Off-Topic: Food and Travel in Europe

The following is a brief diversion from my normal coffee-centric blogging. But given that most people who are into coffee tend to also like food - I thought this might be the right place (and of some interest to you).

I just returned from what one might call a "trip of a lifetime."
Now... to be clear I don't mean that I rode on the Orient Express or climbed Everest or toured the Vatican. This wasn't a lifetime event for the travel, but rather for the food.

I was fortunate enough to get to spend some time in London, Paris and south of Biarritz on the Cote Basque. While in these places - I had some meals that rank amongst the best of my life. And for those who know the way I eat - that's a statement.

Given this, rather than doing a "trip report" that details each day blah blah - I'm going to simply talk about the stand-out places I ate, give some recommendations and provide closing thoughts.

First... Let's go through the stand-outs, ranked purely subjectively.

l'Arpege - Paris, FR

If you are are serious about food (either as a professional or a consumer) then you already know about Arpege and about Alain Passard. This is considered by most to be one of the greatest restaurants in the world - and has been consistently thought of as such for more than a decade now. Michelin 3 Stars. Top 20 in the Pelligrino rankings. Etc. Etc.

To be honest, I was a little worried about this meal. The menu is largely vegetarian. It's hugely expensive and outrageously hyped. Could it satisfy? Could it live up to the burden of expectations?

Um... yeah. Let's just say I was completely unprepared. The meal not only exceeded my expectations - it made me realize just how low a bar I'd been setting. Seriously.

Every single dish was wonderful tasting. Every single dish was - dare I say it - perfect. Perfect ingredients. Perfect technique. From the famous Arpege egg (pictured here) to the stunning asparagus, carrot and marjoram consomme to a beet sushi that had me nearly in tears - every dish was beyond the hopes and dreams of most good chefs.

But Passard clearly considers the above to simply be the minimum bar. Yeah... what other chefs strive for he considers the minimum. And he holds himself to this higher standard in a way that I've not seen before.

The meal challenged so many assumptions and perceptions about dining, food, meals and restaurants. As I said to a friend after, "I didn't even know I had blinders on for him to remove."

I'm a carnivore. I love meat in all ways and in general don't eat a lot of things that are green colored. And this has worked for me - as in general we assume that a dish uses a protein as its centerpiece. Passard could care less about this tradition. Instead he throws away all such labels and creates a meal that, while not vegetarian per se, ignores the protein-centric nature of fine dining. The combination of this freedom and the constraints that come with such a decision have enabled creativity that I've never seen before in restaurants. This isn't showy flashy creativity with foams and liquid nitrogen. No... this is gentle, subtle and elegant. This isn't experimental - it's creative genius.

The meal was the most expensive of my life (and by a huge margin). But I will not think of dining the same - and will never forget this night. To say there is no restaurant in the United States like this is doing a huge disservice to Passard. There simply is no restaurant like this in the world.

Throw away your prejudices, start saving, and just go. Absolutely one of the top three dining experiences of my life.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal - London, UK

Another world famous chef - but in a new restaurant and setting. While The Fat Duck is modernist, experimental, molecular and in the countryside - Dinner is traditionalist, refined and in the city. This is a relatively new restaurant, but is clearly one that is going to be ranked amongst the best in the world (the newest Pellegrino rankings demonstrate this).

I have to confess that I was intimidated by the menu. British dishes from the 16th through 19th centuries?!?! Umm... Let's be honest - the general perception is that British food prior to the late '80s was at best marginally edible.

I was a fucking idiot.

The important detail is not the concept behind the menu - but rather the person behind the stove. And, as with l'Arpege, the constraints are applied to enable greater creativity. And it works. Good god does it work.

Rather than the tasting menu approach we took at Arpege - due to decreased appetites (blame jet lag) we ordered a la carte. If or when I return - I will absolutely leave myself in the chef's hands.

From the incredible Meat Fruit (a 16th century dish pictured here) to an absolutely perfect 48 hour slow cooked beef short rib - this was a bold statement by a gifted chef.

There is a huge amount of pride here - pride in the British heritage, British ingredients and British cooking. This is a chef challenging my preconceptions and biases about British food - and the biases and preconceptions of the food world as well.

The service was also exceptional. We were seated next to a couple who were engaged in a knockdown drag-out fight over dinner. No. I'll be honest and blunt. We were seated next to a horrific harpy who spent our entire meal abusing her husband verbally at quite high volume. The staff handled the situation professionally and as well as they possibly could - turning what could have been a bad experience for us into a great one. Oh... also, their bartenders are VERY good.

The only negative of the meal was the wine list. While the list is truly extraordinarily curated and focused - it's also dramatically over-priced (even for such a good restaurant in such an expensive city.

I would eat here again in a heartbeat - and in fact hope to eat here every time I come to London.

Briketenia - Guethary, FR

This was my first time visiting the Cote Basque and let me simply say it will most certainly not be the last. I feel like a fool for taking so long to get here. The combination of Basque and French cultures - seasoned with Parisian chic and money and California surfer style and vibe create a truly unique and wonderful place. And all this in a setting that is beyond magical.

Given the reputation of Basque food in the world these days - it should come as no shock that the food in this region is excellent. And of all the places we ate at - Briketenia stood out as by far the most special.

We arrived before sunset and as a result had a meal in the (wonderful) dining room while the light softened, the sun set and the world outside the huge windows transformed to night.

From the impecable Foie starter (pictured here) to the stunning Egg with Truffle Sauce and Morel Marmalade to a Wagyu Beef and Potato Noodle dish that simply couldn't have been improved... this was a meal that anyone would have been proud to serve.

To be blunt... if I were served this meal in a Parisian 3-star restaurant I would have been overjoyed. And if those Parisian restaurants had the sort of honest, authentic and soulful service that Briketenia has - I think we'd all be much happier.

Finally... this meal was truly a bargain. While not a budget restaurant in any way - it was an extraordinary value for what we got.

One final side note: Guethary is a truly amazing place, with consistently stunning food. I cannot recommend it more highly if you are into food, culture, beauty and the ocean.

Ostalamer - Acotz, FR

You could call this a seafood house. I mean... it sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean (overlooking one of the great surf breaks in Europe in fact). And it serves local seafood. But let's be clear... most so-called seafood houses only dream of being this good.

Finding somewhere that takes the best, freshest seafood and cooks it honestly, simply and perfectly is shockingly hard in much of the world. It's likely that most Americans haven't really ever had the pleasure of such an experience. If you are such a person - you need to go to Ostalamer.

Perfect local anchovies - simply grilled with salt and local olive oil, with a drizzle of lemon. I will dream about the glory of this dish forever. Enormous local shrimp - again grilled with salt and olive oil - juicy and rich and buttery. A langoustine salad consisting of a handful of simply perfect enormous charred langoustines along with a small salad.

And the setting... just incredible. Like something from a dream. Sitting here, looking out over the Atlantic and down to the Pyrenees, sipping a simple Basque rose or a glass of Sangria and eating local seafood that was likely still swimming in the waters of St Jean de Luz early that morning... this is the life I live in my dreams.  This is also the only restaurant that we ate at twice. In fact... we ate here two days in a row. And we would have gone back a third day had we been staying that long.

The only weakness is the deserts - which should simply be skipped (have another round of anchovies instead).

Other Restaurants

We ate at a number of other good restaurants (Fish House in London, Le Cinq Mars in Paris) that would have been highlights of many other trips I've taken. But in this context they were simply good and thus not worth detailing. This is no slight to them - but simply an indication of just how extraordinary the above restaurants are.

Closing Thoughts

To say I am fortunate is an understatement. To say that I am grateful for this experience should be obvious.

Will I go back to l'Arpege? This is a question a few people have asked - and it's one I struggle with. To be honest, the cost of a meal there is simply hard for me to justify... twice. Would I suggest that someone who hasn't been there (and can afford it) go? Good god yes!!!! In a fucking heartbeat. But twice? That's tough. It's just so pricey.

What was my favorite dish? This is another oft-asked question - and another hard one to answer. The candidates for me would be the Beet Sushi from l'Arpege, the Meat Fruit from Dinner and the Anchovies from Ostalamer. And to be honest...  I cannot choose and don't want to.

What was the worst meal I ate? That would be the ramen I cooked in my hotel room in London one night in a jet-lagged fugue state. My only defense is that jet lag would be considered a major psychological disorder if it were not self-correcting. So I plead temporary insanity.

What is the best food city? By population? Guethary. That's an easy one. In terms of odds of getting an edible meal? That again is easy - Paris. But in terms of my (personal) taste it would be London.

My big fear is that nothing in the rest of my life will live up to the last 2 weeks.

Thank you for taking me with you Valerie. It was perfect.

1 comment:

Tomatohead said...

Meat fruit. No, thank you for taking me with you - (if only vicariously) C&V.