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Restaurant Review

Restaurants: Ramon Freixa, Madrid

Usually, two dozen or more course tasting menu marathons actually involve that many courses in succession, one after another, until you start imagining your fork to be swirling lemon macarons.

The restaurant Ramon Freixa in Madrid’s ritzy Hotel Unico in the elegant Salamanca shopping and residential neighborhood, in theory, provides you that many miniature bites while experiencing the tasting menu. You’ll have roughly the same number of tastes as at any of the world’s great tasting menu temples that Vanity Fair‘s Corby Kummer earlier this year deemed “totalitarian.” Ramon FreixaExcept, each “course” at Ramon Freixa has close to four components that aren’t merely “tastes.” The entertaining English translations breaks down the tasting menu into “The Beginning” (essentially four amuse-bouches), “The Origins” (crisp wafers covered covered and “salchichón” salami, along with a fried sardine dish), “The Previous” (four more small bites at one time), then the “Courses” (4 sets of courses with 3-4 creations within each course), “Sweet Wait” (a Black Forest themed chocolate mousse and cherry number), “Dessert” (again, one course with four different plates), and then your finishing chocolate bites. This makes football game plans seem elementary.

Looking back at the sheer amount of food set before me over the course of three and a half hours this past summer, it’s startling that I felt merely content afterwards. Perhaps that’s what Madrid’s 95 degree July weather does to you. It’s good for sweating all that jamon Iberico off.

"Crac- oil- thyme" and stuffed olives with Vermouth

“Crac- oil- thyme” and stuffed olives with Vermouth

It’s a different tasting menu method than I’m used to. For better or worse organization-wise, and I’d say more for the worse since you’re more likely to let something get cold, Freixa’s kitchen yielded a tomato- centric concept and a goat dish that might hold off stiff competition at the end of December for 2013’s dish of the year. Then again, I’d have to choose between the two. That won’t be trivial. (more…)


Restaurants: Roca Moo, Barcelona

Just because the three Roca brothers behind the newly anointed San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 “Best Restaurant in the World” are behind Roca Moo doesn’t mean you should stroll into the dining room expecting world class excellence. You will be disappointed. The single Michelin starred Roca Moo in Barcelona isn’t trying to be like its sibling, El Celler de Can Roca, the glittery three Michelin starred destination an hour northeast up the Costa Brava in the countryside medieval town of Girona. Earlier this year, El Celler de Can Roca replaced the Copenhagen restaurant Noma for the world’s best title.
Roca Moo isn’t trying to be El Celler de Can Roca or Noma.

Roca Moo

Roca Moo

Unfortunately, even reasonable expectations for a restaurant of Roca Moo’s ambition aren’t met. It’s a strange experience that dabbles in its lofty potential from time to time, while altogether making you feel empty. It’s a restaurant currently with no personality. Does it want to be more refined and genre- defying like El Celler de Can Roca? Does it want to be more like a baby “gastrobistro,” of which Barcelona right now seems to have more of than Gaudi designed structures? Does it just want to be a sleek, hipper than thou boutique hotel restaurant with the façade of being an exceptional restaurant? The latter is what I took away walking away to the Passeig de Gracia unfulfilled. I wanted to go to Girona. (more…)


Restaurants: Blackbird, Chicago

Aged meat and dishes merging surf and turf are two of the most challenging concepts for a kitchen to pull off without a hitch. Something almost always seems to go off the deep end for both.

That precious half year aged chateaubriand might taste more of provocative black garlic than sensuous, relentless meat. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a lobster and filet mignon dish where the filet is grilled as long as the lobster is steamed, and you end up wishing you just ordered twice as much lobster? Or that pork belly and scallop concoction where the poor subtle scallop is dominated by overwhelming smoky bacon notes because that’s what pork belly does to everything?

IMG_1958For those who are weary about aged meat, surf and turf, and the state of 21st century fine dining in general, now is an ideal time to head over to Chicago’s red hot West Loop neighborhood for a visit with what must be considered one of the definitive restaurants of this generation, Blackbird.

Did I mention that Blackbird opened in December of 1997 and is just as engaging now as it was on that (probably very cold being Chicago) night back in the Clinton years. Back when Michael Jordan was in the midst of his final Bulls championship season and back when the Cubs had recently won a World Series. O.k., that last remark obviously isn’t so true, but come on, you can’t write a Chicago article without mentioning the Billy Goat curse. Hey, Sammy Sosa’s record home run year with Mark McGwire still hadn’t happened yet.

There is no Billy Goat or usual restaurant curse for Blackbird, extraordinarily defying the odds for restaurants to survive beyond a decade without becoming stale and irrelevant. Nor is there any goat on the menu currently at Blackbird, like at a certain nearby, just as popular, but much younger neighbor on West Randolph.

However, there is aged duck breast currently being served. It is majestic. There is also a handsome dry-aged striploin with the common pairing of chanterelle mushrooms, and the not- so common, seaweed pesto. (more…)


Restaurants: Hinoki & The Bird, Los Angeles

We can all learn a few lessons about taking a step back and re-inventing yourself from David Myers. It hasn’t been an easy road for such an immensely gifted chef. If ever there was an example of how a chef must be both a businessman and innovative entrepreneur in the hyper competitive restaurant world of today, here it is. With Myers’ latest opening of Hinoki & The Bird in February, the chef has once again proven his strength of executing a focused, detailed vision in the front and back of the house into one of Los Angeles’ premier dining experiences.

Perhaps the bird with Hinoki is a phoenix, rising high above the Century City office towers to tell diners across the vast traffic-clogged metropolitan landscape that Myers is back, folks. The Los Angeles restaurant of the moment is not a pop-up. It’s not a tricked-out truck. It’s here, with a head-scratching name, at the bottom of the most expensive condo building west of the Mississippi.

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Myers has teamed with a longtime protege of his Kuniko Yagi to craft this Silk Road inspired concept that really can’t be pigeon holed into a specific cuisine or style. The indoor-outdoor patio and cocktail fueled vibe certainly is pure Los Angeles. A dish of kale “crispy and raw” certainly fits in these parts. Chili crab toast with spicy cucumber veers towards Singapore, while pumpkin toast layered with goat cheese and an almost fruity miso jam borrows from the classic Malaysian street vendor dish. Sambal skate wing echoes Indonesia. Crispy marinated chicken wings would be right at home in a Shinjuku izakaya. Caramel braised pork belly follows the direction of claypot chicken from Vietnam, made famous by Charles Phan with his iconic dish at San Francisco’s The Slanted Door.

Lobster rolls? Clam chowder? Are we at Har-vuhd Yahd? No, this lobster roll is definitely not what you eat in the rough along the Maine coast and the chowder wouldn’t exactly be similar to what you’d find at Durgin Park.

What Myers and Yagi have created is a restaurant that invigorates assorted loose inspirations from all around Asia, prepared then with a serene Japanese aesthetic, and fully unafraid to borrow influences from anywhere in this country or the world. It’s a bold risk by Myers to not follow a clear path and he completely hits the mark spot on. Who really needs to be so specific when describing a restaurant? Even the menu descriptions are barely one step above vague. And yet, with all of the gorgeous diners accenting the suave surroundings inside the bustling room or the glittering outside covered patio, there is a wonderfully clear narrative leaving the kitchen. This is an intensely personal restaurant of Myers’, one that you knew would be the project to bring him to the top ring of this city’s dining scene again. (more…)


Restaurants: La Ciccia, San Francisco

To fall in love with Sardinia’s cuisine, all you need to experience is a few bites of Massimiliano Conti’s spaghetti with bottarga and spicy olive oil. It doesn’t sound complicated and it isn’t. It doesn’t seem at first to be much more than a lighter sun-splashed, seafaring version of spaghetti and meatballs. But, my goodness the intensity of every dimension put together on this plate by Conti. I’ve heard stories of diners booking tickets to Sardinia the next day because of eye-opening dinners at the incredibly humble La Ciccia. I’m guessing a few of those diners officially announced those vacation plans immediately after encountering the spaghetti.

Conti makes all of his pasta in house at La Ciccia, his and his wife Lorella Degan’s ode to their home island. The spaghetti in the signature dish achieves that golden al dente texture, relaxed, flexible, with some bite to it. Most cooks would say it needs another minute of boiling. To Conti and chefs back at home, that extra minute turns high caliber flour and water into mush. If you want porridge or polenta, that’s a different story.

La Ciccia, San Francisco: Spaghetti with Bottarga and Spicy Oil

La Ciccia, San Francisco: Spaghetti with Bottarga and Spicy Oil

For correct al dente pasta, there must be a slight crunchy note. That allows you to actually taste and feel the pasta. It’s a participatory experience.

Then the spaghetti gets twirled atop a pool of chile- fortified olive oil, as seductive as an extra hour on a Mediterranean beach. You think the spaghetti is coated in a generous dusting of cinnamon or paprika, but really that rust-colored topping is the key ingredient to Sardinian cooking: bottarga. (more…)


Restaurants: Crudo, Phoenix, AZ

There are all sorts of lessons that the restaurant world should take note of from this dynamic hidden neighborhood spot along the busy Indian School Road thoroughfare at the border of Phoenix and Scottsdale, which I’m told is known as Arcadia. Before you delve further into the countryside paradise concept of Arcadia, this mini-mall filled version is much more akin to Los Angeles’ suburban town Arcadia than Tom Stoppard’s idea.

Though the address says Indian School, it really could be somebody’s backyard or a parking lot alleyway instead, since this desert treasure of a neighborhood bistro is tucked away from apparent view on the rear side of the Gaslight Square shopping center. I would venture to guess at least 50% of diners might do the same as me, parking their car in the front assuming they’ll find the restaurant here somewhere, only to stumble onto it ten minutes later. In Phoenix’s heat, those could be ten very long minutes. For this restaurant, I would walk from Downtown Phoenix for the smoked olives.

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This suburban speakeasy equivalent restaurant is the second iteration of Crudo. The chef Cullen Campbell’s original was a hit from 2009 to 2011, actually sharing space with a salon further east in Scottsdale. I’m not sure what it is with Crudo and hidden locales within shops or shopping centers. It proves to diners that a little research goes a long ways into uncovering where hidden talent is being displayed behind the stoves, behind the jewelery stores.

Phoenix is one of the country’s most underrated dining regions, often only thought of as the faraway scorching hot home to Chris Bianco’s mythical pizzas. Amongst the Valley’s shining dining room stars, Crudo is no doubt one of the elite.

Crudo's crudos

Crudo’s crudos

Crudo Part II just celebrated its first birthday. What a celebration I hope it was for such an accomplished restaurant after its initial year. But hold on folks. The actual birthday celebration will be held tomorrow, Thursday April 25th. Diners in the desert should be on their way to the phone for reservations immediately after finishing this article.

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Restaurants: Azul Condesa, Mexico City

It’s always striking to think about how basic, yet profound some of the world’s most revered dishes are. A croissant isn’t a whole lot more than crescent shaped butter. Well then, you try making one at home. Sushi is fish with rice, whether it’s from a supermarket in Topeka or right next to the sea in Vancouver. However, there is a reason that every fortunate diner to emerge from the domain of a Tokyo sushi master appears with the same life-changing daze that resembles the first few hours after your first kiss.

The world unfortunately views fajitas, Margaritas, and five pound behemoth burritos as the “cuisine” of Mexico. Not once did I encounter any of those in Mexico City, except the Margaritas. Let’s just say a Margarita in the Capital crafted by the hands of a Tequila-centric expert is a different story than the frozen slushies with the same name in Pensacola. Spring Break!

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I’m not going to boldly pronounce a certain dish the “official” one for Mexico. Much like pimento cheese might be the unofficial dish of the South, I was told in Mexico City that tacos al pastor are the unofficial dish for that particular city. Cochinita pibil is regarded as the Yucatan’s unofficial dish, while mole negro represents the state of Oaxaca. Consider this an evolution of Hilary Clinton’s diplomatic food corps, where dishes act as senators.

The immensely gifted chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita is little known outside of Mexico City, like most of Mexico’s “celebrity chefs.” In the U.S., the young and talented Enrique Olvera is starting to become a commonly known name within gastronomic scholar circles. Still in the U.S., the most recognizable names within Mexican cuisine today remain Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy. It is incredible what impact they have had on bringing one of the world’s most exceptional and under-appreciated cuisines across the border to the north. But, it’s a completely different audience when cooking mancha manteles inside the Loop instead of for discerning  locals who know their moles inside and out. (more…)