Eleven Madison Park – New York City – Thursday 12 June 2014 – Lunch

Entry to Eleven Madison Park

Entry to Eleven Madison Park

When you are on your way to one of the world’s best restaurants a number of things go through your mind. For me, normally whether I can afford it, and will it dish up what I hope for.

This time around I had one main measuring stick, Columbus Circle’s Per Se. The walk from our friends place in Chelsea was short but very sweet. And in the park, the line at the Shake Shack was 200 metres long already (at least).

I know a fair number of people who’ve eaten at Eleven Madison Park and my expectations were tempered. It was my last day with Catherine before the World Cup, so good company was guaranteed!

Lobster - Poached with Beets, Ginger and Nasturitum

Lobster – Poached with Beets, Ginger and Nasturitum

The entry is not spectacular which straight away eases the pressure and intimidation that you can feel at such a restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, the Art Deco entry is pretty cool. It is also below Credit Suisse which offsets the ease a little! The staff throughout were as you would expect at a three Michelin star restaurant if you are ticking off the good aspects. What we didn’t expect from the staff was the ease they put us at. Three or four very relevant and clear, but uncommon questions, and a few explanations were absolutely so juxtaposed to the stuff you get at many fine diners that we knew we were up for something not just special but magnificent.

And then came the food!

My main measurement of great restaurants is firstly not having any “misses” in a degustation – tick. Next comes new flavours and some surprises – tick, tick, tick. After that comes the fun, theatre, company, and a bill that is either commensurate or close to what you just experienced – all ticks.

The fun and theatre is epitomised by Eleven’s take on Katz Deli’s classic pastrami on rye. I love Katz’s but Eleven takes it to a level only a master could attempt. The pastrami itself is melt-in-the-mouth! Along with the sandwich is a surprise that I’ll leave to you to experience. Then there’s the picnic basket for cheese course – in this case you are constructing while laughing at how fun and elaborate the thought process for the chefs must be.

Duck with Lavender

Duck with Lavender

There is the joy of seeing the whole roasted duck with lavender stuffing. Which then is hastily, but very effectively, served to you with gorgeous accompanying rhubarb compote, and lavender jus. Remarkable. The best “main” or more correctly “finishing savoury” dish I’ve had at one of these multi course degustations.

Duck - Broth with Cured Duck and Watercress, Roasted with Rhubarb, Shallots, and Scallions

Duck – Broth with Cured Duck and Watercress, Roasted with Rhubarb, Shallots, and Scallions

I like the beginning that takes you to a number of flavours and influences, but not all in one mouthful. Bowls of all sorts of deliciousness to begin. From the combination of Beluga Caviar and baked potato ice cream, to the English peas.

Beluga Caviar and Baked Potato Ice Cream

Beluga Caviar and Baked Potato Ice Cream

English Peas - Warmed with Meyer Lemon and Egg Yolk

English Peas – Warmed with Meyer Lemon and Egg Yolk

Seared (my choice) or terrine, foie gras is offered. The rocket purée is not my favourite but the foie gras is perfect. There is nothing that is ordinary or used as a filler throughout the meal.

Foie Gras - Seared with Fava Bean Marmalade and Sorrel

Foie Gras – Seared with Fava Bean Marmalade and Sorrel

One of the themes of your meal (which you decide at the beginning) is used to great effect. In my case, coffee is used as a sauce for the stunning Bombe Alaska. I love how the staff talk you through the history of the dish – educational and incredible.

Almond - Baked Alaska with Rum, Caramel and Coffee

Almond – Baked Alaska with Rum, Caramel and Coffee

Another education is the Waldorf salad. Made in front of you, the waitperson explains the history of the classic you are about to eat, before lifting up your plate reveals the modern Eleven take on the classic which is obscenely well put together – linked by a perfect purée of celery.

EMP Take on Waldorf Salad

EMP Take on Waldorf Salad

The sommelier is helpful with the wines and our usual option is to have a glass with every couple of courses. What was nice is you speak about the style you like and they play with it from there. You are also asked for a budget in a completely unpretentious way – and what’s more is they stick to it!

The wine selections for me were great. I asked for unusual varieties I may have not tried that will go well with a couple of courses in a row. In particular the Austrian Nueburger with the Waldorf was fantastic. Catherine asked for some classics based around Chardonnay for white and Shiraz for red – again the wines were beautifully selected.

Asparagus - Braised with Potato and Black Truffle

Asparagus – Braised with Potato and Black Truffle

There was a lobster course, an asparagus and truffle course, chocolate covered pretzels with sea salt, and black and white cookies to begin and finish (savoury and sweet). It sounds like a lot of food (and it was) but it wasn’t in excess and we felt great throughout the meal. The timing of delivery had to have been well thought through because we didn’t once feel the need to slow it down as we often do.

Whey - Sorbet with Caramelised Milk and Milk Foam

Whey – Sorbet with Caramelised Milk and Milk Foam

Which brings me to dessert. The whey sorbet with caramelised milk and milk foam looked beautiful but not unique. Just like the rest of the meal, the great presentation was usurped by the flavour. Balance of sweetness, richness and lasting flavour. The caramel in particular a triumph. Then our waitperson presented a perfect dome of Bombe Alaska. Mouth’s watering, the dome is whisked away and brought back out in a much more reasonable portion, covered with our choice of sauce. It has ruined Bombe Alaska for me forever. Well, until the next time we are back at Eleven!

Spectacular in every sense of the word, Eleven Madison Park is a stunning example of how good restaurants can be. The lengths the staff and creators have gone to are best shown in the ease at which greatness is executed. Experience tells me that I cannot understate how special this dining experience is.

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Chez Panisse – Berkeley, California – Saturday 7 June 2014 – Lunch

20140610-092545-33945772.jpgGastrotemple is the first word I heard to describe Alice Waters gift to dining, Chez Panisse. I had always wanted to go (for over a decade in fact), but it wasn’t until my third trip to San Francisco that I made the trek across the Bay to find out what all the fuss was about.

There were some small dramas in getting there, but once we were walking in downtown Berkeley it was pleasant. The streets are clean and bright; the area quaint; and the college brings a certain ambience in itself.

Inside, following the stairs up to the cafe, you are no longer in college but have graduated to the big leagues. The patrons are nicely dressed, and Alice greets you on arrival. Dark wood, sleek designs and the warmth of the sun fills the room which is rectangular with pockets at the front overlooking the street and the back a little more intimate.

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The service is all rounded and reflective of experienced staff who are comfortable in their surrounds. I guess it is the epitome of gliding around a room.

For lunch, you have a choice of around 6-7 starters and the same of entrees (mains in this part of the world). There are also several desserts. What initially strikes you is the pricing; extremely divergent from what you would expect. It seems being 30 minutes out of town has its perks after all.

Catherine chose the avocado, heirloom beets and purslane (a watercress looking leaf) for starters and the king salmon for entree. I decided on the smoked duck breast and the rabbit.

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The genius of Chez Panisse is its inventiveness across several decades. It led (and in a sense continues to define) the movement to seasonal and regional. The menu changes constantly and what I expected was very fresh and vibrant food with shining ingredients being beautifully represented in their best light.

We got what I expected. Catherine’s starter was divine. The avocado delicious, but the star was the roasted beets in varying colours, shapes and sizes, which were all amazing. My smoked duck breast was finely sliced but had a powerful flavour that allowed it to shine alongside “Bob’s rocket” dressed in a mustard seed vinaigrette and tarragon that added serious flavour. The pickled cauliflower and carrot was a great accompaniment too.

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The Devil’s Gulch Ranch rabbit was fantastic. Served on a bed of sweet corn and beans, with a rich giblet gravy that lifted the dish. The more succulent pieces of the rabbit were the best I’ve had. Catherine’s Californian king salmon was served quite rare; again capturing the flavour perfectly as if it had jumped out of the Bay. The herb sauce alongside fennel, ginger, cress and radishes was a great match but the salmon was king.

Dessert showed huge promise by this stage and we eagerly anticipated the bittersweet chocolate bave with caramel ice cream, and the Frog Hollow apricot galette with chantilly cream. Again, central ingredients shone and the quite technical desserts were excellent, but not the stars of the three courses. The highlight of dessert had to be the apricots and the pastry of the galette was perfect.

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The wine selection is nice and easy with a single page dedicated to wines by the glass or bottle. We enjoyed the wines but the Madeira to finish was the only one to write home about.

Finishing off with an espresso may have been my only misfortune (not terrible but should be better) but on the flip side, Catherine’s peppermint tea was incredible – filled with more mint than several mojitos!

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Looking around the room at the diverse, but certainly older than college age, patrons, you could tell there was a good mix of tourists and regulars. Though, the enormous enjoyment of the dining experience here was the most consistent theme.

It is one thing to start something incredible but another to maintain its relevance over decades and decades. I love this restaurant because I have wanted to go there for a long time and the build up in expectation wasn’t just matched, it was eclipsed. I was close to shedding a tear at one stage and I have now shed it writing this review.

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Bendigo Street Milk Bar – Richmond – Numerous Occasions – Lunch

Pulled pork roll with coleslaw

Pulled pork roll with coleslaw

I think it is time that I write a few general reviews that provide some collective comments about a typical experience at several places I go to for lunch in and around Richmond.

The first review is for Bendigo Street Milk Bar, which a best mate is one of the chefs and through him I know the owner a bit.

Bendigo is your classic work horse. There is a good selection for both breakfast and lunch and there have been a number of improvements in the time I’ve been going there.

Not trying to compliment my mate too much, I have noted vast improvement in the entire cafe over the time he’s been there.

It has gone from solid to good and seems to be busier as a result. I go back to the breakfast burrito as a favourite for the early meal but I’ve had it at lunch a couple times too. The sweet chilli that accompanies it doesn’t seem home made but does the job, the scram is fluffy and flavoursome and the wrap is structurally sound.

For lunch I’ve had the steak sandwich and the burger and they are great. The burger in particular is a chef’s burger – simple, no fuss, but complete and tasty. What I keep going back to is one of the most reasonably priced pulled pork rolls with coleslaw going around. It is delicious and consistently so.

Bendigo is by no means a coffee mecca, but the coffee is good and has improved in bounds over the past couple years.

Bendigo is a place that caters to all ages and types. It often is full of sporting royalty from SEN nearby, families, office workers, tradies and locals. The renovation makes it more comfortable despite the interesting wallpaper choice.

We’ll be going back regularly but don’t ever lose the pulled pork!

Bendigo Street Milk Bar on Urbanspoon

Kong – Richmond – Wednesday 4 June 2014 – Lunch

20140604-161631-58591920.jpgIt’s a really late time for lunch. The first week must have been good for Kong because there are several tables at 3pm just starting!

There is an air of confidence that must come from running one of the most successful restaurants in Melbourne. There’s no air of trepidation but it is that feeling that the examination is just beginning.

I was at Chin Chin for a banquet last Saturday and I’d rather not talk about it. It was probably absolute coincidence that the service and knowledge downstairs were not up to scratch. I’ll leave it at that.

Having been to the pop-up of Kong I know I love the food. I like the concept and the vibe around the food too. Walking in to the restaurant I definitely like the permanent version as well.

Unfortunately it is a quick lunch limiting me to one dish and it’s not easy to pick. In the end I have gone for the chicken ramen (wood roasted chicken with chrysanthemum, ginseng, chestnuts and fried ramen egg). The egg in particular is spectacular. The more flavoursome leg of the chicken is delicious but the breast is a bit too thick meaning the flavours haven’t penetrated as much. The broth is delicious – more complex and rich than many other ramen type soups I’ve encountered. The Korean Hite beer is good and the French marsanne is even better with it.

Next time I’ll be back to try a bit more or if it’s lunch I’ll have the ssam roti-roll or buns.

I’m sure there will be some long waits for dinner but the greatest thing about Kong will be if the quality remains long after the hype diminishes.

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