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: