Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Paris -- A Spectacular Lunch at Le Cinq

While Joan and I seldom frequent three-star restaurants in Paris, we recently joined friends for lunch at Le Cinq, in the Hotel George V. It was truly spectacular, and a screaming bargain (really!) at 145 euros (about $160), tax and service included, for the four-course prix fixe (you can have six if you choose both of the either/or offerings).

The "basic" four courses that I had were:

perfect scallops in a dazzling presentation . . .

. . . caramelized onions, bursting with an amazing onion sauce shot into the middle of the pearl onions as well as the exterior sauce . . .

Caramelized onions with sauces inside and out
. . .  perfectly cooked venison with broccoli, rich wine sauce and a dollop of something creamy, and . . .

Noisette de chevreuil (venison)
. . . caramel dessert with perfect tuiles, candied fruit and shaved chocolate.

Caramel dessert
All were really terrific or better; the onion dish was an extraordinary experience.

The chocolate dessert that I didn't choose was pretty great, too.

Chocolate dessert
But the four courses are supplemented by amuse bouches, pre-amuse bouches, sorbet, pre-dessert and numerous post-desserts, all of which took us more than three hours to consume. Here are just a few:

Mussels with aioli and a tuile of unidentifed vegetable
A series of one-bite flavor bombs
Sorbet in a robe of milk skin
And all of this in a grand and beautiful room with impeccable service, formal but not snooty and perfectly anticipating one's every need (well, desire).

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Paris -- Holiday Food Windows

Maybe it's just me, but the Paris food windows this year-end seem a little less exciting than usual. In part because one of my favorites, Hediard, is closed for renovation.

Still, there were some nice things to see.

Bûches de Noël from Dalloyau . . .

Bûches de Noël at Dalloyau
. . . and from a good local patisserie, Miss Manon.

Bûches de Noël at Miss Manon
Macarons at Ladurée.

Ladurée macarons
A chocolate Thinker from Patrick Roger.

Rodin meets chocolatier Patrick Roger
Truffles at Maison de la Truffe.

Truffles at Maison de la Truffe
Caviar at Kaspia.

Caviar Kaspia
And assorted cakes at Fauchon.

Cakes at Fauchon
Paris is still a great place for holiday window-shopping.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Paris -- Lebanese Extravaganza -- Innovative Dessert

The meals described in the last post would not have been complete without a wonderful dessert, and my friend Tania invented one: the Chocobüchelava, or Chocobaklabûche, which consists of logs of baklava made into a bûche de Noël.

Here's the wonderful baklava that Tania found, which is not sweet and has just a hint of cashew flavor:

Baklava logs
And here's the bûche that Tania made in honor of her new grandson Raphael.

Tania's chocbûchelava
And here's the büche that I made, served on a plate by the wonderful Kanazawa artist, Nakamura Takuo.

My chocobûchelava
One of the nicest aspects of our two-day extravaganza was seeing how well the same food can work with different plates and aesthetic sensibilities.

Bobby Jay

Paris - Another Lebanese Multi-day Extravaganza

When I was last in Paris, I met Tania Abourrousse, a Lebanese woman living in Paris who cooks like a demon, and had the good fortune to shop and cook a meal with her. (See my post of September 7, 2015.)

Joan and I typically share Christmas dinner with three of our Japanese friends in Paris, and this year I decided to try to do a Middle Eastern meal, with Tania's help of course. This led to Joan and me spending Christmas Eve with Tania and her family, and Tania joining us and our Japanese friends for Christmas dinner. Lots of new friends made!

Tania and I did a lot of the shopping on Tuesday, at Iranian and Lebanese groceries, and then prepared one dish: walnut pesto (Aleppo mouhammara):

Making Aleppo muhammara and the final produce
On Wednesday we made a few more dishes, subject to completion of course. Then on Thursday (Christmas Eve), we made the rest of the dishes, plated all, served and ate. What a treat!

Grapes encased in goat cheese and dusted with pistachio
Eggplant salad - raheb
Persian rice with Lebanese lamb stew, favas and dill - riz b'foul wa shbint
Okra stew
Tania's table
(I have left out the gorgeous hommos, which and the Moroccan b'stilla (made to order by a Moroccan cook whom Tania knows), which are shown below as served chez nous.)

On Christmas day, I made a very similar meal, with totally different presentation -- mostly on Japanese plates -- and some alterations of the dishes. Here are some of the highlights.

Hommos on plate by Katsumata Chieko
Chicken b'stilla
Okra stew on Futamura Yoshimi plate
Our table, arranged by Joan
Of course there was a wonderful dessert, but that is a story for another post.

Never eating again.

Well, maybe . . . . After all, we're in Paris

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Paris -- Cooking for One

I love cooking for one in Paris, because the butchers, bakers and charcuteries offer stunning food that requires little, if any, help.

Tonight I had a simple but wonderful meal consisting of truffled boudin blanc (a very light pork sausage) which I simmered, skinned, split and broiled, with flageolets (lima beans) that I heated in the microwave in their original package for 4 minutes . . . 
Boudin blanc, flageolets
followed by a salad of bitter pissenlit (dandelion greens) with a mustardy vinaigrette made with walnut oil, together with a slice of perfect camembert and some toasted walnut bread from the renowned Poilâne bakery and demi-sel butter from Bordier (considered by many to be France's best) . . .
Pissenlit, camembert, toasted pain aux noix with beurre demi-sel Bordier
. . .  followed by a slice of cake (not gâteau) chocolat pistache from Miss Manon, a nearby bakery . . .
Cake chocolat pistache
. . . and eventually by coffee and, probably (still thinking about it) a nightcap of Vielle Prune.

Little effort, big taste! And not doable in New York.

Bobby Jay

Friday, December 4, 2015

Japanese Food Anime

Five years ago, I was introduced to the wonderful Japanese food manga, Oishinbo, which I described in a my post of June 6, 2010. I have recently come across two Japanese food anime, which, though pretty silly on many levels, are really fun to watch, and educational about Japanese food and the Japanese character.

Shokugeki no Sōma (Food Wars) is a series of 24 anime, each about 24 minutes in length, but you can get the down to about 20 minutes if you skip the credits at the beginning and end (be careful, though, since there is material after the final credits). Shokugeki means food war, and each episode involves at least one of these.

Sōma and his arch rival, the God Tongue
The story follows the fortunes of Yukihira Sōma, a high school student who cooks with his father at what appears to be an ordinary diner, but isn't because his father is in fact a brilliant chef. When his father leaves Japan to travel the world and cook in various countries, he sends Sōma an invitation to compete for entrance into Japan's most elite cooking school, Tōtsuki Teahouse Culinary Academy, which has a graduation rate of only 10%. Of course he gets in, but he is resented by many of the elite snobs whose parents are important chefs or people in the food world. Notwithstanding that, he has his friends, too, most notably Tadokoro Megumi, a talented girl chef who gets her confidence and inspiration from Sōma. One of the reasons for Sōma's success is that he has actual experience cooking for customers, rather than abstract culinary knowledge: this is an important message that is repeated frequently. And as a mere transfer student without a fancy pedigree, he becomes the embodiment of  Japan's fierce work ethic

The challenges sound simple enough (for example, make an egg dish or make a curry dish), but the creations the competitors come up with are dazzling, and the commentary from the judges about the combinations of flavors and ingredients are pretty amazing, too. The level of care and intense thinking and experimentation are actually in evidence in today's Japanese cooking, which reaches incredible heights, as my recent posts indicate.

[Warning: this series, like many Japanese manga, plays to a number of juvenile male fantasies, and features girls in school uniforms (see above), lots of boobs and food orgasms. Silly and harmless, but possibly offensive to some.]

I have only just started the second series, Yakitate!! Ja-pan (literally Freshly Baked - Ja pan, with pan meaning bread in Japanese), also about a young boy, but this one is a baker. Kazuma Azuma, who starts baking bread at age six, is said to have hot "solar hands," which his first teacher, who trained in France, says is a rare gift given its name by thFrench.

In the first episode, the six-year old Azuma tries to convince his grandfather, a rice farmer and lover, to eat bread, but the old man says he will do so only if it goes with natto (pungent fermented soybeans) and miso soup. Of course his first bread doesn't do this, but his baking sensei (teacher) comes up with a bread made with soy milk, which complements the soybeans at the base of both natto and miso soup. Grandfather loves the bread, and Azuma's calling as a bread baker is established. He is on a quest, like his teacher, to create great Ja pan, "a Japanese bread made by and for the Japanese people, which can be presented to the world proudly."

Yakitate: Kazuma Azuma with friends and rivals
Ten years later, like our friend Sōma, Azuma enters Pantasia, the most prestigious baking academy in Japan, and his trials begin. I can't report yet, since I have only watched one of the 69 episodes, although it was very interesting and accurate. I shall report back when (if) I finish the series.

Happy watching!

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 27, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

As usual, we hosted Thanksgiving this year, with 10 adults, our one-year old great nephew and our three-year old great niece. The two kids more than made up for the smaller adult group in terms of energy and excitement (and noise).

Dinner was largely a repeat of 2014's, with substitutions for things that did not work or had becoming boring after too many years (like Ottolenghi's excellent sweet potato gratin).

Here's what I cooked:

Thanksgiving Dinner
 November 26, 2015
Salmon rillettes (from a class at Atelier des Chefs in Paris)
Slow poached garlic shrimp (from Tyler Florence's Ultimate TV show)
Mustard and tapenade batons
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)
Smoked ricotta and sun-dried tomato spread with lemon zest (Bobby Jay)
Bar nuts (from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook)
Turkey with sage and dried apricot and cranberry stuffing (from American's Test Kitchen)
Cranberry mostarda (from Food and Wine)
Roasted acorn squash with maple butter (from American's Test Kitchen)
Hashed Brussels sprouts (from Union Square Cafe Cookbook)
Bourbon caramel pumpkin tart (from Fine Cooking)
Fresh Ginger Cake (from Sylvie Thompson, via Food 52 Genius Recipes)
Marie-Hélène’s apple tart
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)

Here are the hors d'oeuvres:

 Mustard and tapenade batons
Garlic shrimp tapas style while cooking and as served
Salmon and smoked salmon rillettes with pumpernickel rounds
And here are the turkey with stuffing and the roasted and broiled acorn squash (the cranberry mostarda and brussels sprouts were camera shy):
Turkey and stuffing à la Julia Child
Roasted and broiled acorn squash with maple sugar butter
Finally, two of the desserts:
Pumpkin tart with bourbon caramel glaze and candied pumpkin seeds
Marie-Hélène's apple cake
I had considered retiring Marie-Hélène's apple cake this year because I have made it so often, but we recently lost a great friend named Marie-Hélène so I could not bring myself to make the change just yet. I think of her every time I make this cake even though it is named for a different Marie-Hélène.

This meal obviously involved a lot of work, but I knocked off three items on each of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, leaving only the shrimp, turkey, stuffing and sides (already much prepped) for Thanksgiving day, leaving me plenty of time to watch the spectacular Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with very dear friends and our niece.

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thoughts on Japanese Food Presentation

My last 11 posts have described and shown photos of some of the amazing food we ate as we toured Japan in late October through early November. Reflecting on this, and similar experiences from earlier trips to Japan, got me thinking about what makes Japanese food so special, and I set forth my thoughts below. This is a long post, but there are some nice pictures at the end, and this one just to prevent you from being bored during the introduction.

Rice course at Kanmean ryokan in Kyoto
Elizabeth Andoh, who knows as much as anyone about Japanese food, sets forth the "five principles" of Washoku (Japanese food) in her authoritative book of the same name.
  • Five colors. Each meal should include foods that are red, yellow, green, black (or nearly) and white.
  • Five tastes. Salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spice tastes should be present, in a harmonious way, in each meal.
  • Multiple cooking methods. Simmering, boiling, steaming, raw and yaki (broiled, grilled, and/or sauteed).
  • Five senses. The senses of taste, sight, sound, smell and touch (i.e. texture) should all be engaged.
  • Five Buddhist rules about eating. Respect for those who contributed to the food (farmers as well as cooks), doing good deeds to be worthy of the food, coming to the meal without anger, eating for spiritual as well as temporal well-being and struggling to attain enlightenment.
Fine Japanese cooking embodies the first four principles. The fifth comes from the diner, and is outside the scope of this post.

I love the tastes and textures of Japanese food, which reflect meticulously produced and cared for ingredients that are elevated by amazingly skillful chefs and the principles described above. However, the most striking thing to me, and what I discuss in this post, is the way a Japanese meal, and each plate, engages the sense of sight.

Japanese people have learned the ability to see beauty in the midst of the ordinary, or worse. Thus, they can focus on a flower, a bonsai tree or a bamboo and pine arrangement placed in a window or on a door and shut out the extraneous visual or aural noise, which can be pretty extreme. Similarly, the tea ceremony, which is an important influence on all Japanese esthetics, involves concentration on a lovely, but contrived, environment, with tea bowls and utensils, flowers and art all contributing to a kind of miniature tableau in which to escape the outside world and its pressures.

Another important characteristic of the Japanese sensibility is the awareness of the seasons. Probably the most common theme in Japanese painting is the four seasons, and this motif is carried over into ceramics and lacquer ware, as well as food presentation, with appropriate seasonal symbols (plum in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer and vibrantly colored maple leaves in autumn) being seen throughout Japan.

Applied to food presentation, I am always struck by the multiplicity of dishes that are served at the same time, usually a central tray and surrounding dishes but often a large plate with multiple elements. With luck, the dishes themselves and some of the serving plates and implements are of fine quality and enhance the experience of the meal by emphasizing the season in a beautiful way.

To me, this type of presentation fills the peripheral vision and permits (commands may be more accurate) the diner to focus his or her attention on a tableau that is not unlike a garden. It is beautiful when viewed from a distance and equally rewarding, in a different way, when each element is focused on separately. The idea is to take in and admire the garden from multiple points of view, with each one enhancing the total experience, which will vary greatly from one season to the next.

Tenryuji garden, Kyoto, central part viewed from a distance
Tenryuji garden, closer view of central part
Tenruji garden, still closer view
Tenryuji garden, left side
Tenryuji garden, closer view of left side
Well, you get the picture.

Now let's examine some food presentations that invoke the same exercise, i.e., to admire the whole but then focus on the separate elements and enjoy the relationship between the multiple views.

Here's a two-part lacquer box from a restaurant in Izumo, which contains some 19 elements (counting the soup as one), with a close up of part of the top half, focusing on a mere 12.

Izumo restaurant tray and close-up of a portion
Another example is this breakfast tray from Saginoyuso Ryokan, and close-ups of some of the major elements.

Saginoyuso breakfast tray and some individual elements
And from this year's tour, a magnificent breakfast presentation at River Retreat Garaku.

Breakfast platter at River Retreat Garaku with close-ups of some elements
We saw a different take on the same idea at Daigo, the famous temple food restaurant in Tokyo, where a round sectional plate presented about 15 separate elements, one more gorgeous than the next.

Sectional plate and separate elments at Daigo
And on the trip we just completed, there was Zeniya, already described in my post of November 15, 2015 in detail. But the seasonal plate, with 10 exquisite items, is worth examining in detail, as it makes my point more eloquently than I possibly can.

Zeniya seasonal plate and some of its elements
This style of presentation is not limited to Japanese ingredients. At one modern ryokan we visited on a prior tour, a Western style breakfast was given the same treatment.

Western breakfast, Japanese presentation
In the 1970s, a number of young French chefs visited Japan and became entranced with the way the Japanese presented food. These chefs created the movement known as Nouvelle Cuisine, of which an important element was a revolution in plating, with larger plates giving the ingredients room to breathe and to tell a story. Although the Nouvelle Cuisine movement is long over, the influence of Japanese presentation is still seen in fine restaurants in France and, indeed, around the world.

On a less global note, enjoying Japanese food is an important part of traveling in Japan, and the glorious presentation is at least as important as the food itself. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that careful observation of the plates of food placed in front of you can provide profound insight into how the Japanese relate to their environment.

Bobby Jay