Saturday, December 24, 2011

China Cafe: New York, NY

Date:  vendredi 23 decembre 2011
Location:  13 E. 37th St, New York, NY 10016
Telephone:  +1 212 213 2810

One of the things I love about life is diversity - food, people, culture.  People and cultures can be so different and vast - however food always brings the two together, surpassing the language barriers or cultural challenges.  Through food and wine is how I prefer to explore new countries and cultures. 

Having been based in Israel the past 4 months has showed me a lot in terms of a different way of life, living, culture, and way of thought.  I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to immerse into a completely different culture whilst comparing it all the European, American, Asian, and other Middle Eastern cultures experienced thus far.  Exploring the food and wine of all places visited is one of the best ways to understand a culture - getting right into the heart and terroir of how and what people eat - and understanding why and how they came to love their signature dishes, usually the simple, classic ones.  Speaking with the local chefs, talking with the wine makers, this helps one to understand the true terrain of any region.   Much like wine and its terroir, people and its land by which their food comes from, can dispell a lot of the cultural mysteries that make up a place.

I include the above preamble because upon reflection, I am reminded that no matter where I am, somehow I always come to crave the food of my blood.  I think most people can relate - Spanish love their tapas,  Italians love their pasta, French love their baguette et les fromages, Middle Easterns love their shawarma, pita, and hummus, etc.  Me, though I consider myself a citizen of the world - by blood I am Taiwanese, and so Chinese food - Taiwan style or made the world famous Szechuan style - is the kind of food that makes me feel "at home."  So, living in the Middle East, without easy access to authentic Chinese food, naturally my body craved it after some time and needed a recharge.  What can I say, I am a woman of varied tastes!  I like everything!

Yesterday I landed back in New York City for holiday respite.  In good hands, I was given a glass of Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Extray Dry as an 8am morning welcome drink.  Instant gratification!

After that, came a slow morning of New York City breakfast and coffee, some errands (ie, fixing my Ferragammo eel snakeskin pumps at the corner shoe cobbler), and of course, my trusty wine assistant supplied me with a few printed articles of new Chinese restaurants all recently reviewed in NY Times, for me to choose that evening's dinner spot.  We also mixed in some Sherry tastings at home that afternoon as we tried to pair which would best suit an upcoming dessert to be published in writing by a notable Chef.

Sherries we tasted:  Osborne Sweet Sherry Pedro Ximenez and Armada Rich Cream Oloroso Sandeman.

I came to choose Cafe China because its menu online listed Cold Dishes which brought me back to meals eaten with my family on weekends and in Taiwan.  Bang-Bang Chicken, Spicy Chengdu Wonton, Spicy Beef Tendon, and classic Snow-Pea Shoots sauteed in garlic.  These were all authentic dishes, and it was the closest I could get short of flying direct to Taipei.  The ambience also depicted Shanghai 1930s which felt attractive to me. 

And so after my classic jet lag siesta pre-fiesta, we showed up for 930pm dinner at Cafe China and I was put to strict orders to order more than what we could eat - typical Soledad style because I want to try everything like Dim Sum!  Easily accomplished, I went down the menu list and tick-tick-ticked one item off after the other.  Our bright and enthusiastic waiter named Hardy, from Mongolia, became more and more excited with each dish I ordered, as he quickly realized that I was ordering the best dishes in the house.  Of course!  We instantly bonded and diverted to speaking Mandarin Chinese as he shared some of the nuances between dishes.  I was ecstatic for all that was to come next.  We also learned that the Chef was a non-American speaking Chinese from Chengdu - and this is exactly what I wanted to hear.  Authentic Chinese cooking in New York City, from the mainland. 

Cafe China is a newer restaurant owned by an educated and accomplished Chinese ex-pat husband and wife team with notable experiences both from Wall Street.  Truly heartwarming service and experience in a cozy Shanghai 1930's ambience - cooking by an authentic Chinese Chef using the freshest and most tender ingredients. 

Being a globally well-traveled Taiwanese girl, I am very thankful to have replenished my soul by eating the foods that make me feel like home. 

Cold Dish:  Bang Bang Chicken (shredded chicken in sesame sauce).

Cold Dish:  Baby Cucumber (young cucumber in garlic sauce).

Cold Dish:  Sliced Conch in Chili Oil

Vegetable:  Snow Pea Shoots with Garlic.

Dim Sum:  Dan Dan Noodles (noodles with minced pork).

Dim Sum:  Spicy Chengdu Wonton (wonton in Schechuan peppercorn & vinegarette).

Cold Dish;  Ginger-flavored Bitter Melon

 Entree:  Braised Pork Szechuan Style (pork belly in pickled mustard green shoots).  *CLASSIC DISH!!*

Entree:  Tea Smoked Duck (bone-in duck, crispy outside & tender inside).

Entree:  Steamed Whole Fish (whole tilapia steamed with ginger & scallion).

Take-Out Menu on Classic 1930s poster.

Naturally, as two sommeliers would have it, we came in with our own loot of wines and tested the pairings with all our Chinese dishes that night.  Vouvray, Mosel Riesling, Rose, and a Beaujalais.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pierre Gagnaire, Michelin Three Star: Paris, FRANCE

Date:  13 juillet 2011
Location:  6 rue Balzac, Paris, 75008, France
Telephone:  +33 (0)1 58 36 12 50

One of the Top 5 Restaurants in the World, in Soledad’s book.  In that small handful also includes L’Ardoise (Paris),  Mozaic (Bali), and Aimo e Nadia (Milan).  Until this day, the memory of my experience here does not fade.  I love Pierre and all his entire Maison that makes the art of fine dining come alive with magic. 

As per usual, I was jet-setting around the world.  This particular day concluded a week of wine touring in the Mosel and Alsace. I arrived in Paris late that afternoon from Strasbourg.  I had double booked dinner at Pierre Gagnaire (Michelin 3 Star) and Guy Savoy.  A toss up between Pierre and Guy Savoy, I made a few international phone calls to help me decide which to cancel.  I was steered toward confirming Pierre’s and leaving Guy for another visit.  For those of you who know me, that’s says a lot coming from my personal global electronic rolodex of crème de le crème high flying food and wine upper echelon resources. 

From my boutique hotel conveniently located in the 8th Arrondissement a block from the Champs Elysee (in close proximity to many of the world’s best Parisian restaurants), I strolled to dinner.   In July, the weather in Paris is perfect.  Warm breezes, sun setting late near 9pm.  Pierre Gagnaire is located right off the Champs Elysee, which really couldn’t make for a better location.  To see and be seen right after dinner, right up close and personal in the center of Paris’ heartbeat. 

As soon as I walked in, they greeted me by first name (yes!) with grace and first class service and gently asked to take my coat.  It was as if I walked into my own wedding, without having to partake in one iota of the headache pre-planning.  I love this kind of precise attention to detail and personalization.   Supplement that with seamlessly efficient and organized operations buttressing the entire gastronomic fine dining experience.  Welcome to the world of Pierre Gagnaire.   

I later came to know the young man who initially greeted me (one of only about FIVE hot young perfect men serving me that night) was Guillaume.  “Party of two, this way please mademoiselle,” he said with an attentive, low-tone, semi-serious formal, sophisticated French air.  I corrected him and said “Ah, actually, just one now.  I am just me. ” He understood and gave a slight nod, and politely asked me to wait a few moments while they rearranged again my table for just one.        

I was then escorted by two beautiful men (Guillaume one of them) with quiet swift direction to my perfect dining table in a private corner of the restaurant – providing me the vantage point to view one entire area of the main dining room.  This corner also allowed me the perfect observation point to watch Pierre’s staff move effortlessly with ease and purpose as in a well conducted orchestra, whilst serving the many patrons this evening.  None of whom would be paying any less than $600 per person (without wine) for dinner.  Ladies, take note:   Good place to dine ideally when a generous $ignificant other is paying. 

I politely asked for the wine list, and nodded in personal delight as I reviewed their incredible wine program.  A white burgundy fan, I spent some time perusing the options.  The domaines, vintages, and of course, prices.  I honed in on the Montrachets (the first page I always flip to!) and wavered between two different bottles.  Typically not a fan of Louis Jadot, the Head Sommelier whom I was introduced to pointed out to me that the 1997 Louis Jadot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru was an incredible vintage.  It was easy for me to trust him, as a sommelier at Pierre ought to know more than well what he is talking about.  

As expected, my Soledad fine palate was exceptionally pleased – this magnificent wine opened beautifully with robust structure, sophistication, utmost complexity and intense steely minerality (which I actually could not finish due to the increasing minerality of the wine as it continued to open even into its 5th hour!) and of course, flint!  Is there ever such a thing as too much minerality?  I didn’t think so – but just maybe when paired with the right seafoods!  This wine had me grinning ear to ear for the entire evening – as I exclaimed to Xavier (the handsome Assistant Chef Sommelier from Meursault, France) – “I’m in LOVE!”  With my experience!  The beautiful bottle of Batard-Montrachet paired absolutely perfectly with my dishes to come that evening.     

I ordered the tasting menu – which was one of the most hedonistic experiences of gastronomic extravaganza I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy.  You just truly haven’t tasted, breathed, or experienced until Pierre.  And yes, sometimes the pairing of magnificent wine and gastronomic food IS actually better than sex.  You have to taste it and feel it to truly understand.  Yes, really.  I have shared bottles of my own rare French white Chardonnays with grown men before - whom after tasting it, say to me - "Now I can understand you.  Who needs men when you are drinking wine like this?"     

Each course that followed was meticulously prepared and arranged with microscopic tweezers.  Pierre emphasizes minute attention to detail in not only delicate placement of the finest food products so as to strike a tantalizing visual reaction to his edible miniature artworks.  In the same way, Pierre’s iconoclastic modern approach to traditional French cuisine introduces a daring approach toward combining before un-thought of flavors, textures, and ingredients.  He is one of the most masterful culinary geniuses of our time.   

At the end of my 5 hour eating experience (arrived at 8pm, was the last to leave at 1am), I believe I had fully impressed all the gorgeous male staff at Pierre’s with my incredibly passionate and fervent love for fine dining and seriously precious wines, a point not to be underestimated with Soledad.  Of course, being fawned and flattered by 5 gorgeous sexy French waiters also had something to do with making me feel incredibly sexy.  Service excellence is something taken extremely seriously at Pierre’s, though you’d never guess they had an eye on you from every which corner.  This is something the French dining experience is veerryyyy good at (and you’ll never get this anywhere else but in Paris) – service etiquette fit for French royalty, as every woman should only expect to be treated.  I was sad to bid that evening bonsoir – and at the same time thrilled and so pleased to have experienced this height of culinary ecstasy.  Etched in my spinal cord and palate forever.  

Related Links:  
Mosel Wine Region:

Alsace Wine Region:

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Cordelia: Tel Aviv, ISRAEL

Date:  samedi 5 novembre 2011
Location:  30 Yefet Street
Jaffa (Tel Aviv), Israel
Telephone:  +972 3 518 4668

Comparison to:

I was enthusiastic to try this "Modern French" restaurant in Tel Aviv (Jaffa neighborhood).  The online description read "dark, gothic, candleabras, warm, romantic..."  The food descriptions also made Chef Nir Zook sound like a trained artisan, a seemingly respected chef in Israel.  Using fresh ingredients, turning "simple" dishes (eggplant dill soup) into conversation-stopping edible works of art.  Sounded good to me.  I am always down for simple, leaning on the pure quality of freshest available ingredients to develop truly memorable and savory dishes.  Quality is key.  Keep reading.  Because it pretty much goes downhill from here.

I arrived by taxi in a charming, quaint location in the Jaffa port neighborhood of Tel Aviv, where the restaurant is nestled in a small stone cobbled street of old Crusader-era building.  Wrought-iron gating lined the windows, romantic and dark simultaneously.  Only a few patrons inside, which for me can sometimes be great because I like dining without the din of a thousand people shouting over each other.

I was seated by a well mannered young man.  Dining for one, he gave me the best seat in the house giving me a bird's eye view of entire restaurant.  He disappeared and quickly reappeared with a small side table for me to set my expensive French handbag on.  Lovely service, I like this kind of pampering and details. I perused the short wine list and asked to see the wider list.  I immediately noticed that the wine glasses were not crystal;  instead, thy were big, thick, restaurant style wine glasses for throwing into industrial strength dishwashers.  Alright, a bit alarming, yet I will continue keeping an open mind.  When in Rome, do as Romans do, and I was determined to give Israeli wines a fair shake.  Having done limited research by Rogov's wine books, I came to know that Cabernet and Merlot grapes do well in Israel's climate.  Though I am an old world Pinot fan (Burgundy), though I am always open to breaking down my personal preferences.  So, I ordered a bottle of the 2008 Yatir Forest, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and a glass of the 2010 Carmel Winery Chardonnay, since that was the only Chardonnay by the glass available.  My server was surprised and said "Excellent choice, did you choose it or did the Manager?"  Soledad's pick!  He opened the bottle professionally with finesse.  I was surprised and made a comment about that since most Israel culture is not so keen on wine appreciation yet;  many places are unaware of proper wine serving etiquette.  He joked that the rest of Israel might not be pro at twisting opening wine, but that they are very good at turning the shakshuka.  :-D

2008 Yatir Forest 100% Cabernet Sauvignon                           2010 Carmel Winery Chardonnay

But (and we usually do not like to use the word "but" - we use "yet" or "and" - however I will use the word "but" here as s sign of disrespect), I only like pampering if the underpinning quality of the rest of the delivery can stand up to its initial perception.  I felt conflicted about publishing this blog since it is rare that I publicize my less than positive food experiences.  But (again!), this evening made very angry.   Shame, bloody shame on Chef Nir Zook.  

A lot of people ask me, how did I come to develop my passion for food and wine?  I have a few versions of that same truth... I have always loved food.  However, the intensity of my passion developed proportionately related to how inversely proportionate my work-life balance is.  In recent years, my jet-setting, road-warrior international lifestyle gained momentum.  I embraced these opportunities to travel via working very hard during the week (70 hours is normal, travel time not included), and therefore on the short 48 hours of "free" time I had on weekends, I maximized to the full extreme.  I fed and pampered myself well in order to replenish my body and spirit of how depleted it became by the end of every week.  Typically during the week we are grabbing scraps to eat in hotel executive lounges because we really don't have time for anything else.

This above is why - it is so critically important for Chefs of so called "fine dining" establishments, to truly present honest to good, passionate dishes.  Or else, just stay home.  Really.  Most people who enjoy fine dining are seeking not only an experience of being served and treated well after working a long and hard arduous work week in multiple time zones, traveling through many airports. They are also looking for a truly soul-satisfying meal, that which will help replenish all the energy and nutrients depleted during their previous days' working and traveling.  Naturally, we will have reasonably high expectations of food quality, color harmony and placement presentation.  That is, unless you can be taken for a dupe.

Chef Nir came to greet me himself personally.  I shook his hand.  He was not working that day it seemed, as he showed up in grungy jeans (that's okay) and an old sweater.  He asked me, if I am a foodie or a wine person?  I proudly told him both, that I am coming from San Francisco and New York City (dropping hints to him that I am not a dummy when it comes to food so he better make this worthwhile for me) and that I am so happy to be in Israel on project, looking forward to experiencing all the gastronomy it has to offer these next months.  Alright, and then he made some recommendations as I requested him to pair some dishes to my 2008 Yatir Cabernet Sauvignon.  Since he personalized my experience, I further expected my dishes to be just a little special.  Great quality, and maybe a smidgen of detail to show their kitchen staff cares.  You know, placing an herb or flower in a delicate manner on the plate with a tweezer.  Placing the ingredients in a geometrically balanced approach.  None of that was happening in Chef Nir's Cordelia kitchen, it was visually obvious.

Below pictures is what came out.  I am pretty appalled, as I wrote to my friend in Hong Kong... "Does this Chef think he can cheat me?  Serving *explitive* awful ugly *explitive* food and prancing around being proud of it?  *explitive" using taco bell lettuce under Yellow Tail Carpaccio???"  It is absolutely horrifying, that a Chef can be proud of such dishes being served to honest patrons seeking great food based on the marketing as seen on his creative websites.  Add to that - the fact that I was blatantly taking so many photos, anyone with half a brain might just have guessed I was an international food critic or an enthusiastic food blogger.  But no, no, they didn't care.  Same crappy food served out.

My fellow international jet-setting girlfriend from Hong Kong (who studied at the Cordon in France), was also traveling through the Middle East and visited Cordelia this week.  Her sentiments:  "Loved the decor.  Food was so so.  Too salty."  Echo on that!  Wayyyy too salty on all the dishes, not sure what was going on back there with the heavy handed super big, giant sea salt particles.

The next day during lunch with a table of work colleagues, more than half the table who had visited Cordelia in the past also shook their head in disgust.  They seemed to think Chef Nir was a cheat.

What I can gather is that, with the growing number of Chef Nir's restaurants in Israel, it seems he is a Chef who might have once been great, and has lost the passion and drive to continually re-invent.  A true challenge which only genius chefs can maintain that stamina.  Instead, Chef Nir has now focused on quantity and not quality of both his cuisine and business.  To the average food person just looking to be pampered in an empty manner without focused food quality, then Cordelia might be for you.  But - why even bother dropping the cash here?  You can have a casual much better meal at any of the cafes in Jaffa and be really happy with the food and service as well.  Perhaps because tonight was a Saturday night in Israel (our Sunday), so the Chef and staff were less sharp.  But that's not an excuse.  As most things are in life, you get just one opportunity to prove yourself.  For me, that was the Saturday night I had saved for me, to pamper myself after a long week of work and not eating right.  And frankly, that evening left me very mad.  I should thank Chef Nir however, since because of that evening, I am now determined with a frenzy passion to redeem myself by experiencing as many restaurants as I can in Israel, every week, from now on.  And sharing it with the world.

In short.  Sloppy.  Ingredients not fresh.  Need to invest in much better knives so the food appears finer.  Poor presentation, I liken it to refined buffet style.  Service by that one boy was very good -which at least I can say helped to make my evening nice.  Definitely won't return and neither should you.  TOTAL PRICETAG:  $250USD/one person.

Small appetizers.  Service was "very good" by Israel standards (a-hem!), however one girl asked me am I done when I had not even tried one of my appetizers.  She swooped in (the usual abrupt, pushy way waiters do it here) and asked "Are you done with your dish?"  I quipped in return, "No dear, I am not done yet as you can see I have not yet touched one of my appetizers."  They had barely just set the dish down.  

Nice touch, adding olive oil to butter, with a twig of dried hyssop herb on it.  "Our mix of butter with the Mediterranean," the server said.  Not sure this does anything to flavors though.  

Yellow Tail Fish Carpaccio in Oranges and Hyssop.  This dish was appalling.  The yellow tail looked dull and rubbery.  It had a slight days old "fishy" smell - not the kind of fresh-fishy-scent that superb raw fish should smell like.  There was also a very heavy douse of large flakes of cracked sea salt on this dish.  Entirely too salty, all I remember of this dish is the fishy smell, rubbery texture, oranges to off set both of that, and huge crunchy sea salts.  The three sad oranges plopped on the dish only further added to the sad state of this presentation.  

And even more appalling... guess what was underneath the fishy, rubbery Yellow Tail?  TACO BELL SHREDDED LETTUCE!!!!!  Are you serious?  

Looks can be so deceiving.  Look at those big glass glasses, biting into glass instead of tasting wine.  Chef Nir should invest in proper crystal wine glasses, if he is going to have Israel's top tier wines on his menu.  Who is he trying to joke?

Potatoes and Goose Liver Foie.
Horrible quality of foie.  Not sure how long this has been sitting in their storage refrigerator.  The coagulated fat looks disgusting.  It was served on a bed of spinach or arugula, which I don't think was even washed/rinsed.  The mashed potatoe was actually okay.

For what some very casual and delicious foie should look like - please view my escargot, foie gras, and chablis on the sidewalk in Paris breakfast:

Chef Special of the Evening:  Shrimp and Gnocci and Oxtail, with Taco Bell Lettuce plopped on top.  This dish looked very sloppy and the sauce tasted like Cantonese style late night fast food.  The gnocchi was ok, however just like all the other dishes, really could have used a great deal more of finesse and detail. 

I ordered two desserts in hopes that Cordelia might redeem itself.  FAIL.  RIGHT:  Some sloppy Arabic dessert that lacked taste, other than floury cake and a sour-like cream on top with a fig dropped in it.  LEFT:  5 small desserts, which had all been frozen and also tasted very bland (cheap quality ingredients).  Feedback here on one of my pet peeves - each of the bite-sized desserts were inconsistently spaced apart.  Something my good friend Top Chef Hosea Rosenberg taught me is that all food presentation should take care to ensure consistency and balance in spacing.  It does not take any more time to do this, and really shows the dedication and passionate detail of a Chef and his team.

Un espresso.  I think this was better than rest of the meal.  

Notes copy/pasted scribbled from my iPhone:


Need real wine glasses of crystal, not glass.

Service very good by Israel standards, one girl asked me am I done when I had not even tried one of my apps.

Server boy was pro w wine opening, impressed. He joked that Israel is great at turning the shakshuska

Chef Nir came to greet me himself

Yellow tail capriccio bland

Foie - intersting but can't compare w cafe george v paris champs elysee street foie (STREET foie!!)

Ox tail gnocchi dish - from Taiwanese perspective we perfected the ox tail. Shrimp was good tasty but tasted Asian. Gnocchi was okay. Had better in sf

Sigh. Another one bites the dust.