Husk - Charleston, SC

Dinner - Thursday, December 26, 2013

Husk really needs no introduction - the restaurant and Sean Brock have received saturating levels of national press for its commitment to using (and reviving) Southern ingredients.

All the food served at the restaurant is sourced from a region bordered to the north by the Mason-Dixon line, and to the west by Texas. Now, provenance is one thing, but taste is a completely separate matter - I must admit to being a little skeptical of all the hype. Thus, we arrived at dinner with a small degree of trepidation, hoping that the evening would not bomb out. I'm happy to report that it exceeded expectations, and ended up being our favourite meal in Charleston.

Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Sunday, November 17, 2013

When traveling, it's unusual for us to visit an out-of-town restaurant more than once within a short time span - there're just so many places to try. Yet, this is our third meal at Aubergine this year - a testament to the house that Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza have built. On this night, we shared our meal with two others who had each come long distances to dine here. Over four hours, we ate our way through 25 courses - an evening that will not soon be forgotten.

TRUST at Playground - Santa Ana, CA

Dinner - Saturday, October 12, 2013

Santa Ana always struck me as "that place between San Diego and Los Angeles". Indeed, I would've never thought about making a trip there if we hadn't been running a race in nearby Long Beach. Some restaurant hunting yielded a series of interesting blog posts about a restaurant called Playground in downtown Santa Ana. Further investigation showed that they were running a small dinner series called TRUST, a tasting menu at their chef's counter (interestingly, in a space separate from the main restaurant).

TRUST is billed as a refined experience, where the kitchen is able to perfect dishes from the more ad-lib menu in the main restaurant, while also focusing on better ingredients and a more cohesive narrative. As it turns out, it was still a huge mishmash, but our dinner was engaging and quite a lot of fun.

The Chef's Tasting at Cowboy Star - San Diego, CA

Dinner - Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Theme name - check. Butcher shop - check. Dedicated steak menu - check. One could easily be forgiven for thinking that Cowboy Star is just another steakhouse - many of the indicators are there, down to the staff's Old West belt buckles. And yet, as we discovered, there is far more than meets the eye.

Executive chef Victor Jimenez and recently-hired second-in-command Chris Osborne (this guy is serious - ex-Townhouse and ex-George's California Modern) have been running a weekday reservations-only tasting menu at the kitchen counter - an opportunity for the kitchen to play, experiment and just cook without restraints.

Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Saturday, August 31, 2013

So much can change in six months. Since our meal in February, Justin Cogley (deservedly and expectedly) received one of Food & Wine's Best New Chef awards, putting Aubergine on the map for a whole new segment of diners. Naturally, national recognition brings increased pressure, but the entire restaurant seems to be holding its own, and more.

We had planned a drive along Highway 1 for the Labor Day weekend, and a good meal is always the perfect way to end a long day on the road - what follows is an extended version of Aubergine's tasting menu.

TBL3 at Georges California Modern - La Jolla, CA

Dinner - Saturday, August 17, 2013

Trey Foshee's signature tasting menu must be in demand - previously available only three days a week, TBL3 is now offered Tuesdays through Saturdays. We took advantage of this expanded availability to enjoy a meal at the height of Summer. It was quite a ride - likely our best rendition of the menu to date.

Zach Hunter at Delicias - Rancho Santa Fe, CA

Dinner - Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rancho Santa Fe is one of San Diego county's conservative strongholds - predominantly older (the median age is 51), rich and white. The restaurants in the area strongly reflect its demographics - an unlikely place for a pop-up by an alum of Mugaritz and Atera. Yet, this is where we found ourselves when Delicias announced a one-night guest dinner with Zach Hunter (most recently a sous chef under Matt Lightner), who is about to open his first restaurant in Austin.

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon - Las Vegas, NV

Dinner - Friday, July 12, 2013

Our friend gastrobits wanted to celebrate his impending move to the East Coast with a meal at one of Robuchon's restaurants in Vegas - we were happy to indulge him. Not in the mood for pomp and circumstance, we eschewed the formal dining room and opted instead for the studio.

In the Vegas spirit, a night of revelry ensued. Champagne glasses were clinked, toasts made, (excellent) bread was broken, wines guzzled, and sauces slurped from bowls (with nods of approval from our server) - and at the end of it all, we managed to walk out under our own power. And the food? It did not disappoint - the L'Ateliers are nothing if not consistent.

Sage - Las Vegas, NV

Dinner - Saturday, July 13, 2013

When we started this journal nearly three years ago, Sage was one of the first meals recorded herein. We have not returned to Sin City in the intervening period, but a recent trip finally allowed us the opportunity to revisit the restaurant.

NB: It seems appropriate that this post should mark the beginning of a new abbreviated post format. As we maintain this journal primarily as a visual archive to jog our memories, I find extensive verbal descriptions superfluous for our needs, and likely pointless to an external reader who has not tasted a dish - words will only get you so far in the sensory spectrum. I will attempt to "trim the fat", so to speak, and focus on pictures and ingredients going forward. Text will only be used where necessary, generally to elaborate on components or techniques.

alma - Los Angeles, CA

Dinner - Saturday, June 15, 2013

Let's face it - downtown LA is not the nicest part of the city (although the architecture is quite comely). Hemmed in by barren parking lots, the building that houses alma sits alone, the light from the restaurant spilling into the quiet street through its front windows - the place truly feels like an oasis (despite being a mere block away from Umamicatessen). We walked the 1.5 miles from our hotel post-haste, and arrived to a bustling dining room halfway through dinner service on a Saturday night. A "limited number of the set tasting menu", which we had reserved in advance, is offered each evening.

Pollen - Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Lunch - Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Flower Dome in the Gardens by the Bay is an amazing feat of engineering - a climate-controlled eggshell structure that forms the world's largest columnless greenhouse. Within the dome, temperature and humidity are regulated to simulate a cool Mediterranean climate year-round, making for a welcome reprieve from the oppressive Singaporean heat.

Jason Atherton (of Pollen Street Social) has had plenty of success in Asia, with restaurants in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore - he opened Pollen in the Flower Dome last year to a significant amount of fanfare. Pollen occupies two levels in the corner of the dome, allowing for a singular "al fresco" dining experience. I can't think of a more pleasant man-made environment that we've eaten in. Luckily, the food was more than a match for the setting.

JAAN - City Hall, Singapore

Dinner - Saturday, May 18, 2013

JAAN is the fine-dining restaurant at the luxury Swissôtel The Stamford hotel, in the heart of Singapore's central business district. Perched on the top floor of the 70-storey complex, the restaurant affords a dazzling vista, with huge windows wrapping around the cosy dining room.

The kitchen (formerly run by Andre Chiang) is helmed by the young Julien Royer, who apparently trained at Bras (I did not see the influence during our meal). Under his guidance, the restaurant has popped up on a number of radars, culminating in multiple recommendations for us to dine here. With very little time in Singapore, we decided to replace a reservation at Iggy's with this meal. Did it invoke a sense of time and place? Hell no - the cuisine at JAAN is unapologetically French, and should be interpreted through that lens.

TAKAZAWA - Tokyo, Japan

Dinner - Friday, April 12, 2013

"I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

In mid-2012, after seven years of continuous operation, the studio restaurant formerly known as Aronia de Takazawa underwent a reinvention of sorts, reemerging as TAKAZAWA. This new stage strives for a greater emphasis on "Japanese ingredients, culture and tradition".

The heart and soul of the restaurant are Yoshiaki Takazawa and his wife, Akiko - they run the kitchen and the front-of-house, respectively (indeed, Akiko is the only front-of-house person). Takazawa is assisted by three cooks in the rear kitchen, while he finishes every dish personally at his polished silver dais - a fascinating custom counter with a built-in griddle, hibachi, recessed holders, plating area and spotlight lamp.

龍吟 (Ryugin) - Tokyo, Japan

Dinner - Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ryugin is one of the more famous high-end Japanese restaurants in international dining circles, frequently appearing on "Best Of..." lists (whether you care for them or not). Doubtlessly, this is at least partly due to the fact that the establishment is very foreigner-friendly - reservations are easy to make from abroad, and the staff are fluent in English and French. The chef patron, Seiji Yamamoto, even has an outpost in Hong Kong.

The restaurant offers a single seasonal tasting menu before 9 pm, after which it shifts to an eclectic list of around 50 (!) à la carte items. We selected the tasting menu, hoping to discover what has made this restaurant such a darling around the world. Suffice to say, this meal completely lived up to our high expectations.

吉兆 (Kitcho) - Arashiyama, Japan

Dinner - Tuesday, April 9, 2013

West of Kyoto in Arashiyama, the last sakura petals were falling into the river by the Togetsu bridge. As we walked along the riverside, we noticed that a lone weeping cherry tree had somehow kept most of its blossoms intact - this tree marked the front garden of Kitcho, one of Kyoto's most highly-regarded restaurants.

The sun set, and the sky darkened quickly as we presented ourselves to the serious young man waiting outside the imposing front gate. At the mere mention of our name, he broke into a wide smile, gave a deep bow, and proceeded to lead us down a religiously tended gravel path - into a different world.

閑臥庵 (Kangaan) - Kyoto, Japan

Dinner - Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In the middle of the 17th century, the Buddhist monk Ingen and his disciples arrived in Japan from China, establishing their head temple at Manpuki-ji in the outskirts of southern Kyoto. Ingen brought with him what is now referred to as fucha ryori (the exact etymology of the term is ambigious) - Chinese-style ceremonial vegan meals. Today, fucha ryori can be found at temples of the Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism - 閑臥庵 (Kangaan) is one such temple.

Unlike the more austere shojin ryori, fucha ryori makes greater use of oil and frying techniques - the influence of Chinese cuisine and the relatively short history of the style in Japan. In addition, many items are prepared to resemble meat (in appearance, taste, or both) - ostensibly because the monks could not help missing meat and fish at times.

TBL3 at Georges California Modern - La Jolla, CA

Dinner - Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It's been nearly a year since my last post about the TBL3 menu at California Modern (we have enjoyed other meals there in the meantime, including an undocumented TBL3 dinner). This time, we brought three guests from out of town to share in Trey Foshee's expression of the early Spring season.

Red Medicine - Beverly Hills, CA

Dinner - Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fresh off a two-day collaboration with Alex Stupak in New York, Jordan Kahn was back in the kitchen at his restaurant on a subdued Sunday night. Our previous visit was nearly two years ago - far too long. I seem to recall Red Medicine's original menus being much more Vietnamese-inflected (indeed, the restaurant's manifesto and my own notes would agree with this) - now, it is barely recognizable as such. Not that it matters - Kahn has developed a unique style that takes advantage of an extensive global larder, with a nod to the East and some emphasis on foraged greens.

The restaurant recently introduced an official tasting menu - 6 courses of items not available on the regular menu. We opted for this, supplementing with two a la carte dishes (denoted with asterisks in the captions). Oddly, all courses were presented family-style for the table (not my favourite approach for a degustation - greed tends to rear its ugly head!)

Aubergine - Carmel, CA

Dinner - Saturday, February 9, 2013

"The buildings have no street addresses here," said Nathaniel Munõz, sommelier and restaurant manager of Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel. He was referring to the sleepy hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where many cottages have proper names and mail delivery is nonexistent. When night falls, the quiet village is plunged into an engulfing darkness - naturally, there are no street lights here either (indeed, we drove past the hotel's street twice before finding it).

Such is the setting for the twenty-room L'Auberge Carmel, a beautiful and historic inn, where Justin Cogley and Ron Mendoza just happen to be working magic in the kitchen. On this night, the main dining room was reserved for a private event, so we dined at a lone table in the privacy of the restaurant's wine cellar (making the experience all the more special), where the kitchen served us 22 courses over four hours.

NB: Due to the length of the menu, I have kept descriptions succinct. Suffice to say that no dish was less than good, and a few were exceptional. Wine pairings (on this night, completely from the Old World) were likewise inspired at points.

Coi - San Francisco, CA

Dinner - Friday, February 8, 2013

This was supposed to be a meal at Saison's latest incarnation, but unexpected emergencies forced a weekend closure of their new space. Fortunately, their helpful front-of-house staff rebooked us at Coi for the evening - one can certainly think of worse contingencies.

We were seated in the dining area that occupies their (much-missed) former lounge, a strangely organic mix of dark wood and shag pillows. It is loud - the tables are spaced a little too closely for my linking, but c'est la vie. Choices were minimal - still or sparkling water, and would you like the wine pairing? We placed ourselves in their hands for the 11-course tasting menu. Sweet surrender.

Solace and the Moonlight Lounge - Encinitas, CA

Dinner - Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Matt Gordon is known for serving high-quality comfort food (rich and hearty are apt descriptors) at his two popular establishments - Urban Solace in North Park, and Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas (as of this writing, a third place, tentatively named "Sea and Smoke", is in the works for the Del Mar area). His concepts are very attuned to the wants of the local dining scene, and both restaurants have been tremendously successful. Although we've never been disappointed by any meal at Urban Solace, it is not generally a type of cuisine we crave, preferring lighter (one could say greener) fare. On this night, however, he demonstrated a depth we hadn't seen before, executing eight dishes that were a significant departure from his regular offerings. It was impressive.

Azul Histórico - Mexico City, Mexico

Lunch - Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ricardo Muñoz Zurita is a chef, but more importantly, a culinary historian. He has built his reputation on resurrecting traditional recipes from around the country, sourcing the best ingredients from their respective regions (indeed, one could envision him as a parallel movement to Sean Brock's revival of Southern cuisine, but on a national scale). From Azul y Oro on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, he has expanded to two other locations - one in the Condesa, and the newest (Azul Histórico) in the historic center of Mexico City (the menu at all three locations is identical).

This newest space is gorgeous - an open courtyard in the middle of a colonial-style building, shaded by a ceiling of pruned leaves from century-old laurel trees. Wooden tables and chairs, and the colours of nature, lend to an organic feel - an oasis from the chaos of the city outside. On the day we visited, the restaurant happened to be celebrating the Alma Jarocha festival, featuring the cuisine of Veracruz (Muñoz's home state).

Quintonil - Mexico City, Mexico

Lunch - Friday, December 28, 2012

Quintonil opened in the spring of 2012, helmed by the young chef Jorge Vallejo (formerly of Pujol). Of the meals we ate on our recent trip to Mexico City, this one stuck with us above all else. The food struck me as an effortless use of indigenous ingredients, fused with progressive technique - a seamless elevation of Mexican cuisine.

The restaurant, situated in the ritzy Polanco neighbourhood, is charming - plenty of natural light falls upon a combination of indoor and outdoor seating. For this lunch, we found ourselves at Quintonil's kitchen table, a secluded outdoor section separated from the shoebox kitchen by a pane of glass.

NB: Credit goes to this Eater interview of Jorge Vallejo (by Gabe Ulla) for first drawing my attention to Quintonil.