Thursday, December 17, 2009

Benoit Alain Ducasse: Does NYC Need Another French Bistro?

Benoit,Alain Ducasse,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photograhy
Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Bread Pouch,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Onion Soup,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Goat Cheese Salad,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Cassoulet,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Braised Halibut,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Sirloin Steak,Benoit,New York,French Bistro,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
I wasn't doing a blog in the 80's, nor was I interested in food. Well, besides Fruit Roll Ups and Ring Pops. Remember those? So I wasn't around to see the great French Bistro explosion that took New York City by storm. Bistros such as The Odeon apparently sprung up every week during this boom time. It quickly faded away as fast as it came, but now it seems that there are more and more French style Bistros opening up in the city. Don't get me wrong, I love it. The Bistro is my favorite kind of restaurant and they serve my favorite kind of food. The fact that New Yorkers are embracing this trend again makes tears come to my eyes and butterflies flutter in my stomach. Among all the new Bistros is Alain Ducasse's, Benoit.

The place was almost completely empty when we walked in, but 6:30pm is fairly early to eat dinner in New York. I hate it when I go into a restaurant that has more staff then they know what to do with. It always feels like I'm being swarmed by Killer Bees. Dozens of people hovered over us inspecting our every move. Each time I took my camera out at least 4 employees were looking at me like I was a stain on their untarnished restaurant. The decor is lovely in Benoit, it felt exactly like I was in a proper French Bistro on the Champs Elysees, or Montmartre.

Needless to say, we were waited on very quickly. The waiter took our drink orders, then another man brought us bread in a fabulous Benoit cloth pouch. A nice touch. Not as nice as Bouchon, where the bread is thrown straight onto the tablecloth, but close. Our wine, a Twenty Rows Cabernet, in a lovely carafe came out first. It was followed swiftly by my Onion Soup Gratinee, which was among the best Onion Soups I've ever had. The cheese was melted and browned to perfection. The Onions were ripe and delicious. It was also possibly the hottest thing I've ever put into my mouth and I still have the Ulcers on my tongue to prove it. My wife had the Goat Cheese Salad with Candy Beets, Tomato and Avocado. This was a strikingly simple, but wonderfully flavored dish. The Beets were tender, but crispy at the same time and the tastes were married nicely.

For my main I had Cassoulet, which is Jean-Jacques Rachou’s recipe. I had actually never had Cassoulet before and this was a wonderful first taste. It is likely the most filling dish I know. While eating it, I was transported to a small French farmhouse. I could imagine myself sitting at a rustic table, eating my Cassoulet, while La Vie En Rose played on an antique Phonograph, the sound muffled and scratchy. Anyway, back to reality. After my Cassoulet was finished and my belly felt like it was about to explode and ruin the waiters mood completely, I decided a little break was in order. But not before trying my wife's Braised Halibut with Sautéed Chanterelle Mushrooms, Root Vegetables and Champagne Sabayon. Now, I have had a lot of Fish from Bistros before and I always marvel at the richness, the complexity and the depth of the Bistro style Fish. But not this time. No, this was bland and boring. There's no other way to describe it. I decided to move onto Simple Foodie's Sirloin Steak Aux Poivres with Mixed Vegetables. Normally Simple Foodie orders the best thing on the menu, he always has, but not this time. The Steak was cooked very well and it was among the most tender Steaks I've ever tasted, but it was also one of the most...hmmm, how do I say this without repeating myself? There's no way to do it, BORING.

That was pretty much the theme of Benoit. I truly enjoyed the atmosphere, especially the couple sitting to our right. They were like something out of a Woody Allen movie. Clearly they ate at Benoit on a regular basis as they knew everyone by name and they actually had the Chef prepare meals that were off the menu. I didn't speak to my fellow diners almost the entire meal because I was too enthralled in their conversation. They were stereotypical New Yorkers from a bygone era. They were loud, they ate with their mouths open like they were at a cattle trough and they complained about absolutely everything. It was a life changing experience.

Our waiter asked us if we wanted any Dessert and I had to refuse. The Cassoulet did me in. I can't say that I would ever go back to Benoit again. The food was so, so and later that evening I woke up with food poisoning. I have no idea what caused it. An email to the restaurant was answered with a refund and the excuse that no one else informed them of any illness from the food that night. Oh well, thankfully there are many more Bistros in New York to explore.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Benoit on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Spotted Pig: New York's Gastropub

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The Spotted Pig,New York,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography
Burger,The Spotted Pig,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography,New York
Apple Salad,The Spotted Pig,Passport Foodie,New York,Taylor Young Photography
Fried Eggs,Homefries,Passport Foodie,Taylor Young Photography,New York
I love the holidays in the U.S. It seems like we all come together a bit more and can tolerate one another more than usual and are more considerate of each other. Well, some of us. Not the lovely young woman that let the wind take her shopping cart from her hands, which subsequently slammed into my car the other day. I managed to keep it together and didn't say anything. I just gave her a look of total astonishment and a quick holiday smile.

There is one thing I miss most during the holidays in the U.S. and that's a good 'ole English Pub. More importantly, I miss the wood burning fireplaces, the greasy, fattening comfort food and the gentle chill of a perfectly poured pint as it makes its way down my throat and into my tummy. There is only one city in the U.S. where I know I can find something similar to the genuine English Pub, New York City of course. But I wanted to go to a really good one, being close to Christmas and all that. I did an internet search for One Star Michelin restaurants in NYC and came across The Spotted Pig.

It was a perfect day in NYC, there was a slightly cold wind, but the sky was a beautiful blue and there wasn't a cloud in sight. When I lived in NYC I always enjoyed days like this. It made my 400 square foot, $2,400 a month rent almost bearable. Almost!

Entering The Spotted Pig I was instantly transported to a Village Pub in England. This could have been Speldhurst, or Bray, or Colemans Hatch. But it wasn't, it was Greenwich St. in New York City. Once seated I was struck by the hundreds and hundreds of pig photos, wooden pig dolls and pig paintings. There was no mistaking where I was. We were handed our menu and at 11am we ordered our first pints of Guinness.

The menu at The Spotted Pig is very straightforward. They don't clog it with dozens of items, it is clean and inviting. Only a handful of minutes passed before we were eating. My Two Fried Eggs with Homefries were very traditional, but it wasn't worth the $13 price tag. The best part of it was the Caramelized Onions. A very tasty dish, just not $13-tasty. I had heard a lot about the Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestrings and I was most excited to try it. Again, this was a bit of a let down. The Shoestrings were magic, but the Burger had too much bread and the Patty was nothing to stand up and cheer about. I've had better Burgers for $2. To pay $17 for this is almost laughable. Next up was the Apple Salad with Mrs. Quicke’s Cheddar & Walnuts. A playful little dish, but again, and I feel odd saying this, but it simply wasn't worth $16. It was small for one and the flavors were very muted. I'm sorry to say but, the whole meal was actually just a bit... BLAH.

How on Earth did The Spotted Pig get One Michelin Star? There is a debate going on about this right now. Some say that The Michelin Guide is off its rocker here in America. That they give stars to restaurants in the U.S. that wouldn't normally have anything above a mention in the French guides. I have to say, I thought that was was crap before, but judging by the Michelin Restaurants I've eaten at in the U.S. recently I have to say I agree. Oh well, it was nice to eat at New York's idea of an English Gastropub. I still miss the real thing though.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bouchon: Where Thomas Keller Eats After The French Laundry

Bouchon,Thomas Keller,Yountville,Passport Foodie
Bouchon,Bread,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Bouchon,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Bouchon,Passport Foodie,Thomas Keller,Yountville
Quiche,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Pate,Bouchon,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Bouchon,Passport Foodie,Thomas Keller,Yountville
Bouchon,Passport Foodie,Thomas Keller,Yountville
Bouchon,Steak and Frites,Passport Foodie,Thomas Keller,Yountville
Cabernet Franc,Bouchon,Thos,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Bouchon,Passport Foodie,Yountville,Thomas Keller
Pot de Creme,Bouchon,Yountville
Bouchon,Passport Foodie,Yountville,Thomas Keller
Bouchon,Thomas Keller,Passport Foodie,Yountville
Please excuse my long absence. I have been extremely selfish. You see, my French Laundry post was so perfect, not in writing, or photos, but the subject, that is has been hard to compose further entries. Luckily, Thomas Keller has more than one restaurant and I feel it's only fitting to follow up my last entry, with Bouchon. A restaurant, Thomas Keller admittedly started because he needed a place to eat after working at The French Laundry.

It resides only a block, or so away from The French Laundry, but even so, it's an entirely different restaurant. Modeled after a French Bistro, down to the bar with ice shavings, housing a selection of Oysters. We were seated rather quickly and immediately felt a rush of energy. This is perhaps the noisiest restaurant I have ever been to. Waiters scurry around, sweat dripping from their intensely focused foreheads. We were greeted by a panicked, red headed, portly waiter, who wore a Breitling. Clearly Bouchon pays more than your average restaurant.

He took our order and a few minutes later his musty hands came flying across my face and a pile of French Baguette crashed on the table. Butter followed soon after. It was such a beautiful site, I didn't even care. All I could concentrate on was the swirly, toasty, golden bread. The Butter was even more stunning. On the top rested a small, round piece of paper. And printed on that piece of paper was the Bouchon logo. A small, twirling balloon, or beach ball. Whatever it was, it was a treat. The bread was soaked up by our hungry mouths and just as I was putting the last piece of bread in my mouth, I was handed a Pastis from my friend, the waiter.

Up first was, of course, the Quiche du Jour. A wonderfully prepared example of this classic dish. The fluffy Eggs felt like there was nothing there at all. Paired with some beautiful greens, this dish could be my staple. Next was the Pate de Campagne, which is a country style Pate with Watercress, Cornichons & Radishes. I have been accused of being a little too hard on Pate, favoring instead a wonderfully prepared Foie Gras. But not this time. This Pate was stunning. It didn't taste like it came from a tube, but instead had fabulous flavors of Zinc, Copper and Must. The tangy Watercress and Cornichons helped balance the bold, mature flavor of the Pate.

As soon as the Hors-D'Oeuvres were taken away and my stomach was starting to feel sated, we were presented with a magical decanter of Cabernet Franc, blended for Bouchon, and shortly after that our Main Courses arrived. I was having the Magret de Canard et sa Cuisse Confite, which consists of a Roasted Duck Breast & Crispy Duck Leg Confit with Savoy Cabbage, Chanterelles, Musquee de Provence & Huckleberry Gastrique. I have almost always found Duck to be both gamey and almost always fatty. This time however, it was different. This time, it was pure perfection. It was like eating a very tender piece of Steak, which had been injected with a slight bit of game and the fat taken out of it. The sauce was like heaven in liquid form.

On the plate to my right sat a Roasted Chicken with Red Wine Poached Pears, Mustard Greens, Fingerling Potatoes & Whole Grain Mustard Jus. When I say that this is the best Chicken I have ever eaten, I am not saying it because I had too much Cabernet Franc, or because I was on holiday in Napa and felt happy. No, I am saying it because it's true. Chicken is not supposed to be as succulent, or as flavorful as Beef, but it was. To test my taste buds I next had a bite of my wife's Steak Frites. A Pan-Seared Prime Flatiron Steak, served with Maitre d'Hotel Butter & French Fries. A very nice steak. Not even close to as nice as the Chicken though. And later that Steak was actually sent back to the kitchen because of a rather large piece of fat running through the middle. It was inedible. The waiter quickly made the very good excuse of, "Well, we do tell people when they order their steak raw that this can happen." Hmmm... he must have gone to the same school of bullshit as I did, because he was no more convincing than I am when I lie to my wife about how much money I spent on wine.

For Dessert was a lovely Pot de Creme. This is my ideal Dessert. It isn't heavy and doesn't leave one feeling guilty. It's simple and delicious. Paired with a wonderful Double Espresso and I was off in another land. Bouchon has that ability to transport one straight to Paris. Everything at Bouchon is done to make one feel like they are at a Bistro in France. From the Pistachio Green paint, to the painted pictures on the wall with French translations underneath, this restaurant is a true gem. No wonder he's opening another one in Beverly Hills. If Thomas Keller could replicate this same quality and ambiance 100 times and do it the same in each restaurant, he would be the wealthiest chef on Earth. There is no question. The prices are very fair for what you get. It was about $60 a person with wine. I would happily pay that again and much more if there were a Bouchon near me.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Bouchon on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 23, 2009

The French Laundry: Xanadu For Foodies

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As I sit here thinking about all the various ways I can communicate the brilliance of The French Laundry, there is literally an eruption of harps, violins and piano keys creating furious and robust music in my mind. I feel like Beethoven composing his beautiful Fifth Symphony. However, I am not Beethoven. I am a humble Foodie, serving his peers. I hope my review of The French Laundry conveys to you, my reader, what pure Foodie heaven tastes like.

The French Laundry in Yountville, CA appears, from the outside, to be a modest establishment, tucked away in the corner of a residential area. If one were not up to date on all things food, they would easily miss it driving through Napa Valley. Many probably have. I had a reservation that was booked two months prior. I was well fasted, having been on a diet for two weeks and ready to expand my waistline. And I was ready to dine in what many call the best restaurant in the U.S. if not the world. As I pulled up to The French Laundry I noticed a piece of land directly opposite the restaurant. There were little signs which looked like they had the name of the restaurant printed onto them. Upon further inspection I realized that this plot of land was where The French Laundry grew all of their vegetables. The same vegetables that were going to grace my plate tonight, were probably basking in the sun, taking in their last few moments of fresh air before being picked, chopped and put into something I would graciously devour later.

This was a good start. Never have I been to a restaurant where the food was grown right outside. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Eat Local." Once seated, our waitress Shannon handed us the menus and explained both sides of it to us. One side was the Chefs Tasting Menu... and well, the other side was also the Chefs Tasting Menu. However, the right side was dedicated to an all Vegetable Menu. While Shannon delivered her 15 minute, in depth description of both sides, I was almost tempted to order the Vegetable Tasting Menu and then my carnivorous, cave-dwelling ancestors popped into my head and that was the end of that. All three of us had the Chefs Tasting Menu, accompanied by a bottle of 2007 Crozes Hermitage La Guiraude. A powerful wine, with a huge mouth and a giant finish of blackberry and current. Lovely.

A few minutes later we were brought a bit of bread and butter, followed by three small, rolled Puff Balls with a Cheese filling. This was followed by Salmon Tartare with Salmon Mousse and Cream Cheese in a Cone. Which was incredibly flavorful. For starters I had "Oysters and Pearls" with Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. It was served with a mother of pearl spoon and at this moment I realized where I was and why The French Laundry had received so much attention, for so long. This was followed nicely by a "Tarte Byaldi Du Jardin" with Petit Lettuces, Parmesan Cream and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. Next was a "Soft Shell Crab En Feuille De Bric" with Sunchokes, Celery Branch and Black Truffle. That was followed by a "Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Mitts" with French Laundry Garden Beets, English Cucumbers, Pearl Onions, Horseradish Creme Fraiche and Beet Essence. Without a doubt, this was a defining moment in my life. Never had I tasted Crab Meat this good. Not in Maine and not in any other restaurant. I would have been happy to end the meal here. But it continued...

As an in between course we were treated to a specialty that Chef Thomas Keller created for the movie, Ratatouille. It was of course, Ratatouille, with small pieces of Lettuce and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. I felt like Ego, the evil food critic in the film and wanted to run around my rural village in France, dancing and playing. Anyone who hasn't seen the film should probably go see it. That sentence will make much more sense to you.

After our Ratatouille we had the "All Day Braised Salmon Creek Pork Jowl" with Three Bean Salad, Toy Box Tomatoes and Sherry Vinaigrette. How can Chef Keller possibly take these ingredients and merge them into a seamless thing of beauty? Well, he does. And he did it again with a "Snake River Farms Calotte De Boeuf Grillee" with Pommes Darphin, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Savoy Spinach and Sauce Colbert. I feel like a schoolboy saying this again, but Chef Keller had now produced the best steak I have ever eaten. It was tender, juicy and had a flavor that would make a preacher commit the worst kinds of sin in order to indulge in this sensual meat.

Dessert started off with a bang. The "Andante Dairy Cavatina" with Jacobsen's Farm Figs, Marcona Almonds, Arugula and Pimenton Essence was so good, that I wanted to write to Mr. Fig Newton and tell him he should be ashamed and urge him to close his factory. Next was the "Moonglow Pear Sorbet" with Chai Tea Sable and Jacobsen's Farm Roasted Pears. But it didn't stop there. This was just getting us ready for the next course. A "Gateau Saint Nazier Au Manjari" with Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet. After dessert I ordered a Double Espresso, which was perfectly prepared and as good as anything I've had in Italy, or France. It was paired with not one, but two courses of Petit Fours.

There is one aspect of this meal that I have yet to touch on. After our Steak, Shannon came over and said there would be a little pause in between courses. And that if we'd like, she would show us down to the kitchen. A look of astonishment and bewilderment quickly fell over all the diners. Myself included. As we blindly followed her down the stairs, blank, dumbfounded expressions tattooed on our faces, we entered the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in the world. I looked around in awe and then something amazing happened. I was tapped on the shoulder by one of my fellow diners and just as I was about to turn around to give them a verbal thrashing for interrupting my moment, a face appeared. It was that of Chef Thomas Keller. A large grin adorned his face and he shook my hand with odd familiarity. Like we were long lost friends. "What the hell is going on?" I thought to myself. Celebrity Chefs are supposed to be mean, cursing, English bastards... well, at least one of them is. Sorry Gordon. Chef Keller is none of those.

He showed us around the kitchen, signed some menus and The French Laundry cookbook and then showed me something truly spectacular. A 42 inch LCD TV in the kitchen. It was not the TV that impressed me, it was the images on the screen. Dozens of hands and fingers working feverishly. Chef Keller turned to me and said, "that's my other restaurant, Per Se in New York. I monitor them at all times." After a few more handshakes I closed my mouth, wiped the drool from my chin and collected my things. Shannon brought us back to the table and after about 15 minutes of smiling I returned to the task at hand. Having the best meal of my life, with two of my favorite people, my wife and my best friend. Who later told me he had emailed The French Laundry and arranged for us to meet Chef Keller. This entry is dedicated to you old friend. I wish everyone on Earth could be as blessed as I am. Dinner at The French Laundry would certainly be a start. So get on the phone and start dialing. You will not be disappointed.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

French Laundry on Urbanspoon