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:  http://www.tacobell.com/

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 http://chefhosea.com/ 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.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Danny's Kitchen: Taipei, TAIWAN

Date:  27 juillet 2011
Location:  Across from one of the Din Tai Feng's

Great restaurant with fantastic Chinese chef (cute) who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in France.  So naturally, the cuisine here is French base using freshness of local ingredients.  Oh, and did I mention that of the most people who come to dine at Danny's Kitchen are mega wine enthusiasts.  And I mean mega.  Some of Taiwan's largest private wine collectors come to Danny's to wine and dine.  You are welcome to bring your own wines.  We sure did.

It was my final farewell dinner, and Henry out did himself once again.  Our fellow wine drinking alcoholics I mean enthusiasts met here tonight on a Wednesday night at 7pm sharp to begin a very long evening of exquisite fine dining, some pretty fantastic wines (that we brought ourselves), and so much laughter that I was crying.  Danny himself came to dine with us also and helped along our ridiculous conversations.  I love getting together with this crowd, because before you know it, we are speaking shenanigans in three different languages:  English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese.  Of course, we could feign some French and Spanish if wanted to too (hummm how did that first class quality Spanish Jamon get onto the table????).  There is something about being with my own Taiwanese people - the next-of-kin feeling, cultural affinity, that I just cannot explain.  But it is true, that regardless how culturally diverse I may be, the core of who I am will always be a Taiwanese girl (Dou Jiang You Tiao for breakfast please!).

Great service at this restaurant (or maybe it was just because Henry was luckily sitting to my immediate right, and I myself self pouring also), for a total snob like myself who is very particular on food and wine service performance.  Keep my water glass filled.  Have the proper wine glass prepared.  Have my wine chilled at the right serving temperature.  Do not break my corks.  Keep the wine flowing, do not leave me nor my fellow guests any empty wine glasses please.  I do not want to ask for any of the above, just get it done - are your runners watching?  Those of you in the industry know exactly what I am talking about and no, no I do NOT think that I am asking for too much at all.  Those of you not in the industry might think I am a bit much, "high maintenance," hard to please, hard to handle, whatever.  We are just on different pages and I guess you might not be dining at my table then, with "us."  Faint hearted need not apply.  Don't knock either.

Well, the staff here did a fine job keeping up with us.  It probably helped that all of us were wine industry folks so, we helped along the wine pouring ourselves.  By the end, I made some spills which means - pretty drunk and grand good time.  Henry managed to get myself and Jessica home all in one piece.  I love Taiwan!

What we brought and drank that night - which Henry sent the list to the Head Chef one week prior, who custom designed our private dinner for us that evening.

- Krug Champagne Grand Cuvee
- 2008 Louis Latour Chassagne Montrachet
- 2005 Grand Cru Burgundy Echezeaux Pierre Andre (my favorite of that evening!)
- 2008 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon 98 Points Robert Parker
- 2008 Dr. Loosen Riesling Auslese, Mosel (YUM!)
- 2007 Bramare Malbec

We were spoiled and this is how we live!  Krug, Grand Cru, Foie - what more can a girl ask for.  Simple pleasures... simply satisfied.  It really is that simple.

Our very own sommlier serving table, set up off to the side just for us.  Great sign of the exquisite evening to come.

I love multiple forks, knives, the changing of fresh plates.  Pomp and circumstance service and minute attention to detail.  Precision!

Oysters!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Looking mighty fresh and tasty.

Foie gras, and the right Grand Cru Pinot to pair with it.  Charmed life.  :-)

The beauts.  Resting.

Henry brought in our appetizer... always thinking ahead he is.  Love it.

Flaky, light, buttery fillot pastry dough with fried oyster on top.  Taiwanese style fusion with French.  Delicious.

Thinly sliced bamboo with truffle mushroom.  Beautiful pairings of texture and taste.  WOW!!!!!!

Do not ask where this Spanish Jamon came from.  Someone smuggled it over on their own personal yacht... That's how we roll.  Or sail.  :-D  Grand cru and proper Jamon on board.  Taiwanese, we know how to eat.

Let the evening begin... love all the beautiful shining glasses with expensive, tasty wines inside.  Solesnob.

Beautiful, tender, juicy fish.


Zhu Xue Gao.  ^_^

Oooppps!!!!  Solespill.


Marshal Zen Garden Hot Springs Spa and Gourmet Fine Dining: Taipei, TAIWAN

Date:  25 juillet 2011
Address: Taipei Beitou Elegant Road 34
Telephone:  +886 2 2893 5336

In short - Classic.  Refined.  Sophisticated.  Zen.  Historic.  Innovative.  Quiet.  For the gourmand.

It has taken me awhile to get this blog posted.  The reason for delay is not due to lack of prioritization.  Rather, it is a matter of being able to transport myself back into that moment and environment and channeling all that into my writing.

Taiwan is a special place.  For a young country (since 1945/1950), there is a great deal of cultural history here.  Despite its nascent existence, Taiwan is unique in that its rapid growth after World War II quickly transformed it into an industrialized country.  Taiwan manufactures a large portion of the world's consumer electronics, although most of that has been off-shored to their factories in China.  And yet, despite the industrialization, still there is an authentic character about Taiwan's culture.  A blend of old and modern - most of Asia's bustling "Four Asian Tigers" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) boast this unique trait (though maybe not so much Singapore).  These are bustling, efficient, Asian societies that hold onto its cultural heritage (food included) amongst a backdrop of perhaps daunting skyscrapers.  At a recent week of wine tasting at the New York Wine Experience, a rather wealthy American private wine collector told me, "Ah you come from Taiwan, home to some of the best food in the world."  I was honored that he felt this way.  It is true.  Taiwanese cuisine is not "Chinese" food from parts of China nor Hong Kong.  It is an entirely different and very intimately special experience.

I was on a recent trip to Taiwan on pleasure as part of my three week world gastronomy tour of Europe (old world cooking and old world wines) and Asia (authentic Cantonese and Taiwanese cooking, plus new world food exploration, and posh wines).  I reached out to my dear friend Henry of Henry's Gourmet Guide (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Henrys-Gourmet-Guide/176072308343?ref=ts) - who is another "self-proclaimed oenophile and food connoisseur" much like myself.  With just 4 days confirmed on my Taiwan itinerary, Henry booked me out for 3 nights of sensational best-of-the-best food and wine pairing dinners.  A very good friend indeed - who lives and breathes food and wine just as the rest of us in the industry alike.  First planned dinner on this trip was at Henry's very own Master Zen Garden.  A true honor for me, and just the kind of pampering I love replete with wine pairings!  Absolutely elated, I was.

The reason I prefaced this blog entry with a brief history of Taiwan is because when visiting Master Zen Garden, you will be in awe at how well preserved ("re$tored") this historic location is - in addition to how well Henry has designed every minute detail into the architecture, interior, and of course very importantly - each and every individual tasting dish that is paired with a perfect drink or palate cleanser.  These are classic Taiwanese traditional ingredients, prepared with a nouveau sophisticated, artistic approach.  All execution details overseen by Henry himself.  Talk about eats East meets West.  Simply beautiful and a real eye candy treat and obviously a gift to the palate.

Marshall Zen Garden is a quick 45 minutes drive from the downtown hustle and bustle of metropolitan Taipei.  Nestled in the prestigious and tranquille Beitou Yan Ming Shan mountain area, Marshall Zen Garden boasts a unique gourmet dining experience in addition to luxurious hot springs baths, each with individual rooms.

The hot springs bath facilities here are all individual, private suites.  Each with breathtaking large pane glass window views into Taipei city below (you may draw the blinds if you are not into voyeurism allowance).  So while you luxuriate in the nerve and tension-soothing, calm, natural mineral hot spring bath, you can also have a view of the distant Taipei city.  This reminds you that while the city below is busy working away in its neon-sign-clad atmosphere, you are meanwhile bathing in soothing calm, distantly away from your other busy life existence (just 45 minutes away).  There is a stone hot spring mineral bath (not recycled mineral water mind you!), and an adjoined regular stone bath for tepid water when the hot spring bath gets a bit too hot for you.

You will be very hungry after a good dip in the hot springs - and the best way to replenish your body and soul is with pure, healthy and soul satisfying ingredients.  In a calm and sophisticated, slow paced, zen atmosphere.

We were seated in one of the private dining rooms.  We started with a bottle of champagne, so fitting to start the  evening of friends reuniting.  Also perfect after a relaxing soak in the hot springs.  A chilled, crisp bottle of Taittinger.  Just lovely.  I love my friends!!  :-)

Each of the delicately prepared tasting dishes that followed consisted of carefully selected natural ingredients that also boosted health and vitality.  Each dish was visually presented in a refined and balanced approach - with fine attention to pairing of flavors, textures and again, balance.  Some broths and soups had been slow simmering for hours, the taste was obvious. There is no cheating or shortcuts taking place in this kitchen, there is no fooling this Soledad fine palate.  Our seafood soup was so delicious and satisfying that I likened it to "the perfect soup for curing hangovers the morning after."  You know, chock full of good-for-you ingredients that have depleted from your body after a hard night of drinking and all night partying.  The soup here comes from masterful cooking and quality ingredients... each and every sip's vitamins and nutrients are quickly absorbed into every atom in your body.  You will feel your body thank you with every sip of the soup.  I still remember this feeling well (not that I had been partying the night before, a-hem!) and saying "Henry, thank you."

Henry also paired our dinner with a very nice bottle of 2008 Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Aligote.  Henry is a fellow burgundy lover - it is a given that we get along great.  ^_^  White burgundies pare wonderfully with seafood and shell fish and vegetables, all of which us healthy conscious diets were being fed this night.

Whether you are a local inhabitant or a traveling foreigner - be sure to confirm this place into your plans.  Lunch or dinner.  And try, if you have time, to spend some time in the hot spring baths.  Or, just dip your feet in the foot baths if that is all you have time for.  You will regret it if you do not visit this place.

It has now been nearly 3 months since I visited Marshall Zen Garden as I write this blog from Tel Aviv.  I have kept up with all the recent new seasonal dishes Henry's Chef creates.  From the photographic eye without tasting the dishes, I can see with precision that each month the already quality dishes are striving to compete against its previous month's successes.  Not easy to do.  It is this kind of constant re-invention around the pairing of old and new seasonal ingredients, food presentation creativity, artistic design and attention to precise detail around taste, texture, colors, balance, that keeps true foodies returning to a place like this.  It is top on my list to visit upon my next return to Taipei - along with the classic Shanghai dumplings at Din Tai Feng, of course!  

Bravo Henry.  I look forward to returning to Master Zen Garden many times.  Hot Springs in the winter and a luxurious dinner after that sounds just splendid right now.  Many thanks my friend, for helping Soledad experience new dimensions in this very small world we live in.