/2

Ron Gastrobar (Amsterdam, Netherlands) – I loved my meal at this casual restaurant on the edge of Amsterdam’s Apollo District. The menu is split into two sections: A series of small plates that are priced at 15 euros each. Then there is a second menu of assorted cuts of meat that are cooked over a charcoal grill. We opted for some of both, enjoying a superb dish of BBQ cabbage that was studded with smoked bone marrow as well as a plate of mashed potatoes topped with snow crab and covered in a shellfish sauce. Then we inhaled a ribeye of Holstein beef that was big enough for two, and which was served with more bone marrow and Bearnaise sauce. A perfect Sunday lunch. Recommended +

&Samhoud Places (Amsterdam, Netherlands) – Moshik Roth’s place was a tale of two restaurants. The first part of the tasting menu included a series of molecular dishes that we found to be nonsensical. But all of a sudden when we reached the fourth course on the tasting menu, the style of cooking changed, and dishes of red mullet, Oosterschelde lobster and German Wagyu beef were so good and so perfectly cooked that we had a difficult time imagining we were still in the same restaurant. I suspect that if you order from the ala carte menu, and avoid the gimmicky starters, you will really well. I would have given this a slightly higher rating but for those dishes at the start of the meal. Recommended + ½

Specerjet (Stockholm, Sweden) – This casual restaurant from the Gastrologik team of Jacob Homström and Anton Bjuhr has become a favorite with Stockholm’s foodie crowdl. The menu is limited to 3-4 different dishes daily. My visit coincided with the beginning of herring season and the version they served with new potatoes, crème fraiche and dill was a textbook example of how to prepare the dish. The environment is sparse (you sit on benches and stools) and it sort of reminded me of school lunches except with cool food. Recommended

Studio (Copenhagen, Denmark) – If the cooking at Studio is reminiscent of what you are used to eating at Noma, rest assured there is good reason for that as Torsten Vildgaard spent many years working as Noma’s head chef. Now that he is in charge of his own kitchen, one of the changes Torsten has made is to source some ingredients from outside of the region. A good example of how this has impacted his menu (in a extremely positive way) is a stunning dish of Italian caviar served in a pool of a thick almond milk. But to be honest, I expected a bit more inventiveness from someone who used to be in charge of the Noma Test Kitchen, and I felt as if Torston still has the brake on a bit. Come on Torsten, don’t be afraid to let it hang out. Recommended + ½

‘t Zilte (Antwerp, Belgium) - Given the stunning location on the top floor of Antwerp’s MAS Museum, and the beautiful décor in the room, I was expecting great things from Viki Geunes’ restaurant. But our meal was derailed by the chef’s urge to put too many ingredients on a plate. In fact I would go as far as saying that some dishes contained such an avalanche of ingredients, that a mere 6 weeks after my visit, I can hardly recall a single thing about the meal other than the cooking was proficient. Don’t get me wrong, nothing tasted bad or off. But the type of focus that I find in other Flemish kitchens was lacking from this experience. Recommended +