Finding home again. My time working and dining @ The Ledbury

Finding home again. My time working and dining @ The Ledbury

Well this is it, the reason why I’m here. It’s been a long year of saving, trip planning and travelling but I am standing outside the number thirteen restaurant in the world. My backpack heavy with my knives, aprons, clogs and notebook. Notting Hill drizzles with rain, a solitary milk truck makes its rounds behind me. The streets are empty at 8am and there is an air of calm about the place. Time to get to work.

So this is a dining review of Brett Graham’s incredible restaurant, The Ledbury, but as I’ve been working here these past few weeks I thought I’d give you a little insight into what actually goes on at one of the best restaurants in the world. This is what started our journey and it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Rain seeps down the stairs as I head down and introduce myself to the chefs, each of them are furiously prepping violet artichokes, they’ll be on for lunch today with fresh walnuts and grated foie gras. “Grab a peeler.” I’m home. Fish arrives at the back door. Oceanic, bright, caught this morning. Turbot slips past me and onto the fish section where Billy thoroughly inspects the quality. This is The Ledbury if it’s not perfect, it’s not being served. Turbot passes inspection, mackerel on the other hand gets a check from Sous Chef Greg, “yesterdays weren’t that bright, we sent them back.” Today the silver, shining fish stare back almost still live, inspection passed.

Suddenly I’m slapped on the back. “You’re Troy’s boy aren’t ya!” Holy crap it’s Brett Graham. I manage to stutter out a “nice to meet you chef, yeah I worked for Troy.” “You’ll fit right in here than.” He charges through the kitchen checking prep, tasting sauces and ensuring everyone is ready for lunch. I’m on canapés today so I quickly head over and check my section; gruyere mousse, wafer thin tart shells made from brick pastry and dehydrated olives. The fridge is also used for garnish so my drawers are stuffed with black truffles from Wiltshire, foie gras mousse, painstakingly picked wood sorrel, quail eggs wrapped in katafi and other woodland greens.

Service is like watching a well oiled machine, there are chefs that have been here for years, others that have just started. The pace is hectic, dockets fly in for tasting, a la carte, special menus and the food they pump out is something truly special. After I take a quick punishing on canapés trying to keep my damn hands from trembling I get thrown onto starters. Flame grilled mackerel with pickled cucumber, Celtic mustard and shiso. My first real plate at The Ledbury, I am plating at one of the best restaurants in the world, this is incredible. “That swipes not clean enough Josh, we’ll start that one again.” Damn! Well I’m here to learn and the rest go out without a hitch. The pace is addictive, Brett charging forward with the service yelling jobs at all his crew. “Go on two deer Jules!” “Foam this velouté,” “pull plates for curd” this is unbelievable. The team work so well together and the energy is infectious.

Lunch is finished and we scrub every possible surface from top to bottom, prep is pulled. Dinner looms. Brett has something that is truly unique, his ever changing menu allows him to fully utilise the produce that is best at that moment. Nothing is wasted; jowls of pigs are slow cooked to perfect, rich deliciousness, scallop corals are infused in stocks to make sauces, mushroom trimmings become silky purée. It is a wonderful way to cook and has made me think so much about my own cookery and how I want to emulate this style. Now I could talk about working here forever it was such great experience but I think it’s time we get to food.

So here we go.

Jess and I are dressed to impress and look incredibly out of place on the tube bound for Notting Hill. The Ledbury calls, after working here for these past few weeks I just cannot wait to eat. Yes I’ve been tasting as much as I can along the way but it’s nothing compared to experiencing the full dining room, the stunning decor and the wonderful service from our host Darren.

We’re seated and drinks are poured, a little champagne from Brett, thanks chef! We are sitting back and letting chef Greg do our menu for us. So no agonising choices to make, just relax and let the team do what they do best. Our canapés arrive, those little bites I’ve now prepped like a thousand times. Goat’s cheese mousse, spiced brick pastry, dehydrated olives. The goat’s cheese is whipped till light and fluffy and the lightly spiced tart crunches fantastically. A great little bite. Let’s eat.

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Cevice of hand diced scallops with Tokyo turnips, seaweed oil and frozen horseradish. It’s cold here in London but this dish is oddly warming, the creamy scallop and the heat of horseradish tempered by umami rich seaweed seems to warm the cockles. The dining room here is softly lit, stag horn centrepieces and rich copper tones also make the space feel wonderfully warm. The scallop is incredible quality, I helped prize these beauties from their shells, and the little pops of spherified apple freshen up the dish.

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Next a lump of clay is brought to our table, inside, a roasted beetroot. Our waiter cracks through the baked shell and releases earthy aromas throughout the restaurant. For your next course, beetroot baked in clay with smoked eel and dried olives. The dish arrives looking picturesque and smelling fantastic. Deliciously soft beetroot takes an even earthier note from the clay, the smoked eel brings a lovely taste from the water that pairs well with the bitter olives and sweet beets. This dish is fantastic, a great treating of the humble beetroot truly making it sing.

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Quail egg in crisp katafi, cauliflower and truffle. This is a dish that really speaks of The Ledbury, an ingredient they use insanely well is our friend the black truffle. The egg is oozey and soft, diving into the bright white cauliflower purée and covered, and I mean covered, in black truffle. The katafi pastry is fried to crisp golden crunchiness and a little vinaigrette of cep works to balance all that richness. What a dish, simple yet executed perfectly.

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Next boudin of pheasant, chestnut and thyme velouté. Using the pheasant in a boudin is clever as the meat can sometimes dry, here it is mixed with a little fat and gently poached keeping the whole thing moist and delicious. The chestnut and thyme work so well together giving everything a note of the forest, the thyme velouté is frothed lightly over the dish and cuts through rich chestnut and moorish boudin. Jess and I loved this dish, so much more than just pheasant, the food here allows the ingredients to shine. Brett and his team ensure this by only using the highest quality of products and treating them with the respect they deserve.

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Another great combination arrives, halibut with pumpkin, crispy ginger and mandarin. The fish is roasted beautifully, the pumpkin appears in a few forms; a soft froth bubbling in and around the fish like the lapping of ocean waves, some roasted spheres and a purée mixed with the tart mandarin. Fish cookery at its finest, it is light, delicate and flakes apart at the lightest touch. The ginger and mandarin brought an almost asiatic vibe to this dish that was refreshing after what can only be described as incredibly modern contemporary british food. Brett being a fellow Aussie is more then used to the melting pot of cultures within cuisine and here is a great example of his own interpretations.

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Jess and I have debated and argued over this next dish, we cannot decide if it was our favourite amongst so many other amazing courses. Celeriac baked in juniper ash with hazelnuts, lardo and roasting juices. I can only begin to describe the taste of this course. The ash gave a smokey floral taste to the celeriacs somewhat bitter flesh. Lardo and hazelnuts brought the luxury to an almost peasant dish. To use an ingredient so simply and create something so divine is the mark of true talent, I loved this dish. I cleared my plate and was eyeing of Jess’s like a crazed maniac, lucky our next course arrived and I fell in love all over again.

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Roast breast of pigeon with Victoria plums, red vegetables and leaves. Brett and his team cook everything fantastically but their standout performances come to game, it is something Brett and I have in common, we both love cooking and eating game. This dish was a wonderful, succulent breast of wood pigeon aged in hay before being roasted to perfection. Plums being a lovely partner to game with beets and wilted red leaves bringing everything to earth. A little dot of foie gras mousse gave another level of creamy decadence. Game birds have such amazing flavour and yet they don’t seem to be utilised as much back home, here they stand up proud.

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Now for some meat, and I mean probably some of the best quality beef I have ever eaten, no it’s not wagyu, I find that the flavours of great beef tend to be found in grass fed, well aged cuts. Fillet of belted Galloway with crisp potato, smoked marrow and burnt onion. This meat tasted of true beef, now I sometimes think fillet, being an under-utilised muscle can lack flavour, here the ageing process and the addition of smoked marrow made the grass and umami flavours explode. Sweet onions, a sauce of juniper and a purée of parsley combined in meaty harmony. I cannot rave enough about the level of skill the chefs have here, their cookery is what makes them one of the best restaurants in the world and the food showcases their talents.

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Stomachs filling it is time for the sweet finish, we begin with a pre dessert of sea buckthorn curd, meringue and mandarin granita. So refreshing, sea buckthorn is a tart little berry found along English shorelines, the sour balanced by sweet meringue and light fluffy mandarin. Following the beef this course completely cleansed the palate and readied us for desserts.

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Speaking of desserts what follows is an onslaught of wonderful calories, thank heavens the queen of desserts is here with me or I would have struggled. First another little pre dessert taste, fig leaf ice cream, salted caramel and beignets filled with fig jam. Wow, the fig leaf ice cream tastes vividly green, wild and herbaceous. The caramel is dark and salty bringing great toffee notes playing with the ice cream. Finally who doesn’t love doughnuts, light and puffed, filled with an intense fig jam. This taste was finished in about four mouthfuls.

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Next a banana and chocolate malt tartlet. Simply presented yet beautifully complex in texture. Crisp, short, chocolate pastry is filled with caramelised banana, banana ice cream and topped with a seriously dark, decadent chocolate espuma. Finished with some malt crumbs this dish brought new force to choc banana. The pastry was like a whisper, the mousse like a cloud. A lovely dessert of textures and tastes.

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As if the chocolate wasn’t rich enough, brown sugar tart with poached grapes and stem ginger ice cream proves to nearly push me over the edge. However the insanely buttery tart is cut down by the cleansing ginger, a great flavour combination made better by the knowledge of just how much work goes into this dish. The perfect timing of the tart in order to set it with that sexy wobble, the agonising chore of peeling grapes and so many other elements that make up this pastry prima ballerina.

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We have reached the end. The end of our dinner and the end of my time at The Ledbury, we head down to the kitchen to say goodbye to the guys, we’ve been here for hours and the chefs are deep into the scrub. It’s strange but although I was only here working for a short time I feel like I bonded with the team and they each taught me so much, about food, about becoming a chef and about myself. The entire team at The Ledbury is so dedicated to achieving perfection that it truly infects each and every person who walks through the doors. It shows on their plates, it shows in their fantastic floor staff, every detail is taken care of because giving anything less is just not an option. An inspiring place to work and I still can’t thank the guys enough for letting a starter like me become a part of their team.

Goodbyes are said and we finish off upstairs with petit four, a juniper flavoured biscuit with caramelised cream, apple jellies and eucalyptus chocolates. The final bites to what has been an inspiring meal and the end of an amazing experience. When in London this would be my number one recommendation because the place is truly awesome. Brett and his team create something special every service and will continue to drive the food of London in new directions. Get yourself through these doors.

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Tell Brett and the guys we said hi!

Josh and Jess

Dined November 2013
The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Road London, England
http://www.theledbury.com

Cookery with class. Dining @ Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Cookery with class. Dining @ Restaurant Gordon Ramsay

Well you’ve seen him screaming at terrified chefs, hurling abuse at dismal restaurateurs and throwing the occasional plate of food into the ground. This is Gordon Ramsay, or so the media would have you believe. If his flagship restaurant, run by the incredibly talented Clare Smyth, says anything of Ramsay’s true nature then it describes him as humble, extremely dedicated and possessing an eye for detail that makes this restaurant the longest holder of three Michelin stars in all of London. This is Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.

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We arrive in beautiful Chelsea to a slightly damp evening, quickly forgotten as we are ushered into the stunning dining room on Royal Hospital Road. Gold and silver glitter amongst the tables. The diners themselves seem to glitter, Katy Perry sits in a corner table with John Mayer causing Jess’s jaw to drop. Celebrity spotting is definitely not what we’re here for however. This is about food.

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Menus arrive and we decide to change pace a little and thought we would eat a la carte. Yes I know it’s not the usual tasting menu straight up but we have a tonne of eating to do here in London and want to be under 300 kilo when we return home. With decisions made and Champagne in hand we relax and let Clare and her team work their magic. Snacks weave their way towards us, a perfectly oozing quail scotch egg is crunchy and creamy whilst a truffle steamed bun sits like a little cloud on the plate.

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As quick as they arrive they disappear and we are presented with a little treat from the kitchen. A cannelloni of leek stuffed with porcini in a velouté of chestnut. Incredible. The soft, sweet leek with slippery, earthy porcini melts into the richness that comes only from wonderful chestnut. This is understated simplicity, the quality of the ingredient, the skill of cookery. It takes a good chef to use ingredients well, it takes a great one to let the ingredients speak for themselves. This was a decadent way to begin the proceedings and left us both wanting more.

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First course arrives, for Jess a Ramsay classic. Having seen the recipe for this in his famous 3* cookbook I was keen to see the dish itself. Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon poached in a light bisque with oscietra caviar and sorrel velouté. It arrives looking like a perfect dome, black caviar adding an extra layer of lux to what proved to be meticulously cooked seafood served with the lightly citric sorrel velouté. This is classic cookery, though foams, gels and airs are incredible it is not everyday one gets to experience food like this. This is cooking at its finest.

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For me I of course see offal on the menu and dive right in. Yes I’m a chef and these are the tasty bits I love to eat. Forgive me vegos. Sautéed foie gras with roasted veal sweetbreads, carrots, almonds and Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar. Wow, meaty, creamy, sweet, savoury. This dish sang off the plate. The foie is pan roasted and melts like butter, the sweetbreads are fried in nutty brown butter and the vinegar brings the acid to cut down all that delicious fat! This starter had guts, well it had offal, ok a poor joke I apologise, but it is the only way I can describe it. A flavour explosion that had me gobbling mouthfuls and wanting to lick the plate. 3 Michelin stars wouldn’t mind would they?

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Still savouring the fantastic starters and keeping Jess from staring at Katy Perry for too long, main course arrives. Well actually only part of it arrives, my Cornish turbot cooked en papillotte is opened in front of us, the smell is a heavenly scent of ocean, seaweed and butter. Ok I’m salivating, get that fish on a plate lets go. Cornish turbot baked on the bone with seaweed, palourde clams, coco beans and fennel. This is probably one of the best fish dishes I have ever eaten! Yes that is saying a lot and I don’t care, this dish is amazing. The turbot takes on all of the umami flavours from the seaweed, the fennel brings in a lovely liquorice note and the beans are creamy and moorish. I dream of cooking fish this perfectly, the turbot peels away from itself in delicate white flakes, this is the fish they serve in heaven.

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Utterly distracted by my fish course I almost miss a taste of Jess’s Cotswold lamb,
autumn vegetable “Navarin,” best end, braised shank, confit breast and shoulder. If I’d have waited a few seconds more I probably would have missed out because Jess sure looks like she is enjoying it. The lamb is blushing pink, the braise unctuous and sticky and the confit as it should be, rich! There is a tonne of technique going on in this dish. This is not lamb and vegetables, it is so much more. This is treating the lamb with the respect it deserves and serving as much of it as possible. A feast of meat cooked to perfection.

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Now in all honesty I could sit back feeling content for hours, actually I could probably have one more bite of fish, but we must go forth into the world of pastry. Our palates are cleansed with a refreshing mix of goats milk yoghurt and a passion fruit, mango concoction. Then dessert menus arrive. The part Jess has been waiting for, Katy Perry seems like a distant memory now. Dessert time.

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For once I went for richness, I know I’m not always the dessert lover but I am an insatiable lover of chocolate, especially chocolate and orange. So for me it is smoked chocolate cigar with blood orange and cardamom ice cream. Don’t be fooled by the effeminate looking plate the photo shows you, this was a dessert straight from a dark place, the rich rich chocolate barely giving room to the tart blood orange. Cardamom is a wonderful spice note with chocolate and here only made the chocolate taste even darker, it was a wonderful take on the classic flavours of chocolate and orange.

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It was nice to eat a la carte for a change. We seem to have become so used to tasting menus it was lovely to eat different dishes and chat about what we love. Dining. Service here is immaculate, sharply dressed waiters are friendly, down to earth and happy to chat about the food and their experiences in the restaurant. You could chat with Jean Claude and hear every story from within these walls. We sit back to some petit four of strawberry ice cream dipped in white chocolate, heavenly little bites that round out our meal with some silky smooth coffees. We head into the kitchen for a quick chat with the lovely Clare and a look around the powerhouse of this amazing restaurant. Clare is so humble and chats about how much she still loves cooking and working for Gordon. Maybe he’s a big teddy bear after all??

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Time for us to mosey out, avoiding the paparazzi on the way we farewell what has been an incredible experience of fine dining excellence. Make the time to get here, make the reservation, do whatever it takes. This is classic cooking at its best and needs to be appreciated, Clare and her fantastic team will ensure an amazing evening.

This is definitely not Hell’s Kitchen.

Josh & Jess

Dined October 2013
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
68 Royal Hospital Road London, England
http://www.gordonramsay.com/royalhospitalroad

Two dinners, two days. Day 31 & 32

Two dinners, two days.  Day 31 & 32

Well it has been a hectic two days so I’m sorry I am just getting to post this now.

Day 31 begins with us actually sleeping in. Yes Tanya as well. We are heading back over to the Chelsea markets to get our hands on some incredible lobster once again. First however I have to do something manly, something so manly in fact I can feel my chest hair tingling and my beard sprouting at the very thought of it. Actually I’m going shoe shopping.

We grab the seriously crowded subway looking more and more like New Yorkers everyday, we don’t sit down, don’t crowd walkways and most of all don’t make eye contact. Ok I’m kidding, in fact everyone we’ve encountered on this leg of the trip has been both friendly and helpful. New Yorkers are proud of their city and are happy to help with directions and advice. However as a rule do yourself a favour and don’t ask questions of the guys trying to either sell tour bus tickets, monument guides or crappy house recorded rap demos. The last one got me a treat and I don’t even like rap!

It’s a Saturday and the transformed meat packing district of Manhattan is packed tighter than a Miami Dolphins front row. Get it? American football reference? But jostle your way through the crowds and you’ll find yourself in a fashion savvy, edgy little neighbourhood where the wrong shoes could probably get you punished. Tanya and Jess are on the hunt for the fine dining of footwear. Prada, Gucci and the ultra modern, Christian Louboutin. Suddenly my credit card bursts into flames in my wallet like some fiery demon from beyond. “Don’t worry honey, think of it as a good investment.” Right I think that’s enough shoe shopping for today.

The Chelsea market is definitely worth visiting if you’re in New York. We run straight for the lobster house for another helping of sweet succulent Crustacean. The brioche is golden like sun toasted fields, the mayonnaise as rich as clotted cream and the sweet slipperiness that is perfectly poached fresh lobster meat. I’m not going to lie, it’s a hell of a sandwich. We head up to the high line and Jess discovers one of the best sandwiches I have ever seen. They call it, the mess. A mountain high stack of rich barbecued brisket and molten cheddar cheese all smothered in spicy chili sauce. Oh glory of glories. Holy macaroni! This sandwich is a work of art. I’m getting one!

Once rumbling tummies are silenced we walk around the spice market and the inner markets where they house all the fresh and local produce you can imagine. Stop in and try some bread at Amy’s bakery, they’re serving up ingenious rolls like potato, caramelised onion and dill, all freshly baked and ready for you. Also check out the olive oil and balsamic tasting areas for things like peach balsamic, blood orange olive oil or a rich Colombian espresso salt. Once our legs start to tire we jump back on board the subway and head for the Staten Island ferry.

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Subways in New York City will get you pretty much anywhere that you need to go. When you arrive ask your hotel for a quick guide and familiarise yourself with the lines and the routes. Then, depending on our stay purchase a metro card and you’re on your way. Once you learn how to work the subway I guarantee you will use it so gab yourself an unlimited metro card for 30 bucks rather than topping it up every $2.50 journey. The subway has been renovated and the trains are clean and efficient, much cheaper than simply jumping in a cab and fighting the traffic.

We hop off and jump in the queue for the Staten Island ferry. This is one of the great free things to do in New York and it offers great views of the city and the Statue of Liberty. For us it is about stepping in the fifth and final borough of New York City that we have yet to set foot in. So we catch the ferry, get out and get straight back on. It’s almost dinner time and we do not want to be late.

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Eleven Madison Park. Number five on the list of San Pelligrino’s best 50 restaurants in the world. This is a dream come true. The review is done so you can check it out and all the photos here.

Day 32

 Happy Birthday Aunty Tanya!

Following our fifteen course marathon effort at the indescribable Eleven Madison Park we sleep in. Again! I am feeling more beautiful and radiant than ever. We surprise Tanya with a little cookie we got at the market yesterday and set off on the hunt for more New York sights and wonders. Today our eyes are set upon the Metropolitan Museum.

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Needing the exercise we decide to tackle the city streets on foot this morning. Feeling fit I happily agree. Oh what a poor decision. Turns out that dining almost exclusively on caviar, truffles, foie gras and duck fat will leave you the size of a small whale with the respiratory condition of a severely asthmatic ant. My brain wanted to frolic like a gazelle, instead I waddle like an unenthused hippopotamus. Central Park is a few blocks from our hotel and my ankle bones feel as sturdy as toothpicks. Nevertheless we soldier on.

The Met is a huge building spanning an entire city block with exhibits containing all forms of art and history. We jump straight into ancient Egypt, the relics are amazing and the photos are many. I must mention for you tourists, the met is a public museum so the 25 dollar fee the staff will try to charge you to enter is simply recommended. Jess and I entered for a cool five bucks. The museum is funded by the government so don’t get suckered in to paying tonnes. The Japanese exhibit is a wonderful display of zen beauty and the Greek and roman exhibits took us back in time. The Met is a wonderful place that one could explore for days on end. Check it out when you’re in town.

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Now we must head home because dinner tonight is at WD-50

Here we go again!

Josh and Jess

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