Best of the Best 2005: Dining
Well before it opened in February 2004 in the Time Warner Center, Per Se had the most elusive dinner reservations in New York. Then there was the fire. Six days after Thomas Keller’s restaurant opened, an electrical blaze incapacitated its kitchen, and while the damage to the interior was minimal, three months passed before Per Se reopened. Virtually any other restaurant would not have survived such a setback, but Per Se is thriving, living up to its hype and winning over demanding New York diners, many of whom remember Rakel, Keller’s last solo effort in the city, which fizzled following the stock market crash of 1987. Keller has returned to New York as a seasoned veteran who, although notoriously self-confident, seems genuinely surprised by the triumph of his latest venture. “Per Se is certainly what I’d hoped it would be, but I’m modest and respectful of reality,” he says. “We’ve had tremendous success thus far, much more than I would have thought. I’m the luckiest guy in world.”
It is fair to say that Per Se is the East Coast twin of French Laundry, Keller’s famed restaurant in Yountville, Calif.; Keller says that, gastronomically, the two restaurants display the same high standards and occasionally some of the same dishes, such as butter-poached lobster, a French Laundry staple. Keller often leaves Per Se in the hands of chef de cuisine Jonathan Benno, who works with him to create a unique brand of haute American cuisine. Their interpretation involves brilliant (if maddeningly exact) French technique and fanatical pursuit of the finest ingredients coupled with American dynamism, courage, and whimsy in the use and presentation of those ingredients. For example, the Per Se version of macaroni and cheese is made with mascarpone-dressed orzo that serves as the bed for a lobster cooked sous vide (poached in an airtight plastic wrap to maintain its juices). The lobster is served in a flight of three tails poached in butter and lacquered with different glazes: saffron-vanilla sauce, red beet jus, and vermouth glaze. Each has a buttery sea-brine flavor and texture, but the sauces impart subtle complementary accents.
Pastry chef Sébastien Rouxel’s desserts display the same wit and skill of the main courses. His rendition of a Creamsicle consists of a scoop of orange-scented vanilla ice cream drenched with molten Valrhona chocolate that quickly hardens into a shell. A tasting of prunes cooked sous vide alongside a trio of fennel-flavored morsels is equally memorable. The herb also finds its way into the accompanying toast, the marmalade, and the Yountville fennel bud ice cream, which is made from fennel grown near French Laundry.
Like French Laundry, Per Se is characterized by innovation and craftsmanship, and by Keller’s complete control of the operation, which he declines to compare to other New York restaurants. “We’re trying to look at ourselves to make a difference, not at others. I don’t mean that at all arrogantly, but rather humbly—I like to think that we make a difference with what we are by who we are.” —Anthony Giglio
Per Se, 212.823.9335, www.perseny.com
Le tout Paris was abuzz when, in early 2004, newly installed chef Yannick Alleno unveiled the menu he had created for patrons of Le Meurice, the lavish, Louis XV–style restaurant at the grand hotel of the same name. After all, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro, it had been the gastronomic event of the year when the chef, 35 years old at the time, moved from Les Muses, the restaurant for which he had earned two Michelin stars, to the Meurice, then a one-star property on the rue de Rivoli across from the Tuilleries. Indeed, the consequences of Alleno’s move proved nothing less than seismic. A mere five months after his cuisine’s debut, Alleno won a second star for Le Meurice while, alas, the rating of the restaurant he had just left fell to one star. Today Alleno continues to excite Le Meurice’s patrons with the stunning presentations, subtle harmonies, and intense flavors of such creations as sea bass in a piquant sauce served with sardine mousse—his personal favorite. —Jack Smith
Le Meurice, +126.96.36.199.10.55, www.lemeurice.com
After an eight-year stint in the kitchen of French Laundry, during which he rose to the position of chef de cuisine, Eric Ziebold left Napa Valley to open his own restaurant, CityZen, in September 2004 in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C. The reasons why Thomas Keller held Ziebold’s talents in high esteem are evident in every dish, from the amuses bouche (which can consist of a light, flaky mushroom fritter that is the size of a cough drop; a refreshing lobster broth; and an olive oil custard anointed with a layer of strongly spiced butter) to the bonbon-size Parker House rolls that are presented in a small rectangular wooden box.
Ziebold tweaks the CityZen menu nightly and changes it completely on a monthly basis to take advantage of the seasons and new ingredients that come to his attention. One such discovery is shoat, a type of pig that is larger than a suckling pig and smaller than a mature animal, which he learned of through a supplier near Gettysburg, Pa. Ziebold recalls considering that it was a typographical error on the order form he received, but shoat has become a favorite ingredient of his.
The often-changing menu invigorates the restaurant and rewards repeat patrons who prefer fresh pleasures over old favorites. In late March, CityZen offered an entrée of pan-seared Maine sea scallops with purple Peruvian potatoes, celery branch, red pearl onions, applewood-smoked bacon, and a foamlike scallop chowder sauce. The three plump, oversize scallops were arranged in a manner that encouraged you to sample them with one accompaniment at a time—allowing you to savor how well each paired with the meaty, tender fish. This nibble-by-nibble progression inevitably suggested adding a bit of everything to a single bite, and the result was the culinary equivalent of a powerful coda to a symphony.
—Sheila Gibson Stoodley
CityZen, 202.787.6006, www.mandarinoriental.com
Just Say Noé
Chef Robert Gadsby is on a quest for perfection. He sought it by working with culinary stars Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon, then continued to strive for it at his critically acclaimed eponymous restaurant in Los Angeles, and now attempts to achieve it each night at his newest venture, Noé, at the Omni Houston Hotel. “I feel a spirit of adventure and a desire to transcend what has been done before,” says Gadsby. “Noé provides a perfect platform to surpass what I’ve already accomplished.”
Noé’s impeccable service, elegant ambience, and progressive American cuisine have elevated the standard for hotel dining. Gadsby’s solid French techniques combined with his Asian and Italian aesthetics and market-fresh American ingredients produce some of the most complex flavors and artistic presentations ever plated. Dishes such as the mimosa salad with chicken and sesame honey dressing, molded into a near-flawless cone and served alongside a minted mango frappé, leave diners searching for the highest words of praise.
Noé, 713.871.8177, www.omnihotels.com
Chef Laurent Tourondel demonstrated his mastery of fish during his stint at Cello, whose 2002 closing continues to be mourned by many Manhattan diners, so it came as a surprise when, in March 2004, he followed that endeavor with BLT Steak (the letters stand for Bistro Laurent Tourondel, not for the sandwich), his take on the American steak house. However, Tourondel has proved himself as capable with beef as he is with fish. And as if to emphasize that his latest New York establishment is no ordinary steak house, he offers an amuse bouche of foie gras mousse capped with a shimmering, molasses-colored marrow gelée, and he substitutes hot, muffin-size popovers baked with Gruyère cheese for the traditional bread basket. Tourondel relies on DeBragga and Spitler steaks that are dry-aged for 28 days. Diners can select an onglet (aka hanger steak, a delectable cut from between the rib and the loin), a New York strip, or a gorgeous porterhouse for two, all of which are crusted beautifully outside and are ruby red medium-rare inside—unless you prefer a different level of doneness. Although fish is not the chef’s focus here (he opened BLT Fish earlier this year), the Dover sole, sautéed on the bone with caper-spiked brown butter, is not to be missed. —Anthony Giglio
BLT Steak, 212.752.7470, www.bltsteak.com
Combining the French techniques he learned under Alain Ducasse with the creativity he absorbed in Spain at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, L’Auberge Carmel’s executive chef Walter Manzke creates petite, full-flavored dishes sure to seduce the most jaded gastronome. Opened in August 2004 and located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., the intimate restaurant is the centerpiece of a landmark European-style inn. L’Auberge diners begin their evenings with an amuse bouche such as the paella—a rendition of the Spanish classic that is compacted into one assertive bite and served with Champagne. Manzke, a San Diego native, has a penchant for Mexican-influenced dishes such as lobster taco, which he separates into three components: clarified tomato and cilantro juice, presented in a shot glass with a single tortilla chip (he calls this chips and salsa); a spoonful of guacamole and lobster; and a second shot glass with lime sorbet and a few drops of reposado tequila, which gives the item the essence of a margarita but not the effect.
L’Auberge Carmel, 831.624.8578, www.laubergecarmel.com
A Bold Mix
In Las Vegas, a city that does not favor subtlety, Alain Ducasse’s Mix, located in The Hotel atop Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, presents a compelling blend of sophisticated restraint with the requisite dramatic flourish. A delightful example of the latter is the two-tiered dining room crowned with thousands of handblown glass balls that look like bubbles floating to the top of a champagne flute.
The waiters at Mix make you feel like an insider, leaning in to describe each dish as if imparting a secret to a friend. They will tell you about dishes, all deftly executed by chef Bruno Davaillon, that go far beyond Ducasse’s usual French-American fare. His Thai beef salad with mango and green papaya and his kampachi carpaccio (kampachi is a type of fish) dressed in olive oil shine as brightly as Ducasse signature dishes such as duck breast with glazed black mission figs. —Anthony Head
Mix, 702.632.9500, www.alain-ducasse.com
Masa, the Japanese restaurant in New York’s Time Warner Center, has garnered some attention for its pricing policy—each of the restaurant’s 26 patrons spends $350 apiece, not including beverages, taxes, and tip, to feast on whatever chef Masa Takayama offers them—but this price includes a share of the chef’s attention; Takayama is always on hand, preparing dinner for each of his guests. Rather than providing menus, he follows the Japanese tradition of omakase, which means “the chef decides.” During a three- to four-hour dinner at Masa, Takayama may appear at the table with caviar and tuna sliced paper-thin, a white truffle tempura, or green tea that he whisks as you watch. By the end of the meal, you are convinced that surrendering control sometimes can be the best course of action. —Scott Haas
Masa, 212.823.9800, www.masanyc.com
For Restaurant Michael Mina, its setting in San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis has been both a blessing and a curse. Last fall, the hotel was one of 14 in the Bay Area targeted by a workers’ strike, an incident that shuttered the eatery for two months shortly after its July 2004 debut. But the restaurant—which reopened in December in its columned, cream-colored space adjacent to the lobby of the Union Square property—is perhaps the city’s most inviting venue for a meal, and Mina’s menu is every bit as engaging.
Mina, the former chef at San Francisco’s Aqua, has created a complex tasting menu from which diners select a primary ingredient for each course. Servings consist of three interpretations of the item, each accompanied by a sauce and side dish. A first-course order of lobster, for instance, includes a lobster chimichanga with avocado salsa and brandywine tomato, a lobster corn dog (coated and deep-fried like its namesake) with whole-grain mustard and German green tomato, and a lobster and grilled cheese sandwich with basil aioli and golden jubilee tomato. Second courses follow this format of a core ingredient prepared three ways, and the theme climaxes with dessert, the richest of which is a chocolate cake served, alternately, with butterscotch, chocolate malt, and peanut butter mousse fillings, and three miniature milkshakes to match.
Beyond a surplus of calories, the downside to Mina’s menu is that the choices can prove overwhelming to the uninitiated. Fortunately, the restaurant’s staff, several of whom have worked with Mina in the past, are well versed in their leader’s cuisine. For every crispy-skin quail mostarda with purple Peruvian potato and huckleberries, or kurobuta pork loin with carrot risotto and kumquat jalapeño marmalade, there is a server who knows the dish intimately. This familiarity with Mina’s menu holds true for the restaurant’s wine director, Rajat Parr, who succeeds in the intricate task of pairing vintages from his 2,200-selection list to the sundry flavors in each course. Diners who put themselves in the hands of Parr and the rest of Michael Mina’s capable staff are sure to leave the restaurant satisfied—and grateful that these hotel employees are back on the job. —Bruce Wallin
Restaurant Michael Mina, 415.397.9222
A World of Oysters
The chefs at Tokyo’s Maimon Oyster Bar & Charcoal Grill (Maimon for short) scour the planet for the finest ingredients and showcase them in dishes such as a small, egg-shaped plate of tuna sashimi that tastes as rich as foie gras. Another remarkable dish features three cube-shaped pieces of Kobe beef, which you are invited to sear on a super-heated slab of lava that is placed in the center of the table. But Maimon’s oyster menu outshines all of its other offerings. More than 50 varieties are available, prepared in several different ways: fried, baked, grilled, and, of course, raw. Whether it tastes sweet, salty, or even milky, every Maimon oyster carries a briny freshness. Those who have no plans to visit Tokyo but still would like to sample Maimon’s offerings will be able do so in New York—though not until the fall of 2006, when a branch of the restaurant is set to open in Times Square. —Scott Haas
Maimon Oyster Bar & Charcoal Grill, www.maimon.jp