Monday, November 30, 2009

Hella ja Huone - 09/11/2009

Salhojankatu 48
33500 Tampere, Finland
+358 03-253 2440

For my last night in Finland, I asked the President of the company I was working for to provide a recommendation for dinner. He directed me to his favorite restaurant in Finland, Hella ja Huone. The restaurant is run by chef-owner Arto Rastas and "is based on the idea of French food culture."

The restaurant resides down a nondescript side street a short walk from the Tampere train station. A fine dining hole in the wall, the street the restaurant faces was nearly pitch black; though the 38 seat dining room itself is brightly lit and manages to be inviting despite the stark black and white furnishings. We arrived at 8:45 and by that time my teammate and I were the only two diners in the entire restaurant.

The restaurant offers a single 8-course menu and had I been alone I likely would have opted for the entire 8-course tasting; however I got the sense my companion would be more comfortable with a smaller dinner so we selected the 4 most interesting courses instead.

Amuse: Foie Gras Pudding with Apple Foam
Anytime a restaurant offers an amuse, it is a good thing; anytime that amuse is foie gras, it is a great thing. The foie gras pudding was a bit lighter than a terrine, more like an ice cream in terms of texture, but still retaining all the unctuousness one expects from foie. The apple provided a crisp tart counterpoint which kept the pudding from being too monolithic. Magnificent.

01: Kateenkorva Club Sandwich - Sweet bread Club Sandwich
2006 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese
Perhaps the best single course I had the entire trip. Humorously when I asked my companion if he knew what this course was he looked at me quizzically and haltingly said "a club sandwich... with sweet bread." Ironically when I informed him sweet bread wasn't actually a description of the bread but organ meat, he seemed much more intrigued by this course. The sandwich consisted of toasted brioche, sautéed sweetbread, chanterelle butter and fresh chanterelle mushrooms, bacon ice cream, and a soft boiled egg yolk. This is one of those rare dishes where each ingredient contributes a distinct flavor profile and when taken all together form something wondrous. The brioche soaked with earthy chanterelle butter, rich savory sweetbread, smoky sweet ice cream, bitter greens tangy onions all enjoyable on their own combine to form a single bite of pure comfort and deliciousness. I would have gladly skipped the rest of the meal for 3 more servings of this course.

02: Hummeririsottoa - Lobster risotto
I never pass up the opportunity to sample a risotto and I was eager to see the Finnish take on the classic lobster risotto. The risotto came deconstructed, with a layer of lobster gelée topped with a lobster and celery salad, Parmesan ice cream, and lobster foam. My first bite was a bit weak with the rice a bit overcooked and tasting faintly of lobster stock. After mixing the Parmesan ice cream, I got something more akin to the rich creamy flavor I was expecting. The salad was surprisingly light and refreshing a nice contrast to the rice and ice cream. Overall, an interesting risotto, not the most balanced in terms of flavor but the innovative presentation more than made up for the lack of polish.

03: Poroa x2 ja savustettua voita - Reindeer x 2 and smoked butter
2005 Domaine de Mignaberry Irouléguy
The entree for the evening was reindeer prepared two ways, a tenderloin with smoked butter complimented by a stew of reindeer and lentils. The meat was quite lean with a smoky irony tang very similar to venison though a bit fattier, the sweetness of the pumpkin was a superb match for the austere flavors of the tenderloin. The texture and flavor of the reindeer stew was reminiscent to braised beef though the lentils provided a welcome starchy heartiness which cut down the heaviness of the meat. A fitting course to mark the end of our time in Finland.

Intermezzo: Strawberry Gazpacho with Apple Foam
A delicious interlude between the main course and dessert, the gazpacho had a jammy note to it while the apple foam again offered a tart-bitter punch to counter the sweetness of the strawberries. Very satisfying, I simply wish I could have taken a bottle of it home with me.

04: Passionhedelmä "Sweet Burger"
Somehow fitting after all the confusion over sweet bread, our last course is just that, passionfruit sorbet, menthol foam, arugula sandwiched between two sticky sweet macaron cookies with a slice of pear carpaccio added for good measure. A fantastic dessert, the chill whisper of the menthol foam and the bitterness of the arugula clashing sharply with sugary cookies, tart sorbet, and sweet preserved pear. My companion didn't care for the dessert but I found it to be one of the most interesting and complex desserts that I have eaten in quite some time.

Without a doubt the meal at Hella ja Huone exceeded my expectations by a mile. The kitchen ably combines complex ingredients into multifaceted dishes that exhibit a plethora of flavors and textures which are delicious individually but truly shine when enjoyed together. If I ever get a chance to visit Finland again I know where I'll be having my first meal.
Read more.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chez Dominique - 09/10/2009

Rikhardinkatu 4
00130 Helsinki, Finland
+358 9 612 73 93

Though Finland is by no means a culinary destination, there were a couple of spots that piqued my fancy. Chief among them, Chez Dominique with its two Michelin stars and number 21 in the list of Restaurant Magazine's Top 50 restaurants. At the helm of Chez Dominique, is Chef/Owner Hans Välimäki who seeks to create innovative dishes based on classic Nordic and French flavors.

I had originally my visit to coincide with my trip to Helsinki on business; however our hosts arranged a traditional Finnish celebration, complete with a trip to the sauna and it seemed poor manners to refuse. Given that I might never return to Finland, I was determined to visit the restaurant despite the extra cost and lost time traveling between Tampere and Helsinki.

The restaurant offers 4 (99€), 6 (118€), and 9-course (136€) menus as well as a Menu Dominique (136€) which was also 9 courses when I went but has since expanded to 17-courses. I couldn't decide between the 9-course and the Menu Dominique so I followed the waiter's suggestion and went with the Menu Dominique. I would have liked to go with a friend to see the differences between the two menus.

Amuse 01:
The first amuse consisted of three crisps: squid ink, olive duck skin, and truffle pizza. The briny squid ink was composed with puffed rice giving it a texture similar to a rice cake. The duck skin was so thin and brittle it was difficult to pick up without breaking. The skin dissolved on the tongue, suffusing the palate with a smoky herbaceous flavor. The truffle pizza sounded the most promising but tasted mostly of cheese, enjoyable but not as distinctive as the other two.

Amuse 02: Baby lamb and beetroot
The second course was a baby lamb confit with beetroot sorbet, served over cheese and glass noodles. My initial impression was a bit one dimensional, the abundant sweetness of the sorbet overwhelming the subtler savory elements. My second taste showed some game on the attack as well as some tang from the cheese before the sweetness came to the fore.

Amuse 03: Salmon with potato and dill
The third amuse was an elegant take on the Scandanavian classic, Gravlax. The raw salmon is cured with salt, sugar, and dill then served with potatoes. Though the kitchen took some liberties with the textures, I found this the most common of the three amuses, still quite tasty but not very memorable.

01: Pickled oyster and horseradish
Deutz Champagne Brut 2002
The cooked oyster had a slightly softer smoother texture while retaining some of the natural brine and sweetness. The horseradish is served in Dippin' Dots form and is surprisingly sweet with none of the sinus clearing power I was expecting. The sommelier offered a classic pairing for this course, Deutz Champagne, vibrant citrus notes with clean acidity, a hint of spice and toast on the finish.

02: Duck foie gras and celery
Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spätlese 1993
An interesting preparation of foie gras terrine, still quite rich but a bit gamier than normal. The foie was accompanied by various preparations of celery, including freeze dried and sorbet preparations. Fantastic interplay between the bitter notes of the fresh celery and the richness of the foie. I also enjoyed the chilling element from the sorbet. Toasted brioche and truffle butter were served as well but I devoured the foie gras before I remembered them. One of my first experiences with older riesling, the wine displayed strong petrol notes with hints of fruit around the edges, some apple and lemon zest. Similar characteristics on the palate but with more fruit and a slightly sweet slate finish.

03: Carrot and tarragon
Forstmeister Geltz, Mosel
A simple dish carrots, though any impression that this is a healthy dish is immediately dispelled by the aromatic bath of butter. The sweetness of the carrots is drawn out by the cooking and the sweet butter. The onions provide a mild savory char, though a stronger contrasting flavor would have been welcome to balance the intense sweetness. Another riesling, exhibiting waxy fruit esthers on the nose and a blue-cheese like funk on the palate, not very enjoyable on its own but a nice counter to the sweetness of the carrot.

04: Scallop and soy
A wonderfully cooked scallop, meaty and tender with lovely golden-brown caramelization. The light savory-sweetness of the scallop is heightened by the soy and tangy ceps. Contrasting the nicely balanced scallop is the calamari which offers a rough crunch and salty burst.

05: Grilled turbot and artichoke
Calligramme 2006, Domaine de Bellivière, Jasnières
Perhaps the best preparation of turbot I have ever had. A meaty fish with both dense and tender, the scoring adds complexity to the flavor profile whilst complimenting the natural flavor of the fish; superb when paired with the more aggressive Sevruga caviar or king crab puff. The wine was 100% chennin blanc, lively on the attack with a rich balanced midpalate and a minerally finish.

Whipped Lingonberry Porridge or Vispipuuro is a traditional Finnish dessert though at the time I didn't appreciate the cultural significance of the course and likened it to a very elaborate yogurt parfait. Lingonberries are common throughout Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, though the fruit is quite tart and typically sweetened and served as a preserve or compote. The fruits are also served mashed with sugar and in that form, are a popular compliment to game meats; in fact I had two preparations of reindeer with lingonberries while in Finland. The chilled tart porridge was served just prior to the last savory course as a palate cleanser.

06: Baby lamb and cep mushroom
Puligny-Montrachet 2006, Olivier Leflaive
The final savory was a duo of baby lamb, tenderloin and belly. The tenderloin is a prime example of lamb, tender and flavorful with just a hint of game. The belly on the other hand, has a much more aggressive profile; arguably the most gamy lamb I have ever tasted. The earthiness of the ceps provide a complimentary flavor to the lamb while the potatoes adds a weighty substance and makes the dish feel more substantial.

07: Assortment of cheese Chez Dominique
Barbera d’Asti Stradivario 1997, Bava, Piemonte
A fairly small, consisting of two french cow's milk cheeses, Abbaye du Mont and Comté, paired with fig, quince, pine nuts, and nut and dried fruit bread. The cheeses were both enjoyable though fairly tame, frankly I expected something more adventurous to be served with the tasting menu.

Pumpkin and liquorice
A very Autumnal dish, the sweet pumpkin and herbal liquorice are complimented by a concentrated note of vanilla from the ice cream. A touch on the heavy side for an intermezzo but enjoyable nonetheless.

08: "Green apple"
Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Eiswein 2007, Langenlois
My favorite of the sweet courses was a combination of green apple, meringue, and a rosemary creme brulée. The green apple elements had a tartness that bordered on bitter while the the meringue possessed a simple sugary crunch both immensely enjoyable on their own but the interplay between the two is what makes the dish shine. The strong flavors of green apple serve to link the dessert with the wine, a delicious gruner veltliner eiswein.

09: Chocolate and anise
Noé Sherry 30 Y.O., Gonzáles Byass
The final dessert was a chocolate cake topped with chocolate ganache infused with anise giving it a savory herbaceous complexion, served with coffee ice cream, hazelnut praline, and bits of espresso beans. The initial flavor is of course the chocolate ganache though that is followed by the lingering bitterness of the espresso.

Chez Dominique was certainly the most refined and elegant restaurant I dined at during my trip to Finland, but there was something missing, a certain excitement or buzz that should accompany dining at one of the world's best restaurants. The food was superbly executed, if a bit less innovative than I was led to believe and the service was exceptional if a bit overly formal. All of the critical elements are there to make Chez Dominique an exceptional restaurant but for some reason it just didn't resonate with me.
Read more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bouchon - 11/18/2009

235 N Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Thomas Keller is a name that needs no introduction. When he did his series of book signings in Southern California, the average wait was about three hours. So no doubt his culinary return to LA would garner comparable frenzy. The reservation line opened at 11:00 and by the time I got through at 11:08, I was given the last 4-top on opening night. Since then, the restaurant has changed its answering machine, warning customers to call 30-days ahead if they hope to get a seat.

The exterior of the restaurant is subdued, with a single red awning emblazoned with the letters Bouchon. The dining area itself is upstairs and decorated in a traditional bistro style, casual and inviting. When we arrived at the restaurant I could barely take the time to grab a few decor shots. Inside the excitement was palpable, a tangible buzz from all the diners waiting to sample Chef Keller's cuisine.

Pomme De Ciel - Calvados, Cinnamon-Infused Agave Syrup, Fresh Egg White, Lemon, Up
Pisco Sour - Pisco 100, Fresh Lime & Egg White, Angostura Bitters, Rocks
Le Moine Amére - Pimm's No. 1, Green Chartreuse, Tarragon, Angostura & Peychhaud's Bitters, Ginger Ale, Rocks
Bouchon offers a selection of distinctive cocktails. Intrigued by the blend of tarragon and ginger ale, I decided to try the Le Moine Amére and the sharp herbal finish lived up to my expectations. The Pisco sour was a delicious example, perhaps a bit sweeter than those I have tried in the past. While the creamy egg white and cinnamon of the Pomme De Ciel reminded me of Horchata.

Bread - Epi & Toasted Baguette
The Epi bread is a standby of the Bouchon restaurants, simple yet exceptionally satisfying with the soft salted butter.

Chardonnay by Matt Dees, winemaker for Jonata
One of the unique aspects of Bouchon's wine offering is the Vin du Carafe program. Bistros in France often keep a barrel of red and white locally produced wine for guests who request a glass of wine. Legal restrictions prevent restaurants in the US from doing the same however Bouchon purchases wine by the barrel and bottles it under a proprietary label and offer it to diners by the glass, half-carafe, or carafe. I'm not normally a fan of Chardonnay but this lacked the heavy butteriness typically associated with Chardonnay making it well-suited to the lighter appetizers.

Huitres - oysters
Among the fruit de mer selections of the evening, Bouchon was offering five types of oysters, all from the East Coast. The oysters were served with traditional sides of mignionette and cocktail sauce.
Beau Soleil, New Brunswick - My first experience with "Beautiful Sun" oysters was at the legendary Oysters and Pearls at French Laundry. The raw preparation had a much firmer texture and a much stronger brine.
Bagaduce, Maine - Supposedly one of Thomas Keller's favorite oysters, the Bagaduce was more balanced than the Beau Soleil, with equal amounts of sweet and salty flavors.
Umami, Rhode Island - The most distinctive of the five oysters, the initial saltiness gives way to a petrol complexion on the finish.
Island Creek, Massachusetts - My favorite of the night, a meaty body with a moderate saltiness tempered nicely by a light sweetness and hint of seaweed.
Fancy Sweet, New Brunswick - The name suggests this would be one of the sweeter oysters but I found it anything but, the slick soft oyster coating the tongue in a concentrated brine.

Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard - served with toasted baguette
I had what was undoubtedly the best foie gras of my life at French Laundry a single transcendent experience made me fall in love with cold preparations of foie gras. This was the course I was probably looking forward to above all others. Presented simply in a canning jar with absolutely no accompaniments aside from baguette points and salt. Silky smooth and luxuriously decadent, the foie was delicious on its own or slathered on a toast point and topped with a hint of salt.

Quiche du Jour - selection varies
The quiche of the evening was labeled Lorraine, but Bouchon's preparation substituted spinach in place of bacon. I thought the flavor of the egg tended to dominate this dish, though the bitterness of the greens helped to restore the balance.

Beignets de Brandade de Morue - cod brandade with tomato confit & fried sage
Recently upscale restaurants have been referring to gourmet doughnuts as Beignets though technically Beignet is simply French for "fried dough" and can be sweet or savory. In this case the dough is filled with salt cod, olive oil, and milk. The resulting mix is a crisp fried shell around a savory mealy puree that inexplicably reminded me of a type of dim sum.

Forest Mushrooms - à la grecque
The special appetizer for the evening was a mushroom salad prepared Greek style, meaning with wine, olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, spices, and served cold. The subtle textural differences of the mixed mushrooms was superbly demonstrated though the tang of the seasonings overpowered the essence of the mushrooms.

Frisee aux Lardons et Oeuf Poche - frisee salad with lardons, poached egg, bacon vinaigrette & toasted brioche
I was initially dismissive of this course, salad with eggs and bacon sure it would be good but it seemed so pedestrian. This course is a reminder that no matter how humble the ingredients; in the right combination the results can be brilliant.

Rillettes aux Deux Saumons - fresh & smoked salmon rillettes with toasted croutons
Rilletes is a preparation of meat similar to paté, chopped meat is cooked in fat then shredded and packed with the fat to form a paste. The salmon came in a canning jar, covered with a layer of butter which our server removed and set aside on a plate. One of my friends jokingly asked if the butter was edible and got an odd look and concerned "I wouldn't recommend it." The server also cleared the butter from the table immediately perhaps worried that one of us would try it despite his warning. As expected the paste tasted strongly of salmon first and foremost with the fat providing a tang that reminded me of deviled ham.

Paté de Campagne - country style pate with watercress, cornichons & radishes
In addition to the salmon paté, Bouchon also offers a more traditional pork paté. The pate formed a thick meaty spread, the richness of the meat was finished with an iron tang. The vegetables add a tangible juiciness while the mustard and pickle provided a contrasting sourness.

White Apron Ale - Pilsner, Russian River Brewing Co
In addition to offering unique wine options, Bouchon also serves beer made exclusively for Thomas Keller and his restaurants. The first of these was labeled White Apron and had a spicy bitterness that reminded me of an IPA.

Thon Confit a la Nicoise - confit of big eye tuna, pole beans, fingerling potatoes, arugula, hard boiled egg & radish
I found the tuna to be the least enjoyable of the three fishes, dry and lightly flavored, the fish relied on the accouterments which tasted heavily of olives, effectively a variant of Salad Nicoise

Pan-Seared Alaskan Halibut - sunchokes, fennel, confit of grapefruit, tarragon
The entree special of the night was a pan seared halibut. The fish itself was unevenly cooked, I found my first bite dry though the second was both flavorful and tender. However, the sides were all on the sweet side and quite distracting.

Truite aux Amandes - pan-roasted trout with haricots verts, almonds & beurre noisette
A simple trout almondine, I had a fantastic preparation of this course at the Bouchon in Las Vegas. This time the fish was cooked nicely but severely under seasoned, though with the lightness of the other two fish courses, I wondered if it was intentional. When I asked Chef Keller about the lack of seasoning, he attributed it the kitchen still learning the courses. .

Blue Apron Ale - Belgian Ale, Brooklyn Brewery
The second of two beers brewed especially for Thomas Keller, the Blue Apron tasted heavily of ripe fruit, dark bread, and spice. Quite sweet, we felt this might be better suited to the dessert courses.

Pinot Noir by Sashi Moorman (Stolpman Winery)
We thought the red Vin Du Carafe, a spicy pinot noir would be an excellent accompaniment to the meat courses, particularly the lamb. Thanks to Kevin for the photo.

Plats des Cotes de Boeuf - red wine braised beef short rib with caramelized Savoy cabbage, glazed sweet carrots, parsnips & jus de Boeuf
A nicely prepared braised beef, the well-marbled meat was tender and had absorbed the rich sauce. The addition of vegetables added a rustic sweetness and after 11 courses was a welcome counterpoint to the heaviness of the beef.

Gigot d'Agneau - roasted leg of lamb with Swiss chard, pommes boulangere, Swiss chard ribs & lamb jus
The lamb itself was cooked to tender perfection with enough game to make things interesting, though a bit more salt would have been a welcome addition, though the bitter chard and salty potato remedied that to a degree.

Boudin Noir - blood sausage with potato puree & caramelized apples
The last savory of the night was the most adventurous. The blood sausage had a mealy consistency with a light spice and faint iron complexion, complimented by the creamy potato and soft sweet apple. Something about this course reminded me of a TV dinner, perhaps it was the texture of the sausage slightly grainy and nondescript. The smooth potatoes would be perfectly at home on a frozen dinner as would the apples which could serve as a ready dessert.

Valrhona Chocolate Bouchons
Fittingly the dessert special for the night were Bouchons, mini-chocolate cakes, served with ice cream and chocolate sauce.

Profiteroles - vanilla ice cream & chocolate sauce
The second dessert was a puff pastry stuffed with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Incredibly simple sounding but the pure note of vanilla was complimented by the simple pastry and bitter chocolate sauce. Amazing how these basic ingredients, readily available at home can be combined to form something so satisfying.

Ile Flottante - meringue with vanilla creme anglaise, almond & caramel
My favorite dessert of the night, a light airy sweetness touched with an ephemeral hint of caramel.

At the end of the night our server took us back to see the kitchen which was quite large, with around 15 staff members which still to be in the full swing of things when we arrived. As with all the other Keller-run kitchens I have seen, there is a monitor showing another kitchen. These enable the kitchens to communicate real-time during dinner service though I have never really seen it in action. Chef Keller was kind enough to answer a few of our questions and pose for a photo before we left

I have to say I was a little let down by my experience at Bouchon Beverly Hills, though looking back for the most part the food was quite good. Perhaps it is a testament to Chef Keller's reputation that anything less than perfection is a disappointment. Chef Keller admitted the food isn't up to his exacting standards and the only way to get there is through practice. For those who want a reservation, the long wait could be a blessing in disguise. Thirty fully booked days practically guarantees the kitchen will be a finely tuned machine by the time you get a table. I expect that were I to return in two months, my experience would be totally different.
Read more.