I visit New Orleans, Las Vegas and New York, completing my tour of all 2008 3 star Michelin restaurants.

Saturday, November 15th , 2008

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A bumper blog, as I was travelling in the US last week.
Firstly, in the UK, I went back after several years to Tatsuso, a pricy Japanese restaurant near Liverpool Street. This is very much aimed at the corporate market, but I have always found the standard of food to be high e.g. very fine tuna sashimi. This was the case again on this visit, with a solid 4/10 performance. 
I don’t usually review fast food outlets, but Croque Gascon has the heritage of Club Gascon behind it, so this is no ordinary burger flipping joint. It is in the vast new Westfield shopping centre (seemingly the largest shopping mall in Europe), in the “Balcony” section along with a number of other, less culinarily ambitious outlets. I have to say that the Westfield centre in itself is pretty impressive, with acres of marble, pleasant design and lots of helpful staff. I never thought I would see the day when a branch of Tiffany’s opened in Shepherds Bush. The duck burger and chips I tried was very pleasant, a cut above fast food standards, though a cassoulet on offer was surprisingly under-seasoned for what is usually a robust dish. If you are shopping in Westfield and need a break then this would be the place to try among the 49 (!) food outlets there.
I can never quite make up my mind about Cinnamon Club, an extremely popular restaurant serving up-market Indian food in the lovely setting of the old Westminster Library. On the positive side, the ingredients used are of much higher quality than is usual in Indian restaurants, such as Label Anglais chicken and Anjou pigeon. Technique is good, though sometimes the dishes seem to move away from what one thinks of as Indian food. On this visit, for example, the roast saddle of ‘Oisin’ red deer with pickling spices is not something you are likely to encounter in your local high street tandoori, and the venison itself had good taste and was nicely cooked, but many people may not recognise this as Indian food. Still, overall things worked more often than not, though at £70 a head with a few beers only it is quite debatable on the value for money front.
I had an excellent lunch at Pied a Terre. The £24.50 lunch menu is a real bargain, avoiding the feeling that you get with some top London restaurants that you have been rather short-changed. These cheaper menus inevitably use less luxurious ingredients than their evening versions which are perhaps three times the price, and some of the menus really make you feel that you are eating the scrag end of ingredients. The menu here seemed to have a lot of effort put into it. I particularly enjoyed a dish of scallops with crushed peas and a lemon grass veloute, which was a refreshing combination that highlighted and enhanced, but in way fought with, the inherent sweetness of the high quality scallops.  
New Orleans seems to be recovering well from hurricane Katrina, at least in the central areas (the suburbs are seemingly another story). I had an enjoyable meal at John Besh’s August, where a nice touch is that if you have the $80 tasting menu, the wine pairing with it is just an extra $20. There were several good dishes in a cosy environment. 
Stella’s is another modern American restaurant in the French Quarter, in this case trying for slightly higher levels of culinary ambition. A Louisiana shrimp kim chi is an example of the more innovative dishes, and one that worked well, but not all dishes were as successful. In general I found that just too many flavours were being put on the plate, when sometimes less would actually be more. Very pleasant, but somewhere that for me could be better than it is currently delivering; I know that some others rate it more highly, but I can only base my review on what I tried.
Joel Robuchon was actually there in person at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion, just as he was when I visited his chateau in Tokyo in May. Vegas was designed for gamblers, and when I first visited the town in 1985 a “surf and turf” buffet was about as sophisticated a dinner as you could hope for. Recently celebrity chef after celebrity chef has come to town to exploit the windfall of tourists in a party mood and the occasional person who briefly beats the odds at the casino and wants to celebrate. The experience here was rather like the Tokyo outlet, though in this case the highs were a little higher and the lows significantly lower. Proper Kobe beef from Japan was lovely, but frozen sea bass from France was slightly overcooked and had lost its original taste. The setting is all very grand, but the giant sucking sound from your wallet is present as soon as you see the breathtaking prices on the menu, and continues when the sommelier suggested a wine costing over $300 as his tip for a “good value” wine. I did not find this to be true 3 star cooking except in just two dishes tried, and the fish was really disappointing.
On to New York. I am a long term fan of the Gramercy Tavern, which seems to me unpretentious and offers serious food with warm, genuinely friendly service. This time I ate at the Tavern, which provides a less ambitious, more casual menu than the main dining room (which is not open for Sunday lunch). While it is fairly priced, the popularity of the place means that tables are crammed in and everything felt just a bit pressurised compared to the main room, which I will stick to on future visits.
The ultra-popular Babbo was a let-down. A knowledgeable friend had an excellent meal there just a couple of years ago, but my local foodie friend Scott had warned me not to expect too much these days, and he was right. The place was certainly buzzing, but several dishes were lazily put together, in one case a salad with a dressing that seemed entirely vinegar. This seems a money-making machine these days, and it looks as if I missed it when it was better.
WD 50 has a single Michelin star, and this seems about right for some very innovative modern cooking. Too often chefs go off on weird tangents these days when putting together cutting edge menus, but although there were certainly some unusual combinations, chef Wylie Dufresne has mostly kept his feed on the ground in ensuring that combinations actually work well together. I was quite positive about this meal, even though it is not my favourite style of cooking.
The big two meals, both in terms of Michelin stars and wallet impact, were Per Se and Masa. At Per Se we had a twenty course tasting menu lasting over six hours. The kitchen certainly pulled out all the stops, service was as smooth as silk, and there was dish after dish of technically perfect modern food. It is probably the best food I have eaten in the US (The French Laundry when Keller was cooking there being a very close second). Yet for me it was still not at the level of the top places in France and Germany, which seem to be able to extract more flavour from their dishes. Perhaps it is the quality of the ingredients that you can get at the very high end of dining in France in particular (just try the simple vegetable crudite nibbles at Louis XV in Monaco for an illustration of this). The bill here was also vast, up there with the costliest meals I have ever eaten.
Talking of costly meals, Masa (see picture of its discreet entrance) is famed for its prices: $450 (plus 20% service i.e. $540) for the no-choice menu, and part way through the meal they even had the nerve to suggest that they could add a meat dish or two for a mere $140 supplement. Objectively the food was very good, but the sushi was better at Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo, yet at about one-fifth the price. Tokyo is hardly known for its low costs, so the charges at Masa are simply unacceptable, aimed at the seriously wealthy and those with bulging expense accounts. I suspect this is a place which will not prosper in the coming recession.
I did manage a true New York grazing experience, courtesy of my foodie friend Scott. In one evening we had starters at Blue Hill, main dinner at Babbo and dessert at Cru (fortunately these are conveniently located within a short walk of one another in Greenwich Village). Blue Hill is a cosy, charming place which uses produce from its sister restaurant Blue Hill Farm in upstate New York. This ensures that vegetables in particular are of a much higher standard than you usually encounter in New York. I had a very capable apple strudel at Cru, but was amazed by the wine list. Its 122 page list has 4,000 separate wines listed, with 24,000 bottles on site and over 200,000 more bottles at its storage facility. We had a lovely 1988 Chateau Climens with our dessert.
Sadly Olivier Roellinger has decided to give up his 3 star restaurant Maisons de Bricourt. I had two superb meals there in the spring, so this is a real shame. It sounds as if he has other plans, but these are not specific at the moment.   
In the UK, The Lindsay House is going to close, though Richard Corrigan has a new opening in Park Lane, which I will try soon.
Aiden Byrne has finally tired of looking up at the giant highlanders prancing around the murals of the Dorchester Grill Room, and is off to set up his own venture, the Church Green pub in Lymm, Cheshire.  Aiden is a very engaging individual and a gifted chef (the youngest ever chef to gain a Michelin star in the UK). I will miss him not being in London, but wish him well in his new venture.
In my next newsletter I will reflect on all the 3 star meals I have eaten this year, and try and separate out the stars from the duds. If you are interested in subscribing to this free newsletter please let me know.