Thursday, February 6, 2014

15 Hours In Shanghai - Night

The first stop in my recent trip to Asia was Shanghai.  We originally planned to stay longer, but having relatives in Vietnam meant we had to allot more time to Saigon.  So with only a layover in Shanghai, I really only had one goal: eat dumplings.

We were going to hit up the one-two punch of Yang’s Fry Dumpling and Jia Jia Tong Bao upon arrival for shen jian bao (fried soup dumplings) and xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings).  However, incorrect hours of operation posted online meant we’d have to postpone the dumpling duet until the next morning.  Instead, we wandered the area around Nanjing Road and had a few bites of street food.

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Our first bite of the night was from a busy stand selling Taiwanese fried chicken.  Freshly fried and piping hot, the chicken was served as small bite-sized portions.  It had a great amount of crispy crunch to it that complimented the succulent and juicy meat.  The seasoning was predominately soy, sugar, and five spice.  Assertive and upfront, the soy and sugar smacked you in the face while the five spice mellowed things out nicely on the finish and carried over from one bite to the next.  A definite winner.

A few blocks away we found a Muslim grilled meat vendor.  Muslim grilled lamb kabobs were nice and smoky from the live charcoal they were cooked over.  The smokiness and cumin helped balance the intense muskiness of the fatty lamb, which was probably the gamiest lamb I’ve tasted.

Right next to the grilled meats  was a stinky tofu vendor.  We got the deep fried stinky tofu in chili sauce with green onions and some type of pickle.  I’d only had stinky tofu once before at the 626 Night Market, and that particular stinky tofu was really hard to choke down due to the strong aroma and taste of petting zoo.  This stinky tofu wasn’t nearly as poopy; it was actually very clean tasting (as clean as something that smells like poop can taste).  You could actually taste the bean curd through the lingering barnyard flavor.  The outside of the stinky tofu had a decent amount of bite to it while the inside was silken and scalding.  To add to the searing pain caused by the molten tofu, the chili sauce was some of the spiciest stuff I’ve ever eaten.  It was my first experience with how spiciness in Asia is simply on another level compared to the States.

I’m not 100% sure exactly what it was, but the stinky tofu vendor was selling another dish.  The main ingredient was some type of soft, gelatinous substance.  It was too soft to be wheat gluten or tendon.  My guess is that it was some type of steamed radish cake, as I tasted some sharpness in the mush.  The sauce consisted of ground pork, oyster sauce, sesame oil, fermented black beans (I think), green onion, some type of pickle, and more of that rip roaring chili sauce.  Pretty tasty.

After torching our mouths, we tried putting out the flames with some sugar cane juice and yellow pomegranate juice hand pressed to order.  Both drinks were the best versions of the drink I’ve ever had.  Because the vendor only pressed the sugar cane once through the rollers, the resulting juice was so pristine, not watered down, and paradoxically not overly sweet.  The vendor took the same care when pressing the pomegranate.  She used a deft hand and made sure not to press too hard.  As a result, it was like drinking the juice from the pulp with none of the astringency that comes with the seeds.  It was the essence of pomegranate in a cup.  Due to the cold weather, the juices came out nearly ice cold straight from the press.  Later on in the trip, we had fresh pomegranate juice in Seoul.  The difference between pressing gently to maintain purity and pressing hard to maximize volume was night and day.  The latter was so astringent it tasted like drinking a cup full of  liquefied coins.

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To cap off the night, we decided to try some pretty good looking fried pork dumplings from another street vendor.  Big mistake.  They were stale, which made what should’ve been the crunchy parts tough and hard.  The worst part was that they were reheated in a pool of tepid oil, just hot enough to warm them through.  In terms of flavor, it was oil and loads of salt.   Thankfully, this was the only thing we ate in Shanghai that didn’t fall within the very good to unbelievably amazing spectrum of deliciousness.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

2013 Favorites

After recently returning from a trip to Asia and being generally underwhelmed with the food that I ate there, I began thinking about how the food compared to other things I ate in 2013.  Though there were a lot of disappoints in Asia, there were a two things that ranked among the best things I’ve ever eaten.  One savory and one sweet.  Not only were they delicious, but they were cheap too: $1 or less per order.  That got me thinking about what my favorite high end savory and sweet dishes were from 2013 and how they ranked compared to the two cheap eats.

#1: Shen Jian Bao @ Yang’s Fry Dumpling, Shanghai

Shen jian bao: an enormous porky meatball swimming in slightly sweetened soup encased in a paper thin yet toothsome wrapper topped with sesame seeds and green onion.  If that wasn’t enough, one side is fried to perfection with zero greasiness.  Crispy, crunch, chewy, savory, sweet, pungent, solid, and liquid.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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I’m certain I’ll remember these for the rest of my life, and a small note here can’t do them justice.  I plan on giving them a full write up in the future, and at just 25 cents per dumpling they’re one of the cheapest things I’ve ever eaten in addition to one of the best.

#2: Che Xoi Nuoc @ Che My, Saigon

Che xoi nuoc: glutinous rice balls filled with a coconut-spiked mung bean paste floating in an ethereal sauce of freshly pressed coconut milk and sweetened ginger water topped with toasted peanuts.  The richness of the coconut milk was perfectly cut by the heat of ginger.  The silky chewiness of the glutinous rice balls was graceful and perfectly countered by the crunchiness of the peanuts.  A touch of salt rounded out the 47 cent bowl of che.

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It’s perhaps unfair to the other amazing ches and sweet banh I had that che xoi nuoc is my favorite che of all time because there are several that could’ve easily claimed this spot.  All the great desserts I had in Vietnam will just have to share the spotlight in a later post.

#3: Wood-Grilled Ribeye & Foie Gras in Mole Negro @ Topolobampo, Chicago

“Wood-grilled 28-day-aged prime ribeye & seared foie gras in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black beans, smoky green beans.”  I didn’t understand mole until I had this dish.  There was so much depth of flavor in the perfectly balanced mole that adding aged ribeye and foie gras seemed like gilding the lily.  I would’ve been happy with the dish even if the proteins were swapped out for stale bread.

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#4: Young Coconut @ Grace, Chicago

Young coconut, lime, huckleberry, African blue basil: a great flavor combination reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors that I love.  I’ve always enjoyed Curtis Duffy’s use of herbs in his dishes as it reminds me of the herbaceous Vietnamese food I grew up with.  I also like that he limits the ingredients of a dish and uses a certain ingredient in many different forms.  This makes for dishes that truly capture the essence of an ingredient while being varied enough to make it interesting and not monotonous.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Year of Cookies

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My 52 week cookie challenge finally came to an end a couple months ago.  Fifty-two weeks and 52 distinct batches of cookies.  The motivation came from wanting to fill the void left by Charcutepalooza's ending, but I wanted something weekly rather than monthly.  The inspiration came from an anecdote in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook where Christina Tosi would bake goodies every night after work.

Below are all the cookies I made, starting from the most recent.  I’ve highlighted and included pictures of the cookies that were personal or office favorites.  Many of the flavor combinations were inspired by things I’d enjoyed eating.  Although many of the choices may sound gross or weird, there wasn’t a cookie that was universally reviled.  Most surprisingly, everyone enjoyed the durian cookie.

  • 53 (Bonus Track): Crack Pie cookie.  Inspired by Momofuku Milk Bar.  (above)
  • 52: Mushroom, spruce.  Inspired by Next: The Hunt.
  • 51: Chocolate, spruce, Buddha’s hand
  • 50: Mung bean, pandan, coconut, Maggi.  Inspired by banh tet.
  • 49: Durian, coconut.  Inspired by xoi sau rieng.
  • 48: Soybean, pandan, ginger, coconut.  Inspired by douhua.
  • 47: Popcorn.  Inspired by Coi.
  • 46: Seaweed, longan, corn.  Inspired by che sam bo luong and Ink.
  • 45: Pandan, soybean.  Inspired by soybean milk with pandan.
  • 44: Purple yam
  • 43: Candy cane, chocolate chip
  • 42: Buddha’s hand, chocolate crumb
  • 41: Chocolate, blueberry, peanut, honey.  Inspired by Alinea.
  • 40: Jasmine, coconut.  Inspired by my mom’s jasmine-coconut agar-agar jelly.
  • 39: Oatmeal
  • 38: Maple, schmaltz, fried chicken spices.  Inspired by chicken & waffles.
  • 37: Chocolate, mint, cherries
  • 36: Corn, shrimp.  Inspired by Elizabeth Restaurant.
  • 35: Chocolate chip
  • 34: Corn, cocoa.  Inspired by pozol.
  • 33: Honey, honey powder, honey milk crumb, bee pollen.  Inspired by Eleven Madison Park.
  • 32: Banana, cheese.  Inspired by my mom’s banana wrapped in Kraft singles snack.
  • 31: Corn, cheese.  Inspired by maiz con queso ice cream and Cheetos.
  • 30: Jasmine tea, matcha milk crumb
  • 29: Pea, strawberry, white chocolate.  Inspired by Alinea.
  • 28: Chocolate, raisin, orange
  • 27: Peaches, milk crumb
  • 26: Chocolate, strawberry, peppermint, black pepper
  • 25: Peanut butter, strawberry
  • 24: Hazelnut, chocolate chip
  • 23: Tomato, sumac, olive oil powder
  • 22: Chocolate, chocolate chip, coconut, peppermint
  • 21: Peanut butter, banana, coconut, honey, pandan
  • 20: Strawberry, lavender, pepper, milk crumb
  • 19b: Curry, peanut butter, chocolate chip, coconut
  • 19a: Fermented shrimp paste, Fruity Pebbles, marshmallow.  Inspired by Schwa.
  • 18: Pandan, oatmeal, raisin
  • 17: Peanut butter, celery, olives.  Inspired by DiverXO.
  • 16: Longan, lotus seed, seaweed.  Inspired by che sam bo luong.
  • 15: Chocolate, kumquat
  • 14: Mango, milk crumb
  • 13: Banana, coconut
  • 12: Chocolate, milk crumb
  • 11: Black sesame, miso, sesame crunch.  Inspired by Next: elBulli.
  • 10: Persimmon, milk crumb
  • 9: Corn, coconut, sesame
  • 8: Milk Bar peanut butter
  • 7: Milk Bar compost
  • 6: Milk Bar confetti
  • 5: Milk Bar corn
  • 4: Milk Bar chocolate-chocolate
  • 3: Milk Bar blueberry & cream
  • 2: Milk Bar Fruity Pebble
  • 1: Milk Bar cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow

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29: Pea, strawberry, white chocolate.  Inspired by Alinea.

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32: Banana, cheese.  Inspired by my mom’s banana wrapped in Kraft singles snack.

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46: Seaweed, longan, corn.  Inspired by che sam bo luong and Ink.

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48: Soybean, pandan, ginger, coconut.  Inspired by douhua.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cheese & Banana Cookie

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Ever since starting my 52 week cookie challenge, I’ve slowly tried to introduce typically savory ingredients into my cookies.  The Momofuku Milk Bar corn cookie was a nice starting point.  From there I experimented with cookies that incorporated things like miso, fermented shrimp paste, tomatoes, and sumac.  After my most recent meal at Alinea, I was inspired to make a pea-based cookie which ended up being quite phenomenal.  The pea cookie was actually my favorite cookie I’d made so far.  Then week 33 rolled around and the cheese & banana cookie was born.

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A few weeks prior, some coworkers and I were talking about Cheetos.  Naturally the discussion lead to a Cheetos cookie, and a batch was made shortly after.  This cheese & corn cookie based off of the Milk Bar corn cookie ratios was a unanimous winner, although I wouldn’t really call it a Cheetos cookie.  The cheese flavor was subtle, but the aroma was very cheesy.  The flavor was creamy and buttery, and the smell was reminiscent of Cheez-Its.

To take the cheese & corn cookie to the next level I bumped up the amount of cheese and did what I usually do: revert back to childhood.  One of my favorite after school snacks as a child was a banana wrapped in a Kraft single.  The mix between salty and sweet was always a winner, and who doesn’t love Kraft singles?  When you think about it, it’s not that odd of a combination as fruit and cheese are a classic pairing.

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For my cheese & banana cookie, I decided to use yet another childhood favorite: Vietnamese dried bananas.  They’re not like banana chips.  Think of them as like sun-dried bananas glazed in honey.  The sun-drying concentrates the banana flavor, which is already pretty amped up due to the fact that ripe apple bananas are used.  I find the banana flavor in apple bananas much more intense than your average banana.

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After baking the cookies off, the outer half of the cookie was nice and crunchy, while the center half was perfectly soft and fudgy.  That’s the beauty of the Milk Bar cookie recipes.  A third iteration of the cheese cookie will likely find it’s way into my oven based on a tip I received about adding roasted sweet peppers in addition to the bananas.

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Cheese & Banana Cookie

Mise En Place

  1. Follow M.E.P. for the Momofuku Milk Bar corn cookie with the following substitutions and additions
  2. 225 g flour => 265 g flour
  3. 45 g corn flour => 0 g corn flour
  4. 65 g freeze-dried corn powder => 75 g powdered cheese
  5. 3 g baking powder => 1.5 g baking powder
  6. 6 g kosher salt => 8 g kosher salt
  7. 150 g Vietnamese dried banana, diced into 1 cm x 0.5 cm pieces

Method

  1. Follow method for the Momofuku Milk Bar corn cookie with the following additions
  2. After flour, leaveners, and powdered cheese have been mixed, add banana and mix until evenly distributed, no more than 30 seconds

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Alinea: 8-23-12

This was my fifth visit to Alinea, and although the food ranked squarely in the middle of the 5 tours, the overall enjoyment of the meal was probably the best.  That’s not to say the food was average; it was still outstanding.  I think the enjoyment had a lot to do with my mindset going into the meal.  I had no expectations as  I didn’t look at the menu beforehand.  Thanks to the revelatory meal at Schwa, I didn’t take myself too seriously either despite the formal setting.  My main goal was to have great time with the company I was with and I did.  It was the most fun I’ve had at Alinea thus far.

Things started out differently this time.  The entrance carpet was replaced with grass and a fan blew a breeze through the narrow hallway, making wind chimes dance and sing.  At the front of the hallway was a metal tub filled with water.  Floating round and round in the water were glasses filled with the first taste of the night: lemonade.  It had an intense lemon flavor, but it was a bit too sweet for me.  Still, an unexpected and fun start to the night.

 

STEELHEAD ROE – peach, St. Germain, kinome

Four blocks of ice were placed on the table when we arrived.  From my past meals at Alinea, I figured these would be the table centerpieces and eventually be incorporated into a course near the middle of the meal.

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To my surprise, the blocks of ice were used for the very first course.  The glass boba straws were handed to us and we were instructed to place it in the ice and slurp away.  Within the ice was a peach distillation, and within the glass boba straw were the roe and garnishes.  This dish reminded me of the Fruit Loops roe course at Schwa.  Both were fruity, briny, and salty.

 

SHELLFISH PROGRESSION

I was familiar with the template of the shellfish progression from my last visit, but the presentation this time was more ambitious.  The shellfish sat on top of a piece of driftwood covered in fresh kelp.  The oyster leaf with mignonette and  razor clam with shiso, soy, and daikon seemed to taste the same as last time.  This wasn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as the razor clam again was tough, chewy, and a little too salty.  However, the king crab with passion fruit, heart of palm, and allspice was stellar, as was the lobster with carrot and chamomile .

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WOOLLY PIG – fennel, orange, squid

I didn’t get much pork flavor, but the combination of fennel, orange, and squid worked really well.  I’ll be using this combination in my everyday cooking.

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TOMATO – watermelon, chili, basil

My hatred of raw tomatoes is well known.  The last time I had a tomato dish at Alinea, I had trouble getting it down.  This tomato dish was one of my favorites of the night and went down quickly and easily.  There wasn’t much of that grassy, vegetal finish to the tomatoes that tomatoes can sometimes have.  Raw celery has a similar, but stronger, finish and it’s the main reason I have a tough time with both.  The tomatoes were very sweet, perhaps even sweeter than the watermelon.  The chili and basil heightened the brightness of the dish.

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On the bottom of the dish was tomato ice.  One of my dining companions astutely pointed that it was very much like the tomato ice served at Next: elBulli.  This was when I started to think about the potential crosspollination of techniques and ideas between Alinea, Next, and The Aviary.  Another link between this dish and the tomato ice dish served at Next was that they were both paired with sake.  The pairing was really well done as the muskmelon notes from the sake played really well with the tomato and watermelon.  Perhaps they were also testing sakes for Next: Kyoto.

 

CORN – huitlacoche, sour cherry, silk

This was corn in many different forms.  The silk was fried.  The husk was charred, combined with fat, and mixed with tapioca maltodextrin to form a “rock.”  The kernels and kernel fungus, aka huitlacoche, were pureed.  Plating was inspired by the artwork found throughout the restaurant.  Although this was a very tasty dish and one of my favorites of the night (I ended up licking the plate), I wish there were actual corn kernels or something to give the dish that satisfying crunch and pop when you chomp down on an ear of corn.

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OTORO – thai banana, sea salt, kaffir lime

It took me a minute or 2 to realize they were serving fish in a fish bowl.  The tuna was supposedly some sort of sustainable tuna.  I’m not sure if the provenance of the fish was the main factor, but I’ve had tastier otoro before.  When everything was eaten together, though, it didn’t matter much because it was a really great dish.  I found myself awkwardly tilting the bowl every which way in order to savor every last drop of the kaffir lime sauce.  I don’t know why I didn’t just lift the bowl up and drink the sauce.

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CHANTERELLE – ramps, asparagus, smoked date

This dish tasted a lot like the autumn scene dish at Next: Childhood as pointed by my astute dinning companion.  Even the presentation of the food on a plank of charred wood was similar to the autumn scene dish.  The earthy darkness of the mushrooms was deepened by the smoked date and perfectly cut by the sourness of pickled ramps and astringency and bitterness of asparagus.  A standout composition of flavors and one of my favorites of the night.

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HOT POTATO – cold potato, black truffle, butter

A classic.  Knowing how legitimately time sensitive this dish is, I refrained from taking a picture.  It was noteworthy that I spilled a bunch of the cold potato soup while pulling the pin, making myself look like a slob in addition to an uncivilized oaf who licks plates.

 

LAMB – ……..?????……………!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sixty different garnishes were presented for the table to pick and chose.  With a recommendation of 3-4 garnishes per cut of lamb (shank, saddle, loin), you had yourself a “choose your own adventure” dish filled with surprise and intrigue.  That being said, I enjoyed the concept of this dish more than the flavor.  Although I had fun trying more than the recommended 3-4 garnishes per cut of lamb and identifying them, the garnishes boiled down to a handful of disparate flavor profiles: sweet with anise, tart and fruity, herbaceous, bitter and astringent, and nutty.  I found the sweet with anise garnishes to be my favorite.  I thought it worked really well and it was something I’d never had before.  It’ll be something I try with lamb at home.

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Again I saw a hint of the crosspollination between restaurants.  Another astute dining companion pointed out one of the garnishes was finely diced mirepoix.  This reminded me of the solid aromatic herb sauce at Next: elBulli.

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BLACK TRUFFLE – explosion, romaine, parmesan

Another classic.  Sadly, one of the explosions didn’t really have much of an explosion.

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ANJOU PEAR – onion, brie, smoking cinnamon

Like the hot potato / cold potato and black truffle explosion, I’ll never get tired of the tempura on burning stick dish.  I could have eaten about 10 more of these as the flavors were so well balanced.

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GINGER – five other flavors

From right to left, the flavors progressed from savory to sweet.  The pins were removable.  I wish they actually told us what each of the five bites were composed of, but I guess it’s my own fault for not asking.  I do have a feeling that one of the bites was galangal and not ginger because it packed a lot of heat.  The spiciness carried over into the start of the next dish.

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BLUEBERRY – buttermilk, sorrel, macadamia

The implement for this course was really cool.  On top was a flat surface, in the middle was a hole, and on the bottom was a bowl filled with liquid nitrogen.  The hole was sealed with a glass stopper, causing the dish to rattle from the liquid nitrogen’s steam.  We lifted the stoppers and the servers poured in a sorrel drink, or what I like to call “adult Ecto Cooler.”  Slimer would’ve given his stamp of approval.  I could’ve chugged that stuff all night.  As the juice mixed with the liquid nitrogen, steam billowed out from the hole in the plate.

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I would've been completely happy if the food didn’t live up to the adult Ecto Cooler, but it surpassed the tastiness of the green witches’ brew.  The yellow cake in the middle was actually cheese in some form, and when paired with the different preparations of high quality blueberries reminded me of blueberry cheesecake.  This was my favorite dish of the night.

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BALLOON – helium, green apple

Building on the theatrics of liquid nitrogen steam, edible balloons were brought to the table.  The string was a very tasty green apple leather.  The flavor of the balloon was like a green apple flavor h-bomb, where in this case the h stands for helium.  It may have surpassed green apple Jolly Ranchers as my favorite green apple sweet.  Making a mess eating the balloon was unavoidable because texture of the balloon was a lot stickier than I imagined.  When I went to bite into the balloon, it popped in my face and got all over my hands, nose, cheeks, and mouth.  Thankfully the server strongly advised me to take off my glasses before going at it.  Sucking in the helium while struggling with sticky apple balloon all over my face and hands was a lot of fun.

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WHITE CHOCOLATE – strawberry, english pea, lemon

The mat dessert changed a bit since the last time I was at Alinea.  This time, white chocolate spheres filled with goodies sat on the table.  Then, garnishes and sauces are sprinkled and smeared onto the mat.  The finale comes when liquid nitrogen is poured into the spheres, making them very brittle.  The spheres are then picked up and dropped onto the table, shattering into shards and revealing the goodies.  It was like a fine dining pinata.  The spheres were so brittle, that one of them cracked when lifted.  For a moment I was afraid it would crumble in the chef’s hands.

I don’t enjoy ending a meal on chocolate, so I loved the fact that this rendition was all about fruit.  The quality and intensity of the strawberries was the star here.  I also learned another flavor combination to tuck away in my back pocket.  I can foresee a strawberry, pea, and white chocolate cookie on the horizon.  Overall, it was a great time and a great meal.

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