Sunday, September 25, 2011

Akelarre: 9-9-11

When planning the itinerary for Spain, I learned that the Basque Country is regarded as the place to experience the best of Spanish cuisine.  Consulting the Michelin guide, the Basque Country lays claim to three of the seven 3-starred restaurants in Spain.  In addition to fine dining, San Sebastian’s famous pintxos culture is supposed to be the pinnacle of tapas.  Thus, the main goal of visiting San Sebastian in the Basque Country of Spain was to eat and expectations were high.  The first stop in San Sebastian was the Michelin 3-star Akelarre.

Along with Juan Mari Arzak of Retaurante Arzak, Pedro Subijana of Akelarre is one of the fathers of New Basque cuisine.  Much time was spent on deciding whether to go to Arzak versus Akelarre.  Both have 3 Michelin stars, but Arzak is currently the #8 restaurant in the world while Akelarre is #94.  Contrary to the world rankings, it seemed like most people who recently dinned at both restaurants preferred Akelarre.  The deciding factor was a reviewer who seemed to have similar tastes as me that much preferred Akelarre over Arzak.


However, the meal was a huge disappointment.  Only 2 dishes were remotely memorable and I’d have a hard time putting Akelarre even into 1-star territory.  Despite a lack of photos from my meal at DiverXO, I can remember the taste of the majority of dishes.  I can’t say the same thing for Akelarre even though I have photos of each dish.


Amuse Bouche: Hotel Amenities

From left to right: crunchy onion sponge with tomato-basil gel, idiazabal cream with powdered prawn, cocktail of grenadine and cava.  Other than the presentation, nothing really interesting going on here.  The tomato-basil gel was decent, though.  The hotel amenities were meant to be the amuse bouche and everyone at the table received the same bites.  After the amuse, though, the offerings diverged as Akelarre offers 2 menus.



1A: Gambas con Vainas al Fuego de Orujo

Prawns cooked tableside in a flambe of Orujo.  We had bigger and tastier prawns previously in Madrid, the following day at Etxebarri, and the following week in Barcelona.

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One of the heads of my shrimp detached itself while the server was walking the dish over to my seat.  She paused for a second, gave a shocked look at the other server who was also walking the dish over to my mom, and placed the dish in front of me.



1B: Txangurro en Esencia sobre Blini de Coral

Spider crab.  A play on the traditional Basque dish called txangurro.  Being completely unfamiliar with Basque cuisine, I missed the connection here.  I also missed all the crab meat in the dish because my dad finished it all before swapping plates with me.

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2A: Moluscos en la Red del Pescador

Mollusks in “fisherman’s net.”  An array of simply prepared mollusks covered by a crunchy net that had the texture of Chinese shrimp chips.  I don’t recall any flavor to the net.  I do recall having a bite of cockle (berberecho) that was quite good, though.



2B: Navaja con Pata de Ternera

Razor clam with veal shank.  The razor clam was decent, but we had ones that were much sweeter and memorable the next week in Barcelona at Cal Pep that were simply cooked a la plancha and drizzled with olive oil.  I don’t remember anything about the veal shank.

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3A: Carpaccio de Pasta, Piquillos e Iberico

Basically thin pasta “carpaccio” made with jamon iberico.  I don’t' remember tasting much jamon in each bite.  The jamon pasta tasted like normal pasta, and the cheese was the most powerful flavor on the plate.



3B: Foie Fresco a la Sarten, Sal y Pimienta

Seared foie gras with sugar and puffed rice crisps.  The sugar was added tableside and described as salt while the rice crisps were described as pepper.  The illusion was completely broken a few seconds after the description when the server assured us it wasn’t really salt and pepper.  I thought it defeated the purpose of the misdirection if they’re going to tell you what it really is before you even eat it.  However, this was the only memorable savory dish.  The foie gras was perfectly prepared and went well with the sugar and wine-based sauce.

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4A: Caja de Bacalao “Desalao” con Virutas

Fresh cod presented to look like how salt cod (bacalao) arrives boxed in its uncooked form.



4B: Caldo de Txipiron, mini Txipiron

Baby squid with baby squid broth and ink.

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5A: Salmonete Integral con Fusili de Salsa

Red mullet with parsley, soy sauce, and garlic fusilli.  The fusilli were pretty tasteless.  The “skin” on the mullet was the best part as it was made from ground up mullet bones and had a really concentrated caramelized fish flavor.



5B: Rodaballo con su “Kokotxa”

Turbot with its jowl (kokotxa) and turbot tail & bone chip.  Kokotxas are a staple in Basque cuisine and we had them many times throughout Spain.  However, the server told us that turbot doesn’t actually have a kokotxa, so the kokotxa on the plate really wasn’t a kokotxa.  I’m guessing it was kudzu because it had a pretty silky smooth texture.  It was pretty flavorless, though.

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6A: Lomo de Cordero con los Posos del Vino

Lamb loin with green tea cotton candy and wine reduction.  This was my first time having green tea in a savory dish.  Combining all the elements on the plate into one bite provided an interesting flavor profile for that moment in time, but ultimately it wasn’t compelling enough to be one that I’d crave.


6B: Cochinillo Asado con “Bolao” de Tomate

Standard roast suckling pig with tomato.  The high quality of the pork was evident, but that’s all the dish had going for it.

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7A: Xaxu con Helado Espumoso de Coco

Xaxu is a traditional Basque sweet made from marzipan and filled with egg yolk.  Served with a foamy, intensely flavored coconut ice cream.  This was one of my favorite desserts all trip.



7B: Leche y Uva, Queso y Vino en Evolucion

A progression of cheeses.  I like cheese, but this did not hit the spot at all.

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8A: Otra Tarta de Manzana

Apple tart with fruit leather.  I guess the text on the fruit leather was kind of cool, but the tart itself wasn’t anything special.



8B: Flor de Melocoton

Peach with peach blossoms.  I honestly don’t much about this one.  I vaguely remember the peach blossoms not being actual blossoms, but something with a tough and chewy texture.

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Your standard mignardises.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

DiverXO: 9-6-11

So, I was in Spain the past couple weeks on a family vacation and our meal at DiverXO was by far the best meal we had the entire trip and one of the best meals I’ve had in my life.  For me, DiverXO ranks up there with Alinea and is as good as, if not better than, Avenues (under Curtis Duffy) and Ria.

We visited Madrid, Toledo, Seville, Cordoba, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Montserrat.  The plan was to use the time in San Sebastian to eat at high end restaurants and save money by doing tapas everywhere else.  I wanted to make an exception for DiverXO if we could get a reservation there, though.  Located in Madrid, the Michelin 1-star DiverXO offers a unique blend of Asian and Spanish food with touches of modern gastronomy.


However, DiverXO was on vacation the month leading up to the trip, and I was unable to make a reservation before leaving for Spain.  I was a bit bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal considering we already had reservations for Mugaritz, Etxebarri, and Akelarre in the Basque Country.  On a whim, we called DiverXO on our last day in Madrid and somehow got a reservation.

Almost every bite I took at DiverXO had so much flavor.  Some flavors were familiar and distinctly rooted in Chinese traditions, while others were brand new and presumably rooted in Spanish traditions.  Even if one were completely ignorant of Asian and Spanish cuisine, there’s no denying that the food that David Munoz is putting out is really tasty.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the food due to DiverXO’s policy of not allowing photography.  My attempt at briefly describing each dish doesn’t do DiverXO justice, but it’s the only thing I can do.  I can’t stress enough how awesome this meal was and I’m really hoping they eventually obtain their second Michelin star soon because they really deserve it.


Edamame with Aji Amarillo Dipping Sauce – Presented to the table to snack on throughout the meal.  Aji amarillo is a chili pepper from Peru.  The sauce was sweet, tangy, and a little spicy.  I think there may have also been a little miso in the sauce too.  A nice way to wake up the palate.

Green Tea with Wildflowers, Raspberry – A hot cup of green tea with wildflowers and raspberry floating in the cup was poured in order to be paired with the amuse bouche (mejillones tigre).  The wildflowers were very aromatic.

Mejillones Tigre – Translates to “tiger mussels,”  a popular Spanish tapa that’s like a breaded and baked mussel.  DiverXO’s version consisted of mussels, rock fish roe, a creamy but light sauce, and breadcrumbs.

Kokotxas/Cocochas with Fried Duck Tongues, Avocado, Sichuan PeppercornKokotxas are essentially fish jowls.  I believe the type of fish used was hake.  As tasty as kokotxas are, the fried duck tongues were the star of the dish.  They basically tasted like the best chicharon you’ve ever had and melted in your mouth.

Smoked Tuna Belly with Fried Egg Yolk Wonton, Garlic Aioli, Herbs – The fried egg yolk wonton doesn’t refer to a wonton whose wrapper is made from egg yolks.  It refers to a fried wonton that is filled with an amazingly runny egg yolk.  Distinctly Chinese in flavor, it reminded me of traditional Chinese steamed fish with scallion and cilantro.  There were a couple leaves of some fresh herb that tasted intensely of cooked scallion.  This dish was a highlight for me.

Shanghai Dumpling on Crispy Wafer with Langoustine, Mushroom, Broth – This was pretty much a deconstructed Shanghai soup dumpling.  The dumpling was attached to a thin and crunchy wafer.  I can say without hesitation that the dumpling was the best dumpling I’ve had in my life.  The pristine langoustine and tasty broth were icing on the cake.  I would’ve been completely happy with just the dumpling.  This dish tied for my favorite.

Trumpet Mushroom Bao with CecinaThis is the other dish that tied for my favorite.  The bao was the lightest, fluffiest, moistest, tastiest, and most awesome bao I’ve ever had.  It was also buttery and packed with umami from the mushroom filling.  The sweetness of the bao was offset by a thin slice of cecina (a salted and dried meat).  I had rehydrated cecina in tacos a few months prior, but this was my first time eating cecina in it’s pure form.  It was sort of like beef jerky.

Prawn Disks with Prawn Head Sauce, Mayo Foam, Yuzu, Salad – Essentially, Munoz takes raw prawn flesh and pounds it into super thin disks.  He then pours hot oil over the prawn disks to cook the flesh.  He then makes a sauce from the magical juices of the prawn heads.  This dish was packed with so much prawn flavor in the best way.

Peking-Style Pork Skin with Black Sesame Brioche, Hoisin, Cucumber – Yet another homerun.  Imagine what a 4-inch ruler/straightedge would look like.  Now imagine that ruler was made out of roasted pork skin.  How Munoz is able to get pork skin to be so perfectly crispy and crunchy yet at the same time so perfectly flat and rectangular boggled all of our minds.  The black sesame brioche, hoisin, and cucumber sat atop the skin.  Like the dumpling, the accoutrements were icing on the cake.  I would’ve been completely happy had I been served just the pork skin with no fixings.

Iberico Pork Lettuce Wrap with Adobo Dipping Sauce – Traditionally, Peking duck is served in multiple courses.  You’ll usually get the skin as a separate course in addition to options like soup with duck meat, simple roast duck, or minced duck in lettuce wraps to name a few.  The course following the pork skin at DiverXO stayed true to Chinese tradition.  This dish was a lot simpler than the others, but still tasted really good.  You don’t need to do much when you’re working with such a good product like Iberico pork.

Wok-Glazed Monkfish with Tamarind, Hoisin, White Asparagus – This dish has the least amount of punch, but it was still solid.  We were told that Munoz developed a technique to glaze fish in a wok such that it only took 2 minutes, which I guess is a lot faster than traditional techniques?

“Fatless” Ox Short Rib With Tamarind Foam, Nuts, Rice Paper Veil – The short ribs are cooked sous vide.  Then, the fat is separated from the lean.  The rice paper veil covers the now “fatless” short rib in order to provide the same mouthfeel as fat.  Really beefy and nicely cut by the tamarind foam.

Green Apple Sorbet with Celery Foam, Celery Fronds, Black Olive, Chocolate, White Chocolate – Celery and black olives don’t sound like they should work in a dessert, but they did somehow when combined with everything else.  I usually gag at the taste of raw celery, but this interesting combination made celery tolerable for me.  As a whole, it was like nothing I’d ever tasted before.

Ice Cream with Violet Cylinders, Violet Foam, Walnut, Sesame – I much preferred this dessert, and it happened to be one of my favorite desserts of all time.  We were told that violet confections are a traditional specialty of Madrid.  What I’m calling “cylinders” had a a cloud-like texture.  So smooth and pillowy.  I’m guessing they were made with kudzu because the only thing I’ve ever had with a similar texture were the “pillows” at Alinea.  The violet flavor really came through in the dish tasted similar to lavender.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pate Chaud: Vietnamese Pork Pie


As challenging and fun making pate en croute sounds, I sadly didn’t have enough time this month to take a stab at it.  Thankfully, English pork pie was offered as an alternative for the September CharcutePalooza challenge.  I didn’t know what an English pork pie consisted of until I read the recipe in Charcuterie.  Once I read the recipe, though, I was completely familiar with it and realized that I’d been making pork pies for the past few years and eating them since childhood in the form of pate chaud.


Pate chaud is essentially the Vietnamese version of a pork pie.  Instead of Western seasonings, the pork is typically seasoned with fish sauce.  Depending on the cook, miscellaneous things like wood ear mushrooms may be added for a crunchy texture.  However, my grandma’s vegetarian version that I grew up on consisted of Morningstar Griller soy meat, mushrooms, peas, carrots, and Maggi (sort of like soy sauce) baked inside a handheld puff pastry shell.  The soy meat never bothered me because to this day I still prefer her version over any meat-based pate chaud I’ve ever tried.


My goal for this month’s challenge was to use the English pork pie recipe and technique in Charcuterie as a foundation and impart my grandma’s influence on it in order to make a respectable pork pate chaud.  Typically my grandma uses frozen peas, but I saw some nice snap peas at the market and had to use them.  Also, my grandma and I usually use premade frozen puff pastry dough, but making my own pastry dough from scratch this time was a good experience.


With the exception of a slightly soggy bottom (probably due to underestimating the amount of water released from the mushrooms) the pate chaud came out pretty good.  The pastry was understandably less flaky than the puff pastry that I’m used to, but it was flaky enough to hold its own.  One regret was not forming the pate chaud into its traditional handheld portions.  This would’ve made freezing and reheating portions much easier.

In all honesty, though, I still prefer my grandma’s vegetarian pate chaud.  There’s just something about the combination of soy meat, mushrooms, peas, carrots, and Maggi that I just love.



Pate Chaud Meat Filling

Mise En Place

  1. 675 g pork, freshly ground
  2. 100 g peas, diced
  3. 100 g carrots, diced
  4. 100 g shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped
  5. 5 g black pepper, freshly ground
  6. 80 g mushroom-pork stock, reduced slightly more than normal and chilled
  7. 40 g Maggi, European version with red top is preferable