Wining and dining. Day 65 and 66

Wining and dining. Day 65 and 66

What better way to start our first London weekend than with Big Breakfast Saturday. Poached eggs, bacon, pork sausages and homemade hollandaise with a coffee from the local cafe. Today is going to be a good day. It’s 11am and time to load up the pork. Josh is busy in the kitchen with Viv watching his every move, hoping to replicate this when we leave. Fresh herbs, onion, cider, tomatoes, garlic and more go into this 5 kilo beast and then it’s in the oven until dinner time. Pulled pork can’t really overcook so we leave this suckling in the oven for 8 hours.

Now usually I would be the first one to raise my hand to make desserts but creativity is lacking today, instead we head to Camden Passage, a small antique community filled with shops, markets, cafés and patisseries. David points out the best gelato in London that I store in my memory for another time. Finally we stop at a cafe that is overflowing with cakes in the window and people out the door. We send in Viv and after what seems like a lifetime, she emerges carrying bags of pastries, cakes and slices. A quick stop at the park so Maggie can run off some energy and it’s back to check on the pork.

David cracks some wine as guests start arriving, it’s showtime. Pork is removed from the oven to rest and while we wait chef Josh and I prepare the mushrooms, carrots, polenta and creamed leeks for the feast. Now to get our hands dirty, pulling pork is not hard work when you cook it for as long as we have, meat falls from the bone and we toss it through the sauce it’s been cooking in. Accompanied by some pork crackling and dinner is served. There is something so relaxing about having a dinner party and it’s something Josh and I really enjoy but don’t do enough of. But look out because when we return your all invited.

Dinner winds down shortly after midnight and with work tomorrow Josh is in need of some rest. With uniform and knives ready to go he falls straight to sleep.

That 8am start is looming closer and closer.

Day 66

The day is finally here where Josh starts his stage at The Ledbury, lead by non other than fellow Australian chef Brett Graham. As most of you know, Josh won a culinary competition last October where he was awarded a scholarship to travel to London and work at The Ledbury, ranked number 13 in San Pellegrino’s Worlds Best 5o Restaurants.

While Josh is hard at work, I decide to treat myself to a day of nothing. With very little on tv we all sit down to watch a movie so terrible I won’t even mention the name, the highlight being the gelato we ate while the movie was on (some of that ‘best gelato in London’ I mentioned before). While the rain pours outside we all settle in with some spicy salami pizza from the local pub and some more tv.

There’s nothing like a lazy Sunday.

Jess and Josh,

Finding my place. Dining at Noma.

Finding my place. Dining at Noma.

There is a place in every chefs life that holds something dear, a fantasy, a dream. When I was first learning to be a chef I was obsessed with cookbooks. I would splurge my wage on books filled with dishes from wonderful chefs that I never thought I would see or taste. I idolised fine dining, from molecular gastronomy all the way through naturalism and down to the very depths of haute cuisine I was utterly addicted. Being a chef, for me, is about feeding my addiction. My name is Josh Gregory and I am a food addict.

When I was around nineteen I found a book, there was a chef in Copenhagen that was changing the way we view food. He was looking inwards to find something new, he was foraging, fermenting and most importantly creating. That mans name was René Redzepi. Today marks a special day for me, today I get to live my dreams, to visit a place that has become quite special to me though I have never been here. Today we dine at Noma.

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We arrive at the restaurant and I can barely contain my excitement, hence the cheesey grin in the photo, James the restaurant manager, a fellow Aussie, greets us and snaps some rapid fire photos before we are whisked into fantasy land. First however the entire kitchen says hello! Jess and I felt like celebrities with all the handshakes and welcomes, an awesome beginning to what was yet to come. We sit and food arrives on mass. Canapés begin with a small bite of gooseberry and elderflower. The tart little berry loves the sprinkle of dried flowers on top and shook my palate into consciousness.

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Next whole kohlrabi arrive on stone, unpeeled, raw and kind of strange looking. “Nordic Coconuts” they are explained by our wonderful waitress Katherine. Stuffed inside were straws, we drink the cool juice of the vegetable. It is both refreshing yet has a depth of flavour like I have never tasted before. It was absolutely moorish and before we knew it each of our coconuts were completely drained.

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Hip berries and walnuts. I have never had hip berries so my interest was immediately piqued, almost tomato like in texture with a soft, floral sweetness that carried the walnut perfume wonderfully. This was finished in a few bites.

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A single bite of black currant berry and rose arrives, upon putting the little dose into your mouth the outer shell liquifies into a dreamy purée of the tart little berry. The rose gave not just the floral note but an almost spiced taste to the berry itself. I loved this little treat, it was interesting and deliciously textural.

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Moss and cep. Plain and simple. Having already tried the reindeer moss at Fäviken we were slightly less taken aback seeing it again. At Noma it arrives covered in dehydrated cep. Jess and I found the moss at Fäviken slightly tame, at Noma the cep powder exploded across the palate in a parade of earthy mushroom love. The crackling moss had great texture, delicate and delightful.

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Our next course comes in a rather weathered looking box, a biscuit tin in fact. Cheese cookie, rocket and stems. A one bite treasure, the cracker was so frail I nearly crushed it in my eagerness to devour. The rocket is wild and peppery which seemed to make the cheese shine. But blink and it was gone. I really wanted a box of those.

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A giant egg makes its way to our table, Jess and I stare as smoke begins to seep out of the edges, our chef lifts the lid and smoke whisps away leaving two pickled and smoked quail eggs. “Please eat all at once” chef says. As if I needed to be told twice. Rich creamy egg yolk is cuddled with smoke, the vinegar is a little cutaway from all that richness and the smoke is light and fragrant. Yum!

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Chefs serving food is something we don’t see enough of in Australia, by the end of our time here we had met practically the entire kitchen! Our next chef brings with him Caramelised milk and cod liver. This was a bite of the ocean. Salty and slightly nutty. The ocean proved to be a little overwhelming for Jess, but for me I found it a taste so of the sea that I wanted to eat more. So I of course ate the remainder of hers. At the same time arrived a Danish treat of Æbleskiver and greens. Usually a sweet pastry here it was served savoury, a kind of doughnut dough filled with cooked greens and topped with flowers of all kinds. The cod was great but these little treats were insane!

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Another treat from the sea, I must also mention we are still in canapé territory here and my belly is filling, Sea urchin toast. My first taste of Northern sea urchin, they prove to be much different to the ones we get at home, a little less mineral flavour and a little more richness, the addition of a duck skin cracker only added to this. The charred toast underneath also brought the humble urchin up to another level.

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From the sea to the forest floor, Cep mushrooms. They arrive dotted with a fermented beef paste. After visiting the Nordic food lab yesterday we know of the umami explosions caused by fermentation. Here the delicate ceps rose up to the power of a beef main course. Great flavours with but two seemingly simple ingredients.

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Burnt leek next. Yep looks like somebody forgot to take these ones off the BBQ. In fact what we eat is inside, the tiny leek hearts were soft and delicate. The addition of cod roe gave a lovely saltiness that sat just in front of sweet, smokey onion flavour. This was a great dish and really showcased the Nordic love of smoke and fire. Burn your leeks folks they are delicious.

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The final canapé is presented. Pike head, roasted and skewered. No cutlery, no problem! I dive straight into the cheeks, the neck meat and of course the eye. Jess fiddles around a bit before finally ripping in like a Viking warrior princess. I feel like I am having quite a bad influence on her. Perhaps when we have a restaurant we won’t even own cutlery? As for the fish it is perfectly cooked, supple and sweet. Always eat the eye!

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Bread in fine dining restaurants is a must but here, rather than the traditional little roll or slice of sourdough we are given an entire fresh loaf. Warm and toasty we can slather it with an acidulated butter or my favourite pork fat with crispy onions. At this point I am going to mention the service. I’m a chef so I’m constantly focused on the food, if you want details on service, ask Jess. Here service is something else, it is beyond friendly and professional by the end of our meal we felt like family. We chatted about out travels, learnt about our hosts lives, even exchanged contact details it was everything that is great about hospitality and beyond. No stuffy waiters with a gripe over wine pairing, no dress code, the service at Noma is utterly incredible. They make you feel so welcomed and so happy that you’re here, it was dare I say, perfect!

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Now back to food, a relatively new dish arrives, squid and fennel. The squid is shaved thin and served in a fennel broth so light it is like a whisper on the tongue. Broccoli adds an almost horseradish like flavour boosting the squid into a refreshing hum of seafood and vegetable. A great dish to begin our next stage of dining. The ice bowl it was served in also kept everything almost at freezing point!

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Ravioli looking shapes arrive next. They are in fact nasturtium leaves, filled with samphire and floating in an aromatic broth of rhubarb root. Again being at the Nordic food lab we could see a little fermentation happening here, the rhubarb root had a soy like depth with the nasturtium adding a creeping bitterness counteracting the saltiness of the samphire. The food at Noma is impeccably balanced, hand foraged ingredients are treated in a way that they truly shine.

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Onion and fermented pears. Now this is what we came to see. The dish is finished with ants. No that’s not a typo the dish is finished with ants. The Noma kitchen look into ingredients that can give different notes of flavour. Here the ants bring little pops of acidity paired with the smokey onion and fruity pear. I didn’t quite catch the description the first time so I just dove in without thinking, when our waitress came over and asked “how were you’re ants” I was shaken into realisation. This was a great dish, intensely savoury with the fermented pear and ants bringing harmonic sour notes. The ants can march one by one into my stomach anytime.

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Beets and aromatic herbs. Another wonderful savoury, the slow roasted beets were earthy and soft, the gaggle of herbs around the dish made every bite interesting. The dish was finished with rose oil, rose and beetroot being a combination I have never experienced paired together nicely with the rose bringing out some of the fruit notes within the beetroot.

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The next course was probably Jessica’s favourite, cauliflower and pine, cream and horseradish. Presented covered in fragrant pine needles the cauliflower had been slow roasted and basted in a pine stock. Rich and very fragrant. A sauce made with refreshing yoghurt whey softened the tangy punch of horseradish. This was a fantastic dish and definitely a highlight.

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We follow with some serious fermentation, a dish of potato and bleak fish roe. The potato is attacked with a mould which causes fermentation. This changes the flavour dramatically. They add some real earth notes combined with hop and barley aromatics, paired with soft, slightly salty fish roe this made for a seriously interesting course. A flavour that made us think as well as being pretty tasty!

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Now we have has a load of veggies, I am ready for some meat. Bring me meat for I am man. Then it arrives, locally hunted wild duck, pear and kale. The duck is fantastically pink and tastes of the wild. This duck swam in streams, flew through scrub, this duck lived, and he was delicious! With pear in many textures and a sauce of kale this dish tasted of the wild. The sweet pear and the ground, earthy taste of kale made for a fantastically pretty piece of meat.

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Thus finished our savoury courses. Dessert begins with blueberry and ants. An ice cream sandwich filled with green juniper and deliciously tart blueberry sorbet. Served alongside the sandwich are a few little nasturtium bites filled with a blueberry compote and an ant paste. The sweet blueberry, the vivid nasturtium and those wondrous little bites of sour that we now wonder how we lived without. It is a winning combination.

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We are nearing the end of this incredible experience, it has been so great I don’t think I want to leave! Our final course is a dish of potato and plum, a dish so beautifully simple that it became our instant favourite. The plum compote is rich and soft, next to it is a creamy, sweet, potato purée and a cream made from the inner seeds of the plum. The seeds infuse an almond like flavour into the cream which ties the entire dish into something truly magical. I cannot believe that we are here, this is the stuff dreams are made of.

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Now to see the team, Stuart one of the chefs brings us right into the kitchen where chefs are furiously peeling plums to make more of that amazing compote, they all pop up and say hello and we chat about the incredible lunch we’d just eaten. The development kitchen upstairs is filled with ideas for up and coming dishes, chefs dart in and out, always saying hi on the way past. This place is like Wonkaland! However we’re told Mr Wonka aka René is not in today so once again I am foiled in my attempt to meet my culinary hero. I guess I’ll just have to come back.

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We’re taken back downstairs for coffee and petit four, even the petit four are special here! First we are served a traditional Danish pastry covered in fermented barley. The pastry is rich, sweet and flaky and the barley instantly took us home with a flavour reminiscent of vegemite. Oh how we miss vegemite. To follow was a piece of puffed pork skin dipped in milk chocolate and covered in berries. An almost American snack, bacon and chocolate. We sit and chat with the waiters and waitresses, feeling completely at home. Then we realise we’ve been here for nearly five hours! Dinner service looms and so with full bellies and a few more food friends we depart. Noma is an utterly magical place and if you haven’t realised how much we loved it by this point then get the next available booking and see for yourself. The service, the food, the wonderful people. See for yourself because this place is something very special.

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Welcome to the family.

Josh and Jess

Dined 8th October 2013
Noma
Strandgade 93, Dk-1401, Copenhagen K, Denmark
http://www.noma.dk

Fantasy. Dining @ Fäviken Magasinet

Fantasy. Dining @ Fäviken Magasinet

This is it, our quest for the perfect dining experience has brought us across seas of soup, through caverns of canapés and over mountains of meat but there is no journey nor meal that could prepare us for the foodie trip we are about to take. Tonight we dine in the middle of nowhere, home to Magnus Nilsson, this is Fäviken.

Located in Järpen on the 19th century Fäviken Egindom estate, which consists of 20,000 acres of farmland, this restaurant is truly in the middle of nowhere. Flying into Stockholm, Jess and I take a 9 hour train just to get close to this foodie dream. More on that story here.

The estate is like falling through the wardrobe and into Narnia. Pine trees hug the road as our taxi driver speeds along the gravely surface. Game birds dart from the scrub cunningly evading sight of the birds of prey circling over head. Then we arrive, the gorgeous farmhouse a cherry red dot in the distance. I instantly get butterflies of excitement, since reading Chef Nilsson’s book I have dreamt of dining here. This is the epitome of living the dream, for me this is what our journey is about and I’m so glad we can share it with all of you. We check into our room and prepare ourselves for dinner.

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Dinner at Fäviken is a ritual; thirteen lucky diners gather in the barn for canapés where we get to know each other. This review is going to be long so get your reading glasses on folks.

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Let’s begin.

Chef Nilsson meets us at the door, a warm handshake of my trembling digits and we get to have a quick chat. He smiles and says “nice to meet you, I hope you have fun tonight.” Then it starts. Canapés, flaxseed and vinegar crisps with mussel dip. Wow! The crisp is wafer thin and completely held together by a vinegar tuille. The tuille is almost a display in aerodynamics, and the mussel dip is an oceanic emulsion that is light and fluffy. I’m drinking a beer made from rhubarb on the estate and Jess is of course on Champagne.

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Chef Magnus enters the room and silence falls, a clap of the great chefs hands and he introduces our next course. A little lump of very fresh cheese served in warm whey with lavender. “This cheese is less than six minutes old” Nilsson explains “and is best eaten all in one go.” Yes chef! Down the hatch. The warm silky cheese is completely loved by the soft fragrance of dried lavender.

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We take a seat on fur covered couches and suddenly canapés arrive in force. A signature of Fäviken, wild trout’s roe served in a crust of dried pigs blood. Now we are into it. This is Rektùn, Nordic cuisine, the food of Sweden, we dine like Vikings. The roe is delightfully fresh and pops under tongue, the blood giving a richness and almost spiced note, very reminiscent of black pudding.

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My favourite canapé is next, Pig’s head, dipped in sourdough and then deep fried, pickled gooseberry and pine salt. Oh lord! Unbutton my trousers and give me a bag of these things, I could scoff them down like Cheetos! The pig is oozingly soft, the bread crisp and gold, the gooseberry and pine add a herbaceous tart note that brought everything together. Yum!

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Crispy lichens arrive on stone with a lightly soured garlic cream. The lichen themselves held a delicate flavour enhanced by shaved fish roe but the soured cream gave them a subtle richness that kind of made them the “chips and dip” of the incredible beginnings. Served alongside these are slices of cured sow. The sow is hand chosen by chef before being butchered, hung and cured by the kitchen.

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I need to tell you, I thought I had an understanding of paddock to plate. I mean I’ve foraged, I love to learn about where the food comes from. I know nothing. What Nilsson does here is something else. It is beyond paddock to plate, ingredients are chosen daily. Whether they’re grown on the estate and picked the night before, painstakingly hand foraged from beneath layers of frost or picked from a very limited list of suppliers the chefs know and trust. If it’s not the best it’s simply not good enough. It is a beautiful way to treat food and an inspiring vision for a restaurant.

The final canapé is salted herring, aged for three years, sour cream and rusks. Yes I said aged for three years. The dining room is filled with different hanging meats, fish and hams. Despite its age, the fish has a quite mild flavour, tamed with the cream and nutty rusk.

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It is time for us to move upstairs, the loft of the barn is transformed into a stunningly rustic dining room with the main theatre being a large wooden kitchen bench complete with a chopping block. Our first course is promptly served. Scallop “i skalet ur elden” cooked over burning juniper. No cutlery, the dish arrives branches still smoldering, we pry open the shell and see the ocean gem inside. A perfectly poached scallop cooked in a broth evoking the ocean. The scallop is meaty and soft, the broth, sweet and light. Together this dish is simply amazing. An inspired use of fantastic produce and wonderful Nordic technique. The juniper adds a floral bitterness that offsets the sweet scallop meat. I love this place.

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Continuing with seafood King crab, seared and sprayed with “attika” vinegar, almost burnt cream. This was one of Jess’s favourite dishes. The courage to serve a “burnt” sauce with such a premium ingredient is inspired. The crab is succulent and sweet, the cream is nut brown, kind of like a Buerre noisette flavour. The milk solids are lovely and caramelised and hey it’s a burnt sauce.

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Poached turbot comes paired with burnt shallots as well. The turbot is wonderfully soft with large white flakes feathering away from the fork, the onions are sweet and slightly smokey with an onion vinaigrette tying the dish together with a little acid.

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Cod and sunflower. Two ingredients, what a dish. The cod is cooked in a dry pan so the flesh is ever so slightly charred, the sunflower arrive in many textures. A paste that gives a nuttiness to the cods fattiness, fresh green sunflower seeds that were both textural and floral, and a vinaigrette of sunflower oil and juice. This dish was as if a fish had fallen into a veggie patch, it was nutty and vegetative along with being of the sea. A delight to eat.

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Palates beginning to swim with flavour combinations it’s time for another little rush of canapé sized course. A raw blue shell mussel filled with beer, dried birch leaf was a one bite flavour explosion. The mussel was so soft in texture it didn’t feel real, the beer has hoppy notes and the birch leaf brings everything down to earth.

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An insanely crisp and thin pie crust baked from pea flour is filled with eggs and seasoned with dried cods roe. The young pastry chef places the tiny quail eggs into the warmed crust as we pop them in our mouths and crunch before they simply disappear. This course seemed simple but simplicity can become extremely complex. The food here is a work of art.

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Barley pancakes filled with sour onions prove to be exactly as described, the onions are of numerous varieties including chive, onion flowers, spring onion and they are equally as enjoyable as each other. The barley is a warm toasty flavour I feel is completely under utilised in cuisines today.

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Suddenly a plate of leaves is put in front of us. Jess’s eyes bulge, I knew there would be challenges but this is leaf litter, this is natural to a whole new level. Thankfully chef explains that our next dish is buried beneath the leaves. We have to forage for our meal, the leaves are from the grounds, they’re covered with winter snow where they lay until the spring. This gives them an earthy characteristic and I’m not going to lie, they smell amazing. Underneath is the tiniest, cutest new potatoes, par boiled they have taken on the flavour of the leaves on top. They’re served with some of the best butter I’ve ever had. Cultured and of course house made, from milk the chefs milked from the cows this morning. This place is just amazing.

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Bite size courses end and in front of me is a porridge of grains and seeds from Jämtland finished with a lump of salty butter, fermented carrots and wild leaves, meat broth filtered through moss. Wow, this is insanely textural and delicious. Yes I said moss, not only does it freshen the broth, it adds a herb note unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The fermented carrot is sour but fruity also and the butter gives everything a cultured flavour. I loved this dish, all the foraged herbs, the texture of the grains, everything in it was magical.

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Then it arrived. A huge, roasted femur of a cow, crackly and golden. The chefs place it on the chopping block and saw, scooping out freshly roasted bone marrow. This slippery goodness is then mixed with dices of raw cows heart, flower petals and herb salt. It is placed in front of Jess as she realises what she is about to eat. With surprisingly little hesitation she dives in. I am smearing the delicious mix into slices of sourdough toast and feeling more and more like a Viking with each bite. The heart is actually not a strong taste, it has a rather sponge like texture with a little chew, the marrow is soft and rich, the flowers and herbs bring a lightness to the dish. This was my favourite dish of the evening, the taste, the texture. I loved it.

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Still dominating my Viking feast the next course arrives, quail and bird cherries. The quail of course comes from the property and is served basically whole. Perfectly cooked with a crisp head on the side. The cherries are fruity and acidic, cutting through the rich quail meat. I even got to pick my teeth with the claws. Served with no cutlery of course this is another meal I was happy to be up to my elbows in. Served alongside was a little taste of the birds liver, pate en croute, thank you very much.

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With that course marking the end of the savoury courses it was time for a palate refresher. Cottage cheese, mushrooms and spruce. Yes a palate refresher. This was one of the most unusual cleansers I have ever eaten. The fresh cottage cheese had an acidic sourness and the raw mushrooms on top gelled with the spruce in a way that was oddly refreshing. My palate did indeed feel completely cleansed.

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The first sweet course is colostrum and meadowsweet. Arriving in tiny edible egg shells the colostrum has an almost quark or mascarpone flavour with the meadowsweet acting like a soft honey. For those of you unfamiliar, colostrum is the first cast of milk from a cow either in late pregnancy or just given birth. It is packed full of nutrients and antibodies and is in fact very good for you. Ok so it’s cow breast milk, lucky it’s delicious.

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Spoons arrive topped with lingonberries, thick cream, sugar and blueberry ice. The lingonberry are tiny pops of tartness with the wonderful luscious cream. The blueberry ice is exactly like a sorbet, except contains only the sugars from the blueberry themselves. It is very intense and almost earthy in flavour.

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A tiny little bowl of warm curd is next. It is in fact curdled woodruff milk. The woodruff is very grassy in flavour, the curd has a fluffy texture but it is a delightful little morsel and gives the innards a little warmth needed after the frozen sorbet.

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An egg yolk preserved in sugar syrup, served on a pile of crumbs made from pine tree bark, ice cream seasoned with meadowsweet. This is dessert. The egg yolk has an almost glass like exterior that the spoon cracks through, the crumb has a treacle like flavour and mixed with the meadowsweet ice cream the result is a soft, mushy dream like substance that Jess and I just could not stop eating.

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Our final course is prepared table side in front of us. Sour milk sorbet, raspberry jam and whisked duck eggs. Chef furiously churns the milk base into a light icy sorbet that is dropped into a fluffy, frothy duck egg sabayon. Underneath is a slightly sour raspberry jam that cuts through the rich duck egg wonderfully. It’s a fantastic finisher to what has been a divine meal.

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With full stomachs we retire downstairs for a selection of teas made from foraged ingredients on the premises. A seat on one of the comfy couches and we are presented with our final course this evening. The Fäviken sweet box. A wooden box filled with cured reindeer meat pies, raspberries ice, tar pastilles, meadowsweet candy, dried berries, sunflower seed nougat, anise seeds coated in crystallised honey and beeswax, smoked toffee, pine resin, cake. Yes as if we hadn’t eaten enough, the sweet box is ready for us to dive in. I go straight for a meat pie, I’m Aussie of course. The reindeer is so strong it nearly takes my breath away, much gamier than anything I have eaten before. The candies are sweet and with my tea made with birch, the immortality mushroom, and leaves from the garden the earthy sweetness rounds out what was an utterly unforgettable meal.

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The giant sweet box is accompanied by snus fermented in a used bitter barrel. A kind of chewing tobacco, that sticks underneath the front lip. It is very peppery and tastes a little dirty, still we are in Sweden and I want to try everything. Seated on warm furs chewing tobacco, drinking foraged tea. Then it gets better. Our charming sommelier takes us outside, the northern lights are vivid green in the night sky. This is incredible, a perfect way to round out what was an unforgettable experience that not only changed my way of thinking but will change the way I cook.

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Chef Nilsson and the team at Fäviken have created something truly unique and it is an experience that I don’t think we will ever match. From our arrival on the farm, the brilliant food and the incredible night sky to finish this is a once in a lifetime destination. Make the trip, step through the darkened pine forests, Trudge the mountain path.

It’s a beautiful world out there.
Dining at Fäviken has made me truly recognise this.

Josh and Jess

Dined 2nd October 2013

Fäviken Magasinet
Fäviken 216, 830 05 Jarpen, Sweden
http://www.favikenmagasinet.se

The first search for perfection. Dinner at Alinea.

The first search for perfection. Dinner at Alinea.

Tonight Jess and I visit one of the most renowned restaurants in the world. Number fifteen on the San Pellegrinno top 50 list and a place that is a constant inspiration for chefs around the globe. Jess and I are eating at Alinea.

Chef Grant Achatz, a visionary chef opened Alinea after his success at previous restaurant Trio and has since then been a driving force in modernist cuisine and one of the most credited chefs of our age. Three Michelin stars, a host of accolades worldwide and of course, a team of seriously trained chefs. Tonight this is where Jess and I will dine, and I am so excited I’m about to burst. Now for all you foodies out there wanting to dine at Alinea be aware that this is not your ordinary restaurant. For starters you will not make a reservation. Instead you’ll have to get online and buy tickets. Yes, tickets. A great idea for hospitality, pre purchased tickets means a no show is no loss to the restaurant. Genius.

So we are off, tickets in hand, I am skipping up the street. This is such a food dream of mine and I can’t believe that we are actually here. We’re greeted at the door by Conrad, a seriously friendly gentleman who says to me “so chef, take a look around the kitchen.” Well I just about faint. The chefs are working away, the anti griddle is over in the corner, a helium bottle rests on the perfectly polished stainless steel, mise en place is neat, organised and controlled. After some quick hellos and dragging me away from the prep we are seated and the show begins.

And boy does it begin. Jessica and I had no idea what we were in for, I mean yes I have read the Alinea cookbook cover to cover probably a thousand times but never did I think I would be sitting in the restaurant of my dreams. We open with a dish of osetra caviar, served in the classic Russian style. Achatz plays on textures here with a gel of blini and pickled onion. The caviar pops in sweet subtlety and the gel liquifies upon taste. We go for the wine match tonight and this dish pairs wonderfully with a 99 Blanc de Blancs Brut. A crisp yet aged champagne which kind of took me to an aged cheese kind of place. Lovely.

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The next dish arrives with plumes of nitrogen smoke billowing all over the table. The scent of ginger and lemongrass fills the air. Scallop served with citrus aroma and fourteen Asian textures. The scallop has been lightly cured and there are too many Asian flavours for me to name. It is a seemingly light dish to begin with, but once the flavours really kick in it becomes both bold and sweet. A German Riesling to match. Wonderful.

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Now throughout our entire dining experience thus far there has been a jar filled with tomatoes in a patch of grass buried in the centre of our table. It was only Jess’ foresight that kept me from cracking the jar before I was supposed to. Our next course celebrates everything that is the tomato. Paired with cana de cabra, a kind of molten goats cheese, cucumber soufflé and cantaloupe foam. This dish is textural, the goats cheese is runny and soft, the tomato flesh is almost gelatinous and the soufflé is heavenly light.

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Plates are cleared and the next delight arrives. Dungeness crab, squash blossom, cardamom and saffron. The light oceanic crab makes a tickling match for sweet squash, or pumpkin to us Aussies. The saffron appears in the form of a gel draped ornately over a pumpkin custard. The blossom is a crisp shard. Achatz is a master of complimentary flavours that may seem unusual at first. The cardamom note here is an example of this, kind of like a low spice hum just in the background.

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Another thing Achatz is great at is theatre. Dining at Alinea is about providing a unique experience for everyone. The next course is a piece of art simply called Binchotan, Tokyo inspiration. Binchotan being the name of a Japanese charcoal that burns for a very long period of time. Here it is served table side, completely on fire with a feast of goodies for us to try, there’s seared tuna, wagyu beef, pork belly and a crisp prawn head filled with togarashi, a Japanese spice. These little bites tasted fantastic and the look as the dish arrived, incredible. This was a highlight course for me, beauty, delicious, art. It was paired with an interesting Japanese beer from the Kiuchi brewery. It matched the food wonderfully, a kind of hop driven semi sweet drop.

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Veal cheeks next, but not as you have eaten them before, here they are paired with lapsang souchong, pine and blackberry. The tea is very earth driven, along with the pine. The cheeks are unctuous and oozey and melt upon eating. The blackberry adds a touch of acidity which only makes the veal cheeks seem more sweet. A dish driven by complexity I could have eaten a portion 5 times the size.

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Our next dish marked a slight break in our proceedings. This is the only dish I have actually seen in the Alinea book, unfortunately it is the only dish we didn’t get a photo of. It is known as hot potato, cold potato. Served with black truffle and butter. A perfect sphere of warm Yukon gold potato is dropped into a soup of cold potato, laden with black truffle. A quick bite but an utterly flavourful one. The warmth of the potato contrasted against the cold soup shocks your palate into truly tasting. I’m not even close to ready for this to end bring on the next course.

And here it is. A serious, serious concept. Duck ………?????…….!!!!!!! That is all that is on the menu. This coded message is actually a dish of a whole duck served in many forms. Oh and did I mention there is over 60 garnishes for us to pair with. I dive in, foie gras with apricot, confit leg with vanilla bean, fried breast with horseradish, rillette with chocolate and mouselline with beetroot. Jess does the same, only picks her own flavours. Each works brilliantly with duck. 60 flavours and not one of them clash, jar or taste a little funny. And trust me, we tried them all. The chefs here are providing something truly unique. Each diner will experience something of their own choice. Each flavour will be there own. I thought this dish was a masterpiece, not only in cooking all the duck parts perfectly but having the knowledge of 60 components to enjoy with it. Wow.

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After the duck I thought things couldn’t get any crazier. Boy I was wrong. Our waiters float around the room as people giggle at their courses, are amazed by flavours and enjoy their dining. This restaurant is the epitome of love what you do. The next course for us is one of Achatz’ signature dishes and something I have slaved over the Alinea cookbook making myself. Served in a custom designed antiplate The black truffle Explosion. A perfectly cooked ravioli served with wilted romaine lettuce and Parmesan. Our smiling waiter says “eat it all in one bite.” The ravioli goes in and BANG liquid black truffle explodes in my mouth, the ravioli is filled with a gelled truffle stock that on cooking melts and becomes a warm liquid centre. I loved this dish. Jess’ eyes bulged when the ravioli popped and we both laughed at how much fun it was.

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The explosion marks the end of the savoury courses. We are served with a selection of five needles, each with something pierced into the end of it. It is in fact our palate cleanser. Ginger with five other flavours. Turmeric being one. The heat of the Hawaiian ginger made for a tangy palate cleanse but each flavour contributed to it well and left us both feeling refreshed. I’m also drinking a glass of The rare Wine Co. “Boston Bual” special reserve Madeira. A sweet nectar that coats the ginger on my palate beautifully.

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We now sit here with balloons in our hands. Very sticky balloons. Our waiter tells us to give them a kiss and inhale. It is a green apple scented candy balloon on a crystallised apple string. We inhale then giggle as we finally realise what the helium was for. Other tales around us are in hysterics as grown adults are reduced to little kids again with squeaky voices. I sounded somewhat like a prepubescent teen as my voice broke in and out whilst speaking, Jessica of course was slightly more chipmunk. This is what food is about, having fun. Reminding us that we’re eating, it is not a serious affair, lets enjoy. This is the spirit at Alinea.

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Once our fits of laughter subside and the balloon is devoured our first dessert arrives. Strawberry granola, a crispy, crunchy cluster of strawberries served with a goats cheese infused with sassafras, pine nut and long pepper. I was expecting sickly sweet strawberry but the goats cheese dragged this dish much closer towards the savoury side. The texture was lovely and paired well with my Hungarian Tokaji-Aszu. A sweet wine with strong fruit notes. I must admit that with all these wine matches I am beginning to get a little foggy. Jess has a nice glow as well!

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Whilst we were chatting away we barely noticed our waiter putting two long test tubes smeared with pink in our table. It is in fact the straw for our next course. Raspberry, infused with rose. A soda bottle is presented before us filled with raspberry bubbles. We’re instructed to drink the bubbles through the straw, thus infusing it with the pink rose smear across the inside of the tube. This was a fun way to introduce a fairly simple dessert. However the flavour forms were complex, rose has of course a great floral character which matches the acidity of raspberry very well. It reminded me of drinking soda as a kid and having the bubbles fizz out the top of the bottle. Being able to insight memories is a fantastic talent of Achatz and Alinea and is employed throughout the experience in many forms.

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Finally it seems as though we have come to an end. Our table is all but cleared. Then our waiter appears with a large silicone mat. Time for your dessert he says with an almost devilish grin. Out walks chef Enrique, one of the many talented chefs at Alinea. The mat is spread across our table and chef begins to plate our dessert. Directly onto the table in front of us. This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As a chef I think it’s so important to interact with your diners and here he was, standing in front of us showing us his art. It was very humbling. The dessert consists of milk chocolate, pâté sucree, violet and hazelnut. Chefs hand dips and swirls as he constructs his masterpiece in front of us. Not saying a word he tips his head ever so slightly towards us and vanishes back into his studio. Jess and I are stunned. This was like seeing Mozart or watching Picasso paint. It was possibly one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had whilst dining. Utterly incredible.

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For all of our wonderful readers, you’re in for a treat because Jess was clever enough to film the entire thing! And here it is.

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Upon tasting the dessert it is both rich yet delicate. Swirls of creme fraiche cut through buttery milk chocolate, floral violets accentuate hazelnuts earthiness. It’s as if the flavours themselves dip and swirl like the master chefs hand. In case you can’t tell Alinea has completely blown us both away. The dream comes to an end with Mexican coffee and a great chat with our waiters.

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Now I must mention them, all of the waiters who served us that amazing evening. I am sorry that I did not get all of your names but it is hospitality workers like this who make our industry as fantastic as it is. Friendly, welcoming and there only to look after you. They also know how to have a great time, without ever losing their professionalism. Dining at Alinea has made Jess and I want to work so much harder at our dream to have a truly great restaurant like this.

Now if you have made it to the end of this review, well done. I think it has taken me as long to write as it did for us to eat at Alinea. We enjoyed every moment and it is credited to all of the Alinea staff. Get yourself here as soon as you can. This restaurant for us was a dream come true. The realisation that our journey on thetraveltotaste in search of perfection has really begun. What makes Alinea so special is it’s constant strive for perfection. Have we found what we were looking for already?

I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before.

Josh and Jess

Dined 25th August 2013
Alinea
1723 N Halsted St Chicago, Illinois USA
 http://www.alinearestaurant.com

Breaking Bouchon. An experience in extravagance.

Breaking Bouchon. An experience in extravagance.

Bouchon, Thomas Keller’s Michelin starred restaurant in beautiful Yountville. It is a restaurant written about, talked about, and it has cookbooks. What it also has is 80 seats that will serve around 250 guests in a single service.

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This place is packed but what you feel here is care. The waiters care about serving you, the chefs want to please. So much so that they’re willing to let a couple of rowdy foodies into their kitchen to check out the well oiled machine that is Bouchon.

It’s a lovely day in picturesque Yountville. This town practically smiles at you with it’s lush gardens and friendly people. We are quickly seated outside and we start rifling through the menu. The sommelier Woody pops over and introduces himself. Well there is a man who loves his job. He was practically beaming just to see us enjoying the place. We haven’t even ordered yet. This is true hospitality at its finest. Now to food.

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We start with an assortment of entrées; a tarte flambée, which consisted of baked Alsatian flatbread with bacon lardons, sliced onions, thyme and creme fraiche. Umm more please? For Jess an enormous, jaw dropping bowl of French onion soup. The soup is topped with gruyere cheese, molten, bubbling gruyere cheese. This is French phenomena! It is so delicious that both of us cannot stop eating shovel full scoops of it. But wait there’s a present from the chefs! We must apologise to Jess’s baby sister because our next course was kermit the frog. Yes, breaded frog legs with sauce gribiche. Wow! This was Jessica’s first experience with frog legs and she was tucking in like it was fried chicken. Bring on mains because I can already feel myself filling up on the awesome bread that came out as well.

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Main course time. For me Fietan Poele. Or to us English speaking folk. Alaskan halibut with seared heirloom tomato, garden squash and basil vinaigrette. My fish is cooked to perfection, buttery, soft and just falling apart. Fish cookery at its finest. The seared tomato adds a touch of acidity to the dish while the basil rounds everything out with herbaceous freshness. It is a lovely summer lunch and I am loving it. For Jess. Gnocchi a la Parisienne. Sautéed gnocchi with garden vegetables and brown butter sauce. This dish is a dish of Napa; it screams summer garden and the sauce is that little bit of lux that everyone needs. We also have side dishes. As if we needed them. Sweet corn with bacon and a whole dish of macaroni gratin. Wow we are so so full but I have to keep eating. It’s going to take a hero to eat dessert.

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This time the hero was not myself but Jess. She stepped up to thetraveltotaste need for photos and ordered mousse au chocolat au lait with fleur de sel caramel. This is a dish from the heavens. Milk chocolate mousse covered in a dark chocolate glaze and filled with salted caramel. Good god that is serious richness.  Thought I couldn’t possibly take another bite but suddenly all I want is more. We polish off the dessert and then Woody takes us into the heart of the machine. The kitchen.

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One word can describe the kitchen at Bouchon. Efficient. There are chefs cleaning every surface while the sous calls dockets. Chefs on the grill look like they’ve been there for years. The kitchen hums with quiet confidence. Not just because they know the Thomas Keller name is behind them but the chefs here have the knowledge that what they’re doing is appreciated by their customers. Everyone here is smiling and the food is truly fantastic. Get yourself to Yountville and get yourself to Bouchon.

The French Laundry may be Chef Keller’s renowned restaurant but Bouchon stands strong on its own very firm feet. You may struggle to get reservations at TFL but Bouchon is ready to welcome you and it is well worth it.

Step into chef Keller’s world. This machine is ready to roll.

Josh and Jess

Bouchon Bistro Yountville
6534 Washington ST Yountville, California USA
http://www.bouchonbistro.com/yountville