Jing’s Residence, Pingyao

octobre 25, 2010

This post will be unique. At least it should be for quite a while. Why, you may ask? Well because Pingyao is not exactly conveniently accessible for anyone. This fascinating city, which is part of the Unesco’s world heritage sites, lies in Shanxi. This province is not exactly the most prosperous, but it has an awful lot of history. So does Jing’s residence, a Relais & Chateaux residence, right in the city centre.

Whilst this hotel might not have many rooms, it certainly has an awful lot of charm, and combines the best of western and Chinese cultures. The rooms are of a refined, understated luxury, and are best described by pictures.

The food however was surprising for such a backwater. Most of what we had was tasty, simple and loyal to the region’s culinary traditions.

Take for instance the Pingyao beef. Boiled and pressed, then served cold with vinegar, it is a tasty if chewy starter. Such cold meat starters startled me in all of China, as they were often dry, and without much interest, at least for an ignorant westerner.

Already much better were deep-fried rings of some kind of cereal. These had an intriguing texture, intense flavour, and were delicately spiced with chili and coriander. It was the dish of the night, as it was technically faultless, and highly interesting. Very good.

Also good, and equally simple were green beens, pan-fried with pork paste. Enriched by some chili oil, this was intensely tasty, and gave a healthy punch of umami. This was again a treatment of vegetables, that makes some French restaurants look old. Very good.

Whilst the food here is far from being spectacular, some dishes are well worth mentioning. Throughout the meal there will be dishes that are simply useless, such as prawns with mushrooms. Those were clearly of poor quality, and deep-frozen. With such dishes one wonders why a hotel and restaurant committed to serving something authentic is serving such dishes. However, as this place feels special, one is willing to not be too critical. Maybe because of the beautifully simple style, or the location, one thing is sure, such gems are rare, and should be explored. Funnily enough, despite being a good 10hrs away from Beijing, the board members of a large German automobile firm were scheduled to come here for a meeting a week after we left. Well, well…

Ulysse Collin Blanc de Noirs

octobre 17, 2010

Sometimes you are taken by surprise. Drinking this wine proved to be one of these occasions. After I read lots about Olivier Collin’s wines, I had very high expectations, but when I tasted this bottle, I knew better… This was absolutely glorious juice! It was a powerful wine, one with tension, but which had a complexity and delicacy one rarely finds. It was rich with lots of fruit coming through, just the way I like it. However, there was more to it, a freshness, and clean-mineral note that one gets in very few Champagnes. Dare I say it made my day. Absolutely terrific stuff!

Sad to know that I have only one bottle left… Well not for long I hope.

Schloss Berg, Nennig

octobre 14, 2010

As my regular readers will know, Schloss Berg is amongst the 5 best restaurants in Europe and I try to return as often as I can. Over the summer I had the chance to have two meals here, both of which were simply superb. What is striking with Christian Bau’s food, is how far he goes in perfecting every single element of the individual dishes. Take for instance his china. Whilst having been among the first to use the beautiful Hering plates, he now considers them too common and has ordered a series of plates from a Japanese artisan. Can you tell me other restaurants that go to such lengths in order to manifest their individuality?

However, it doesn’t stop there. The food has (mostly) become more pure and elegant too. Apart from a tuna dish, which was still rather complex, it now seems even more reduced and direct. One rarely gets dishes as powerful as his gamberoni with rice broth and cauliflower. Here, the product really speaks for itself, and all Bau does is create an altar for it. This particular dish must be among the finest to be had in European 3* restaurants at the moment.

Another fantastic creation was an artichoke variation. The vegetable was presented in a multitude of textures and structures (the latter is his description), resulting in a real firework of flavours. Here one really gets an idea of innovative vegetable-based cooking. He doesn’t simply serve a slice of tomato, or beetroot, but takes the simple artichoke and elevates it to something quite precious. A gem of a dish.

During both meals I was able to try a turbot dish. The first time it was paired with soft shell crab, leeks, citrus fruits and crab jus. Boy, this was good. The deep-fried soft shell crab on its own would be worth a trip. A little bowl of those would satisfy me! But, the turbot was of course not bad neither. No. It was fantastic as it usually is here. With the jus and puree it was another remarkable dish.

His new turbot dish combines a few favourites of his with a new « prima ballerina ». Iodine-tapioca, carrot chutney and Thai-asparagus create a magnificient background for a tranche of beautifully cooked wild turbot. This is cooking at the highest level, which one does not find in all that many places.

One cannot repeat it often enough: Christian Bau is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best chefs, and the fact that he is still relatively unknown outside of Germany (and even within it) shows how little quality and talent have to do with popularity. For anyone who has a serious interest in food, a trip down to the Mosel is in order!

Ding Ding Xiang, Beijing

octobre 13, 2010

Ding Ding Xian is easily the most luxurious and perfectionist of the hotpot eateries in Beijing. Thanks to the generosity of a good friend, I was able to lunch there during my stay in the city. A number of things thoroughly impressed me here, as I only knew the hotpot as a very basic home-cooked meal.

First of all, I was baffled by how good the products were. From the sea cucumber, to the geoduck clam, prawns up to the lamb and beef, everything was of fine quality. The seafood was mostly presented alive before being sliced or killed so that one could cook it in one’s own little hot pot. In European top restaurants one rarely gets presented with living fish or crustaceans (apart from lobsters maybe), which is a pity. Somehow the Chinese seem to manage this a little better than we do…

Another great feature of this place is that every patron has their own pot, which allows them to adjust the stock’s intensity, spice and flavour as a host of different stocks are on offer. Even if it might take away a bit of the social element of having a hotpot, I quite enjoyed this way of doing things.

Images can say more than words, therefore I simply conclude by saying that this was another impressive restaurant in Beijing. From the room, to the service up to the food I very much enjoyed it, and warmly recommend anyone to try and visit this place when they can. It is good fun, and something you won’t get in Europe, at least not this good.

Late-summer night’s dreams, Luxembourg

octobre 7, 2010

Summer is coming to an end. With it’s end are coming a great deal of superb  products. Take for instance the great cepes, freshly picked from the Cevennes. I just sliced them and served them with carabineros from off the Majorcan coast and a bit of toasted bread. Simple it was, but oh so good!

 

Mind you the pic above is the raw product, simply sliced with a bit of cepe, Roscoff onion and burned bread it was simply a glorious match with the Selosse Rose.

Following this, I served the same carabineros simply roasted in their shells with roasted cepes, and aubergines. The jus was spiced with vanilla and Piment d’Espelette. It was a simple dish again, but a very successful one.

On a different occasion, I served the same prawns with a 1987 Puligny villages, which was great. Pure, fruity, fresh and vibrant, the wine was the perfect match for the food. Simply steamed with ginger, the carabineros were a good partner with the aubergine compote and consomme.

As mentioned above, we drank a Selosse Rose with the previous dishes. It was tight and thin at first, but opened up beautifully after a little while. Quite rich, dense at full of flavour it was one of the better roses I have had in my life. Still, I am no fan of rose, but this was one to make me think. Very good indeed.

The latter dish was eaten with the Leflaive. Whilst the wine was still vibrant and fresh, it was a bit thin, something that is quite common, since Anne Claude Leflaive produces a lot of her wines with rendements close to the legal maximum. This being said, it was a fine wine, and matched the broth beautifully.

Dôme, Antwerpen

octobre 3, 2010

Julien Burlat’s CV reads like a dream for any chef, or food-lover: He has worked with Pacaud at L’Ambroisie, Ducasse and Gagnaire. You will have trouble finding a chef, who can boast more highly-renowned chefs as his previous employers. However, when eating in his beautiful restaurant, Dome in Antwerp, one has trouble seeing the craziness of a Gagnaire, the baroque classicism of a Pacaud or the very precise, bold cooking of Ducasse in his food. What struck me was the very simple, nearly rustic approach to the dishes here.

Take for instance a mackerel starter. Served raw, a piece of fish came with nothing else but a few beets and some slivers of fresh hazelnut. Now, that is what one can call minimalism, real minimalism. Whilst having been « warned » about the food’s simplicity, I did not expect it to be that pure. However, seeing that it was a beautiful match with the wine, and marked a delightful start to the menu, I was more than happy to be eating dishes such as this.

The next dishes were in the same style, one that I very much enjoy, but one that can shock you if you are expecting food in the modern and complex style of most other serious Belgian chefs. One cannot cook for everyone and Burlat serves assertive and rather clever food that is a dream come true to wine lovers and purists at the same time. The combinations always work, the flavours are there, and the products are of very fine quality. The best example of this was a plate of shrimp with tomatoes and a pistou. Basically it was a tomato salad with prawns. However, what made it work was the fantastic quality of prawns. These are delivered alive to the restaurant, and thus have a fantastic flavour and texture. It is because of the product that this rather risky style of cooking works at Dome.

The tastiest plate of food, by far, was a roast pigeon from the Vendée, served with girolles, sweet peppers and Jabugo ham. Here you had very autumnal flavours that were incredibly pure and bold. The pigeon was beautifully cooked, with intense flavour and good accompanying elements. There was a charred note, that I absolutely adored, and the few drops of pan-juices were quite simply perfect for this rustic dish. Fantastic.

After such great dishes, came a real treat: Burlat’s version of Pacaud’s famous chocolate tart. Light as air, with a delicate crust it was pure heaven. After having eaten this, I can only imagine how divine the « original » must be. It was a perfect end to a perfect evening.

I loved Dome, the food is simple, without false pretense and simply gorgeous.  The service was fantastic, friendly, warm, and very relaxed the brigade provides you with a great experience throughout the evening. Finally, another reason for coming here would be the wine. Wouter de Bakker is a young, extremely talented and passionate sommelier (best sommelier of Belgium after all!). One like not very many, and one that works very hard. He constructed a wine list to die for here, with a lot of natural wines, and a few classics, that are priced more than friendly. We decided to go with the matching glasses, but I couldn’t resist ordering half a bottle of 2005 Chateauneuf du Pape blanc from Clos des Papes. Whilst not all of the wines of the wine menu were to my taste, they all had character, were very individual and interesting. By far the best (apart from the stunning Chateauneuf) was a Crémant du Jura from Stéphane Tissot. This is a wine, which is not even on the market, and here you can drink it by the glass. Fantastic!

All in all, I loved my dinner here. Whilst I would say that the food was a little too simple for more than 1*, I thought that it worked beautifully with the wine, the ambience and the whole feeling of the place. It was a special evening, one which I will not forget for a long time, so I’d recommend anyone to try this place as quickly as possible. After all, stars are not really all that important, and this place shows you why. To conclude, one can think of a French proverb, which says: Sometimes making a simple thing is the hardest to do…

Xia Long Bao: the good and less so, Shanghai

septembre 27, 2010

Shanghai is home to what has become one of my favourite dishes of all: Xia Long Bao. Nowhere else have I eaten Xia Long Bao which were more tasty, juicy, and amazing than here. Funnily enough, this rather complex dish is best enjoyed in very simple places. Contrasting one of the latter and what can arguably be seen as being one of the more expensive restaurants in the city can lead to some surprising outcomes! Take for instance Yu Gardens, where you will find a host of stands, restaurants, and god knows who, who will sell you these fantastic soup-filled dumplings. We came for breakfast, as this place is seriously popular, and went to what is considered the best restaurant around. Dare I say that I have not had a better breakfast yet? I think I can safely state that fact.

Now, these places aren’t fancy, they’re simple, clean, honest, and very popular(at least some of them are). Most offer good value for money too, as a meal here can cost as little as a fiver (€). If you call that excessive, rest assured that you’ll always find something cheaper if you look for it. However, we wanted the best, and found this spectacular place (as I was with Chinese friends, I have no idea about the name). Not because of the service, not because of the design of the dining room, but because of the bustling ambience and much more importantly the bloody marvellous food.

You can eat dumplings filled with various things, from crab, to pork to mushrooms and many other nice things. We tried about 8 different types and loved every single one of them. All had beautiful, perfect dough, intense and very tasty soup inside them, and simply fantastic fillings. Taking one of these and dipping it into vinegar before letting it disappear in one’s mouth is about as great as food can get. They explode, and overwhelm your palate the stunning stock. Wow wow wow! Outstanding stuff.

Less enjoyable and very different was the experience of the Park Hyatt’s restaurant. Due to the hotel’s fantastic location and building the view here is breathtaking, but the Xia Long Bao are simply not that great. Certainly capable, but far away from what one can get in Yu Gardens. At about twice the price of a whole meal in the best restaurants of the latter, one gets about three pieces here. Foolish and still not expensive for what is the city’s most luxurious hotel, but the only reason to go here is the view (for me at least). Don’t expect too much from the food and you’ll have a lovely time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the food in this restaurant is not all that exciting neither. There is safe, bland and uninteresting selection of sushi, the odd piece of grilled cod, and a dry, over-salted crispy pigeon.

The only thing that can make up for it is the fantastic wine list. With that of the Opposite House in Beijing, this was the best wine list I saw in China. It had Selosse, Vouette & Sorbée, Chave, and tons of other interesting wines. Kudos for that! However that and the view are the only reasons why one should go here. Service was not stunning neither and rather unfriendly compared to other places of similar standards. So lesson learned for me: Xia Long Bao does not necessarily go that well with luxurious restaurants. There are some that can pull it off (notably in London), but in China, I did not come across a single fancy place that beat the most down to earth, simple eateries.

Viajante, London

septembre 17, 2010

I must admit that the first lunch I had at Viajante was good fun. The food was very good and there were only a few issues that bothered me. However, those were probably due to the fact, that the restaurant had been opened just a week before. So, when I decided to go back a while ago, I was looking forward to what I expected being an even more polished experience.

First of all, service was indeed better and more confident. We were greeted warmly, and had nothing to worry about throughout the entire evening. The team and style of service fitted in perfectly with the style of the food and the restaurant’s concept.

The food too had some very strong points to make. Take for instance the fantastic bread and butter served here. It is unlike anything that is being served in London. Whilst some may find it gimmicky, I find it addictive and quite good for a change. Equally excellent was a vegetable dish. With lots of different elements, the dish did not only look beautiful, but also tasted very well. Every vegetable was carefully prepped and seasoned and thus had something to add to the picture. It was sensible, modern cooking that worked. Not really inventive, but very well done.

Another very good dish was an egg yolk with asparagus and lobster meat. The runny yolk worked brilliantly with the nicely timed crustacean and the al dente-cooked asparagus. The omni-present tapioca-enriched sauce was of course also on hand.

A third dish I very much enjoyed on the last meal too was the skate with yeast, brioche and nut-butter. The dish itself was just as good as on the first time, however what startled me was that the fish quality was also on the same level as the first time: Mediocre. Now that is something I can’t really understand. Why does a serious chef, such as Mendes, not get better fish? Surely people like Brett Graham, Phil Howard and Jocelyn Herland manage to find fantastic produce, so it might be worth doing the same. At least if the restaurant has the ambition to be amongst the city’s very best. I for my part was a bit disappointed by what was served here.

The same goes for some of the other dishes too. Obviously no dish was bad, all safely 1* material, but some just didn’t work. A good example for such a case was a combination of pork neck and prawns. Served with nothing else but a few braised leaves, the two products lacked a combining element. Each was prepared without any technical mistakes, but the dish as such did not really seem like something into which someone had put a bit of thought. Furthermore, none of the two proteins was of impressive quality, thus making the dishes’ success even more questionable.

However, desserts better than on the first visit, and we thus ended on a more positive note to say the least. All of the desserts served were tasty, fun and light. What they proved yet again is the precision that reigns here, and the kitchen’s technical dexterity.

Overall, one can say Viajante has reached cruising speed now. The restaurant seems to be busy, and has found the customers that fit into the concept. The food is mostly very capable, without any technical issues, and generally speaking entertaining and fun to eat. For modern cooking, London hasn’t got much to offer than can rival Nuno’s food, so I would not be surprised to see it get a star in the next edition of the Michelin guide. But, a major issue can still be worked on: The quality of some of the produce served. Especially everything coming out of the sea is not always as fresh as it could be, in a restaurant of its standard. It might be a bit more expensive to serve constantly fresh fish, but with only one menu, and that menu costing at least the same as most 2* restaurants’ in Mayfair, one can ask for a little more rigor in that department. The lack of very good or outstanding products inevitably results in some dishes not working at all, such as the pork and prawn combination or in other dishes not being as perfect as they could be.

Nuno is a good cook, someone who obviously is ambitious and talented enough to belong to the elite of this city’s culinary scene. So let’s hope this issue will be dealt with, or has already been dealt with, so that we can have an even better time when we come back! And there will definitely be a return, as this is a very fine restaurant.

China Club, Beijing

septembre 10, 2010

The China Club in Beijing is a bit of a legend. Being a private members club, it counts among the most exclusive hotels and restaurants in the capital. Having only 8 beautiful, individually styled rooms means that it is a really individualistic hotel, with a lot of personality and charm. What is also great about it, is that unlike many other luxurious hotels and restaurants in Beijing, it is hardly visible for the passers-by, seeing that it is composed of a number of traditional courtyards.

Take for instance the bar, which must be one of the most beautiful in China. The style is timeless, and beautifully allies old and new elements. It simply makes you want to stay there, talk, read, think do anything one likes. Sitting down here is about as great a place as one can imagine for a pre-dinner drink.

However, the food is the real showstopper, as it is fantastic. Having gone through the wine list, which was expensive and not very interesting, we stuck to tea and very good juices. To start the meal, a few pieces of sliced lotus root were dressed with a sweet/sour sauce. Light, tasty and of intriguing texture, this was a most enjoyable start to the meal.

Also served were some deep-fried, smoked eels. Delicately crispy, perfectly seasoned, these pieces of eel were fantastic.

A first warm course was even more interesting. A rice cracker was topped with scallops and a sweet and sour sauce. What was interesting here was the play on textures and flavours. The rice gave the crunch, with the scallops adding something of a delicate and tender element. The flavours were very good and highly interesting, with only one point to criticise: The scallops could have been of slightly higher quality. Very good.

Following this pork kidneys were ordered. Fried with cashew nuts and an intensely flavoursome sauce, this was a real masterpiece. The kidney was perfectly cooked, and of such delightful flavour and texture that it was hard to keep one’s hands off the dish! A real treat, that showed how hearty, yet complex Chinese cooking can be. Excellent.

The masterpiece however, was the Mandarin fish. Beautifully presented, the entire fish was brought to the table, covered in a pinenut sauce. Again, a slightly sweeter dish, it was quite remarkable. Of very high quality, it was cooked perfectly, whilst having an incredibly crunchy outside. I was baffled by how tasty this was, a real treat, that I haven’t experienced in such a perfect way before. Excellent.

To finish the meal, we ordered some warm mochi, which were good, but hardly on the same level as the previous courses. Some noted that they were probably not freshly made, however that is something I can not comment on. Still, it was a good, light end to what was a fantastic meal. Good.

Another great restaurant in China. Whilst the food overall was maybe not quite as phenomenal as at Da Dong, it was splendid nonetheless. Especially the kidney and mandarin fish were real eye-openers, which I will warmly remember. This is another very serious restaurant, that delivers on all levels, from the stunning room, to good service and of course, the great food. Oh, I wish I wouldn’t live 10.000km away from Beijing…

Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant, Beijing

août 29, 2010

Da Dong is said to serve one of the very best roast ducks in Beijing, which made it a must-visit during my stay in the capital. Starting from a little restaurant, Mr Dong’s empire now extends to Shanghai, and counts many a Da Dong’s around BEijing The two we tried, had an identically high level of cooking, even if the decoration was decidedly different in each. Food is as cheap as anywhere in China, provided you’re used to European prices. Service was present in impressive numbers and good throughout the whole meal.

Starting directly, we ordered marinated jellyfish. The pieces were well seasoned, with a nice balance between sour/sweet elements, and had an intriguing texture. It was somewhere in between the crunchiness of squid, or cucumber and something much more gelatinous. Hard to describe with words, but very interesting, and quite likeable to be honest. It was my first pleasant encounter with jellyfish, but I was assured that it was a very capable preparation. Very good.

A few beans with some tiny, dried, and crispy shrimp were another light, tasty and refreshing little dish, that proved to be a very nice starter.

But, suddenly things became much more interesting. Our waitress approached us with a bucket, containing a living, rather active fish. After having shown us the product, she took it away again, and a good 15min later we were served an incredible fish soup. The meat was perfectly, but really perfectly cooked, the stock very light, but intensely flavoured, with a few herbs, and other elements I probably can not identify. It was a remarkable dish, truly beyond what I expected.

However, this was all fine, more than fine in fact, but the reason for most people’s going here is not any of the above but the Peking duck. Incredibly complicated in preparation, it is elevated to something quite special in this restaurant. If you want more information about how it is prepared, go and watch Heston Blumenthal’s “In Search of Perfection” about Peking duck, as he visits Mr Dong too. In addition to the classical servings, one also gets some crunchy, hollow buns here, which are very tasty and go rather well with the duck meat. However, they are only by-standers, as the real stars are the skin and juicy meat. The latter are of such perfection, that I don’t know how this can be any better. If Made in China’s duck was worth a good 3*, this was well worth the invention of a fourth one (apparently Duck de Chine is even better, have to try that next time!). Divine, perfect.

This lunch was a bomb, finishing off with some beautiful fruit, we were more than happy and completely blown away. Never ever have I been fortunate enough to eat meat that was well-done, but kept the flavour, juiciness and had such an outrageously gorgeous skin. A true masterpiece, worth the flight from Europe to Beijing. What I began to question was, why people see China as a minor food destination. So far the food I got here was top notch. They might not have restaurants like Osier, Quintessence or Beige in Tokyo, but the Chinese food served here, is on an impressive level.


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