Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pretty. Bad. Food.

Pretty, eh? Well, not really. An unretouched photo of C restaurant's presentation at the Dr. Peter Centre fundraising foody event called Passions last Sunday. 18 restaurants offered their wares to attending funders. This was probably the worst.
I had never thought of C restaurant as a source of bad food. If anyone has slogged through 3 years of this blog, this person has only seen C portrayed as one of this city's best. We are on the ocean, why not have a great seafood restaurant? This was my first time to meet the chef and his chef de cuisine Quang Dang, a young Vietnamese phenom raved about in the latest issue of Vancouver magazine. The potatoes were good. Potatoes are always good. And then there was the salmon. I was stunned. This was hideous salmon. As the city's premiere seafood restaurant at a reception for the city/province's rich and famous who know good from bad salmon (probably true of everyone in this city who eats fish), how could they serve something so fishy? Is this the best salmon available? Then serve something else. It polluted the nobel potato. A snub to millions of starved Irish. An insult to those who know the difference between good and bad fish (if they needed another opinion, ask any bear or eagle!)., But still, I figured this must be an anomaly. C had "invited" me online as a preferred customer (I'd eaten there more than once) to share young Dang's tasting menu for somewhat less than its usual cost. Knowing this restaurant's long history of great seafood, and still awaiting the completion of kitchen renovation, eating out meant far more to me than it should.
In 1993, the city hosted a series of lectures from international scientists. The first was Stephen Hawkings. I was lucky enough to attend the reception after his lecture, and the smoked salmon was so good I didn't mind that Steve rolled over my foot with his wheel chair. When anyone rolls over your foot and you don't mind, that's what you'd have to call GOOD salmon. The salmon in this picture was antimatter to that Hawkings-inspired bite of ambrosia.
Come experience Chef de Cuisine Quang Dangs 10 Course Tasting Menu!
Poached Lobster Sunomono dashi jelly~
read the invite menu in my email box.
I walked from the central library over to this restaurant trying out my new hat. About 40 minutes, several miles and I didn't die of skin cancer. I guess the hat worked. I ordered a raspberry champagne cocktail and sooner than I expected, the sunomono appeared. Good thing I didn't spring for the wine pairing. Su no mono, in Japanese, means "vinegared things," and it is a kind of generic pickeled salad one can avoid in Japan about as easily as one can avoid green tea. It can be done, but you really have to work at it. This particular vinegared thing was a piece of lobster knuckle. Ok, good choice, in theory. The dashi jelly was fine. There was more than sufficient cucumber. I love cucumber, but this was excessive. Sunomono more than lobster. The cucumber aftertaste, magnified by the vinegar and not at all ameliorated by the far too subtle lobster, was less pleasent than I'd hoped, and only the seriously sweet raspberry beverage brought my palate back to stasis. The long walk had made me hungry. Get it on, C!
Smoked Chinook Belly maple pearls & ikura. Basil mayo
OK, Chinook belly is your test of British Columbia (and up and down the US coast) cuisine. If you can't do this right, you shouldn't be allowed near a plate, let alone a kitchen. People have been smoking salmon here longer than the words "smoke" and "salmon" have existed.
I'm enjoying the sun flowing through this raspberry beverage. Its bottom raspberry red slowly giving way to golden champagne bubbles catching the incoming sun, rising to meet some welcoming orange rind. Cold and pretty. Does its job.
Instead of choosing the wine pairing, luckily, the amuse-size portions paired serendipitously with the food. For awhile.
I really wish I'd brought my camera. Ridiculously pretty. The belly is good. Surprisingly good. I make the mistake of taking a sip of ice water with it, and its mystique is dispersed as abruptly as an alarm-interrupted dream. Fishy. Like the vile salmon at Dr. Peter, it reeked of its death. If you're gonna eat salmon, you gotta do something about that. In my case, it's not drink water with this. Engage in the ingreedients. The raspberry booze flows to the rescue. Ikura is a bad idea to begin with and the maple, at best, works with the sweet drink more than from within the interestingly sweetened salmon flesh. Perhaps too subtle a distinction, but at least, thanks to a lucky cocktail choice, my palate was having a good time.
Duck Proscuitto. Bay laurel. panna cotta. crunchy salad
Crunchy is good. Very buttery, but in a satisfying way. For a few bites. Duck is tasteless, but chewy. The waiter asked if I was unsatisfied and I said I was, leaving most of the buttery but quickly cloying custard as far from my palate as possible. In this case, ice water was my pal.
This was not a successful dish. I'm increasingly worried about the 10 courses I've signed up for.
I'm still coasting on the raspberry drink.
Cauliflower Soup. smoked trout. Pickled shallots. truffled brioche croutons
The cauliflower puree addition to my lobster at L20 the other week made me think that the vegetable and any given seafood had a good chance of being tasty. You have to taste the cauliflower influence for this to work, I would think. So I watched in anticipation as the waiter distriubted the pickeled shallots, smoked trout morsels and truffle enchanted croutons, then covered them with the caulifower soup. It reminded me of the pumpkin soup presentation at Cafe des Artistes in Puerto Vallarta. It. Looks. So. Good.
The crouton explodes with flavour. How can you lose with truffles? The trout's fishiness fights against the cauliflour flavour, and neither of them come out a winner. I eventualy realize, there is no cauliflavour! Although lingering fishy traces pollute the experience, most of my sips are pleasent. I give credit to the croutons for that. Each crouton explodes on cue to my delighted palate. The absence of cauliflower, uh, where were those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq anyway? I'm warmed by the soup, a comfort until they finally close the nearby doors. The croutons rise to the top of my experiences in this meal, like one would rise above one's dead body if momentary death experiences are to be believed. Troutiness trys to torpedo the uncauliflowred but still benificent experience. Raspberry to the rescue. Ok, new booze needed.
The waiter reccomends a Burrowing Owl pinot gris. I'd had one recently at my friends' place at a distant lake and wondered if this would be better. Much of the quality of wine for me depends, as a white or sparkling wine, on its coldness. Without that element, it works not.
Hot food. Cold wine, water, whatever. Hot tea, coffee, these are basic concepts.
Octopus Bacon Wrapped Scallops. pickled pemberton carrots. white truffle powder
The scallop is great. Sauce is great. Carrots seem pickled in a higher dimension of pickling. But the truffle powder..... I have a taste, and there is none. It's a kinda aginomoto a go go. I should be able to taste truffles, but alas. Might as well be corn starch. The chewiness of the scallop, like the chewiness in abalone just encountered in Chicago, an ally to taste posibilities. The sweet onion puree, not listed on the menu, is the surprise hit of the dish. The octopus has entered another universe, and its pickeled carrot companions taste of a higher level of pickeling. But the truffle powder rides off like the masked man. Where is Lenny Bruce when we need him?
Crispy Cape Scott Halibut. salt baked turnips. wilted summer squash chorizo & mushroom broth
I luxuriate in the aroma of the mushroom broth.
My first bite: bitter! What is this? The wine helps, but it's starting at a very low level. Doesn't say much for the wine. Am I missing something because of my immature palate or does it just not taste good? Am I supposed to care? The ingredients are functional, though the chorizo burns my tongue when tasted alone. The problem is the halibut. In my lifetime, I've never had a bad piece of halibut. I did not know such things existed. I kept chipping away at the "halibut" thingy on my plate, and it did not reveal its halibut essence. Or any exurb thereof.
I do believe the chef of C has done something I would never have believed possible. He has taken the fish my tongue most delights in and rendered it flavourless. Less than than that, incapable of successfully absorbing flavours. I love turnips, Saskatchewan peasent that I am, but these were useless. Uninspired would be too polite. Where were the troops? Bring in a good vegie and you can save almost anything, except the uninspired. The flavourless fish must have looked upon its impotence like Lee must have looked at the success of Pickett's charge.
Roasted Muscovy Duck. confit leg meat & fennel thyme corn bread lapin cherry jus
Gnocci overwhelmed by its beet neighbour. The waiter said it was herbed but there was no way of knowing. The first bite of duck was good and crispy, but the more I chewed, the gamier it got. I tried another piece and it was even gamier. It felt like the duck had just been shot on my tongue. Come back, Daffy. My uncle Fred loved shooting ducks so much, he has an image of a duck hunter shooting ducks on his tomb stone. I've had both good and bad duck, over many years. I frequently ate at The Duck Restaurant near where I worked in Tokyo in the 80s. But even by this duck lover's standards, this was unedible. The server asked if I wished another dish, and I declined, figuring I was here to review the promised meal, and I was already too full, of occasionally good food, to seek or be able to eat an alternative. The confit was quite good, buried in a micro-beet. The carrots, freed of their oppressive game invasion, were more than edible. But the main course, the slices of duck, tasted like it were slices of you a duck was eating.
Fresh Citrus Tasting
It successfully cleanesed my palate. Grapefruit and such. Yeah, and?
Moonstruck Blossom Blue
candied fennel~
I did not know this was a cheese, as it is not identified as such. It was a fantastic cheese. But my stomache had just been innundated with lesser foods. The fennel/cheese combo really worked, in the two bites I was able to consume. I was saddened by lack of greater capacity for this cheese.
There was an additional course involving chocolate, which I do not eat so I split after this meal. Chagrinned at its promise unfulfilled. It was not the worst meal of my life, and many bites, well, some, well, occasionally it worked, but the signature dishes, the halibut and duck were like having nuclear bombs dropped on your tongue.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Chicago 7: L20

I'd been reading about the new fish restaurant in http://www.egullet.org/ and the chef's almost daily blog since the place opened a few monthes ago. It was much bigger than we expected, unlike the tiny rooms we had been in at Charlie's and Alinea, with a stunning decoration upon entering the room. This was one well-planned restaurant, from the ambience, the specially made utensils, and the music composed specifically for L20. When I told our server I had last been to Chicago in 1955, he seemed to think that was when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Didn't seem to bother him, though.

The first amuse: clam in cucumber and apple water. This ain't your grandmother's clam chowder.

Lemon zest foam, really good. Underneath, some tasteless vegetables. A wonderfully smoky jelly. The raw fish at the bottom is avoided.

The menu is divided into raw courses, warm courses, main courses and "singulars." We are encouraged to substitute, which is great as none of the raw courses are edible for me. I have two warms, while E begins with this Hamachi (yellowtail), Tuna, Soy Sauce, Yuzu and Olive Oil. E is happy. It is served with some sake from Ishikawa Prefecture. The bubbly sommelier wonders why I burst out laughing at this announcement. E has to explain that Ishikawa is my last name. I had a sip, but of course, avoided the raw fish E was eating with it. May have been a good pairing.

My first warm is this dish of morels, asparagus, parmesan tubes with parsley. I told the waiter I wanted to compare L20's morel dish with Charlie's that so overwhelmed me two nights before. No competition at all. Although not bad, they were more filling than tasty. When the server asked my opionion, I told him the dish was culinary rather than rapturous. He claimed to know what I meant. He asked if he could serve me something else instead but I was ok with this.

Scallops, sassafras, hibiscus, tomato. Actually the scallops tasted better without the leaves. The sauce was pleasent and the little islands of flavour were appreciated and the wine pairing was helpful.

E's warm course: Santa Barbara Shrimp, red pepper, raspberry, cucumber. E is blown away. The tidbit I taste is astonishing, far superior to my scallops. To me, the raspberry tastes like tomato. E says, "the texture is perfect, I've never had prawns done so nicely before."

My main: lobster, Tahitian vanilla, chanterelle, watermelon radish, cauliflour, peach, taragon jelly. The sous-vide lobster was chewier than I expect at this level of dining. I kept expecting the peach to kick the lobster to another level, but waited in vain. The cauliflour sauce, on the other hand, really helped the lobster. E tastes carroway in the cauliflour sauce but the server tells us there is no such spice in it. The peach cube by itself is a peach-lover's delight. My final bite was of the last piece of lobster smothered in cauliflour puree and taragon jelly was great in my mouth and a great aftertaste lingered on. I really didn't want anything else after this.

E's main, King salmon, pea, radish, chorizo boullion, small finger.

The server highly reccommended this Singular dish: Amadai (snapper), crispy scales, leeks, ginger boullion, tapioca pearl. He said the chef was really proud of it. I asked about the other things on the singular menu, but this he said was the best. It was the best piece of fish I've ever eaten in a restaraunt. When E had some, she said the contrast in textures is really fun. I was stunned at the quality of this dish, though not too happy with the leeks. One was enough for me. But the fish! I wish I had only this dish, instead of filling up on all the other stuff. E called the server and said the chef had hit a homerun! If the Amadai were a batter, he could lead the Cubs to the World Series.

A passionfruit marshmellow. I saw the blog post about the creation of this sweet. Doesn't mean I could actually eat it. More because I was full and not a sweet eater than any problem with the dish.

Agave: tastes like fresh shaved fruit. A bit too sweet for me. Too cantelopy. Supposed to cleanse palate.

Grand Marnier and orange souffle. E was pleased that it wasn't as sweet as she expected. The server punched a hole in the top and poured in the orange sauce. It looked good to me, without me actually wanting to eat any.

They allowed me to take my cheese course "home." That was nice of them. E said this was the best of our 3 restaurants, in terms of the consistancy of the food. It wasn't great/horrible/great like some of the stuff in the other places. The sommelier was so effervescent, even if her pairings weren't up to our standards, it was delightful just to have her around.
All in all, this 4 day trip was about as much fun as I've ever had in any 4 day period of my life. E was relentlessly entertaining. The food at the hotel was pretty good too, though limited to breakfasts, lunches and small bar food items. In search of Chicago's famous Deep Dish Pizza, we lunched at Due the day we went to L20, and though I was too tired from previous night to really appreciate it, I'm glad to have the city's famous pie at it's home. I missed all the travelling Monets, but I'll be back. Hopefully without waiting another 53 years.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chicago 6: Walking Around Downtown

This is from the bar on the 96th floor of the Hancock bldg. No, it's not blurred because of the cocktail. A tripod would have been appreciated.

View from E's room on the 26th floor of our W Hotel. My room on the 21st had a nice view of Lake Michigan, but this is more interesting.

A historical landmark in Chicago, The Rookery, designed by Burnham who I'd just read about in the book The Devil in the White City.

Chicago downtown is a great mixture of old and new buildings.

I'm no fan of sculpture or Picasso, but this works for me.

A great Chagall tapestry.

The bandshell in Millennium Park, from a scenic distance.

Oh, I'm in Chicago. I thought I was in Europe! I'm not used to so much architectural beauty in a North American city.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chicago 5: Alinea

Alinea is the main reason I wanted to go to Chicago. Since I've been following restaurant ratings on The S. Pelligrino site, Alinea has been soaring up the list. As it's in the same city as long famous Charlie Trotters and new fish restaurant phenom L2O, when the opportunity came up to spend a few days with my cousin E and all this food, I was on my way.
When we arrived at Alinea for our 8:30 seating, an Alinean named Phil ushered us into the kitchen to watch the wizardry. Turns out he was familiar with Vancouver eateries, even having eaten at West, though unfortunately not trying one of E's brother's great cocktails.

We were first served a cocktail of Jane Ventura Cava with aloe pulp juice, Sauternes and vermouth to sip with the first amusey dish. The cocktail tasted like flowers, reminiscent of one of David's West cocktails. Alas, it did not cancel out the roe. The server gave us an elaborate description of this dish. There's some lemon foam and there's some Steelhead roe hand-harvested by Mr. Steelhead himself. Celery, grape, smoked salmon. Pictorially impressive. First taste: this is hideous. Then I had the foam without the roe and it grudgingly entered into the realm of the edible. The bits of smoked salmon are, at my politist, unsuccessfull. I'm afraid E and I drifted rather far from politeness in our descriptions of our disapointments. We'd had an excellent smoked salmon pizette back at the hotel in the afternoon, its unfishy salmoness far superior to what passed for poisson in our first dish. A vertiginous fall from last night's heights Chef Trotter had brought us to. Ok, this is only the first of many. The cava sure tastes good. The flowers bloom on.

There's an oyster in there somewhere. I hope it don't kill me. Also yuzu. Always loved yuzu. Yuzu vs Oyster, move over Godzilla. Which titanic taste will prevail?

Starts with peanut butter from distant childhood. Then, the yuzu of my early adulthood in the land of wondrous flavours. There's seaweed in there, but it doesnt taste so much like seaweed as it tastes like a freshly invented vegetable. Extraordinary. Oystermonster has been banished from my perception. A triumph. NO ONE has ever done that, served me oyster I didn't immediately want to regurgitate. Your body's chemical tolerances do not lie, no matter the genius of the chef.

Tomato: basil, mossarella, olive oil.
A bunch of frozen foam of some nature. A yellow tomato cube that tasted heirloomy. There's an intense basil which I love. But mostly, I'm being filled up with air. I think I'm basically gonna stop eating this.

Cant drink the cava cuz the basil will cancel its florality and the water isn't washing the basil imperium away and the appropriate wine has already been used up with its appropriate tomato cubisms. The wines kinda work but not what you'd expect at a restaurant like this. As a last resort, I consider the basil quenching properties of Alinea's fine bread. E insists I have some of its equally exquisite butter. She is right. I try and avoid restaurant bread like the plague but this works. In Tiny quantities. (no bread pic here. use your imagination)
Rouget: artichoke, garilc, bottarga. I looked up Rouget and it said sweet fish. I wish.
Fish is subtly explosive, if there is such a thing. There's kind of a cheesy aftertaste, which you don't expect from a piece of fish. Oh yeah, there's parmesan or whatever it is. It sticks to my teeth. Still, a much more satisfying experience than that eucalyptus I'd just been given, and I love eucalyptus, but as I told the guy, tastes like a cough drop.

The red thing didn't taste like artichoke to me but it tasted suggestively good and I do love artichokes. I had another bite of the fish and it was frighteningly bad. Without the artichoke and cheese, I wish it were not in my mouth.

Cobia: tobacco, radish, cedarwood.
I ask the guy, is this sugi? He doesn't know. It's sugiesque. One of the best smells in the world. Japanese bars, Japanese boxes, and many other things are full of this aromatic wood. This dish trys much more successfully than in other courses using scent, to use the aroma of this wondrous wood to enhance the flavour of whatever it is I'm supposed to be eating. A radish? A good idea.

I am suddenly in a party. A Japanese party. Appreciable things are appropriately appreciated.

The shiny think is a cellophane made out of chamomille. The rest isn't as memorable.

Nasturtium. abalone ginger eggplant. Considerable manual dexterity.

Abalone expands in pleasure the more you chew. The soup neither increases nor decreases the quality of the food.

E demonstrates the Hot Potato dish, full of tools and processes but no better tasting than a potato you would cook at home, though E enjoyed hers.
In the Sept. 2008 edition of Vancouver magazine, local chef Angus An, whose food I so enjoyed at Gastropod, spoke of his time at the molecular gastronomy epicentre, The Fat Duck in the UK. He describes "chefs using ostentatious techniques just to show they could, with no respect for ingredients." Kinda reminded me of this dish, and Alinea in general. We had the impression Charlie really cared about his ingredients, and the servers went on at great length about how and where the got them. Doesn't seem to be the operational philosophy here.
Transparency of raspberry, rose petal, yogurt. Fondness of modern sculpture.
It really did taste like raspberries. Just giving me a raspberry would have worked just as well.

Puke in a tube.

Lobster: popcorn, butter, baby corn. I love lobster and this really worked for me. The wine pairing however, magnified the corn, perhaps not the the ingredient I would have chosen to magnify. The mango cube is exquisite. Molecular gastronomy done right. I'm so full after this meal I have difficulty contemplating more food.

Black truffle explosion, romaine, parmesan. This was the dish I was waiting for, the chef's signature dish from his previous restaurant. I ate it. It was Ok. I'm no longer waiting.

Yuba (a soy product): shrimp, miso, tagarashi.
Slowly the orange floats to the surface, like a very ill jelly fish. Aside from the orange, there's nothing. E convinces me to persevere and I do find the shrimp, but it's no great find. An aftertaste of fried nothingness.

The vanilla bean thing E is demonstrating here was great when it was in my mouth but the paired cup of tea didn't dissolve it sufficiently so my mouth is full of sticky bits. Gross.
Not shown, the short rib, Guinness, peanut and fried broccoli that flashed me back to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my childhood, not the sort of memory I expect or even care for with beef. The wine pairing wasn't so much as pairing as it was a glass of wine next to me and some food. A nefarious coincidence.
A refreshing watermelon palate cleanser with green coriander, tamari and bonito. Also something called Oxalis Pot (sweet, hot, sour, salty, instantly foregetable). Epoisses: fig, coffee, tarragon and Rhubarb with ginger and basil. E deduced we were supposed to eat these small things all at the same time, instead of individually. To appreciate them at their peak would mean forgoing photography, conversation or contemplation, just cramming oddities in your mouth.
Lamb, potato, sunflower foam, sweet spice. The foam was fantastic, a good reason to come here for. The wine didn't make it any worse, but neither did it make the dish any better.
Some of the last courses were so stunningly bad, I seemed to be entering new territory in the opposite direction from Charlie's last night. We eventually left without finishing the whole Tour.
As we left Charlies (and headed over to the bar on the 96th floor of the Hancock building for some Very scenic cocktails), we were so stuffed we wondered if we could get stomach transplants. As we were filling up at Alinea, there was no thought of getting new stomachs for more great food, just a kind of soddeness. I wondered if I was out of my league in terms of fine dining, not prepared for the subtleties I'd just encountered. Maybe traveling around to great restaurants isn't such a good idea after all. Maybe I was just depressed from this particular dining experience. The experiments I think are a good thing. Why have food only cooked in familiar ways, if there are new ways that can expand our pleasure from the suddenly available interplay of ingredients and techniques? But like all experiments, failure is the sea and success only the miraculously rare fish.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Chicago 4: Architecture, etc

E suggested we take an architectural boat tour of the Chicago river. The docent made it particularly interesting.
I've never been in a Frank Lloyd Wright building before, though I passed the Guggenheim in NYC on a bus and saw a replica of the Imperial Hotel at an outdoor architecture park near Nagoya. This Robie House was the one opened for a tour, at least partially. It reminded me of what I remember of the Imperial Hotel.

The tour guide pointed out how Wright liked to hide the entrances to his homes.

This University of Chicago structure is accross the street, and obviously influenced by the Robie House (also owned now by the U). I had just read Naomi Klein's great book The Shock Doctrine on the plane to Chicago, about the great evil done to the world by University of Chicago professors and students. Here we were at the centre of it all.

This is Wright's house and studio. Instead of waiting 2 hours for the tour, we just walked around the outside.

Wright didn't just design buildings. His love of creative detail is amazing.

Another view of the Wright house.

Some Art Glass windows in his studio, no doubt also designed by Wright.

Another house designed by Wright in the Oak Park neighbourhood, also invoking the Imperial Hotel.

Another Wright house.

Yet another. Not sure how many there are but these were great to look at, from the outside.

Very weird gargoyles on the city library. Not designed by Wright, though he may have dreamed of them.

After all the architecture, we went to the Stain Glass Museum in Navy Pier, accross from our hotel. E remarked that this scene looked like from a Russian fairy tale, perhaps one our grandparents would have known.

Our hotel, the W on Lakeshore. Despite the fact the safe in my room didn't work the first day and my room wasn't cleaned on the 3rd day, not a bad place.

We got a holiday package which included some free cocktails from the W's bar. This fruit punch was pretty good. When the desk clerk was giving us our drink vouchers, she asked us, "Do you Both drink?" We're still laughing at that.

E's cocktail had cucumber, mint and other things. E keeps poking it to make sure it's still there.