Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lecture | Behind the Scenes at elBulli

This past week, Marcus and I attended a very interesting lecture hosted by the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. It was a conversation led by Adam Gopnik, staff writer for The New Yorker, between Chef Ferran Adrià, the mastermind behind arguably one of the best restaurants in the world, elBulli, and Lisa Abend, Time magazine correspondent in Spain, who has a new book released entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentices about the apprentice chefs at elBulli. The conversation aimed to discuss what goes behind the curtain at elBulli and "the small army of young apprentice cooks charged with carrying out his unique culinary vision."

Calendar outside the 92nd Street Y featuring the night's event!

Inside the 92nd Street Y! Wish we were able to take photos during the lecture, but the policy says otherwise.

Mr. Gopnik came to stage first, prefacing the lecture with a lovely introduction about Chef Adrià and how when he was lucky enough to eat at elBulli that it seemed as if Chef Adrià was the maestro of a culinary symphony that is the essence of elBulli. He compared sharing a meal with Chef Adrià like finally a childhood fan being able to sit down and dine with Willy Wonka. I thought the description was quite clever. He also introduced Ms. Abend, too, briefly mentioning her recently published book about the young stagiaries at elBulli and how her story is from a "worm's eye view" of the famed restaurant.

Once the two featured guests came out on stage to their seats (Chef Adrià with his translator), Mr. Gopnik tried to start the conversation off by asking Chef Adrià about his earliest childhood memory of food, but Chef Adrià went off on a totally separate tangent. He asked Mr. Gopnik (as well as the audience) to observe the glass of water he was holding in his hand, to think about how many times we see it daily. He noted its obvious characteristics--how it is odorless, colorless, ultimately flavorless--and how there are not many products like this in the world. He then also noted the temperature of the glass of water and how we, with our human bodies, can consume many edible temperatures (i.e., the contrast between a hot consommé and a bowl of ice cream). The moderate temperature of the water and the fact that it has no base taste and no variations in flavor is important to this observation as well, he said.

He urged that we should observe it until we have used all of our senses, and once all exhausted, we will use intellect. Chef Adrià pointed out that if extraterrestrials ever came to earth, they would not know it is a glass filled with water. He also noted the link between water and our mortality if we do not consume enough of it--it is an important ingredient/product in nutrition as well as an important social issue (i.e., availability of drinking water throughout all continents in the world). So after all of this contemplation, the chef asked the audience if we should perceive food directly or through concentration? If we thought about all of things we consumed at this level of observation and concentration, he said we'd all probably go crazy, which is why he says there are certain moments in the year when you want to experience such madness. This is the philosophy behind elBulli.

Mr. Gopnik looked stunned, of course, interjecting that this was the most philosophical sip of water he has ever had. Chef Adrià interjected that it is okay to do this with wine!

But to continue what Chef Adrià was discussing, he mentioned that in 1980s, he was cooking with the sole purpose for others to enjoy. After contemplating this for about a decade, he changed his perspective to create a new level of gastronomy and cuisine. His mission was no longer just about pleasure and enjoyment--it became a mission to create, that is, an experience in cuisine. When he first proposed the ideas to everyone, he wasn't met with open arms. Instead, he was challenged, adding that they wanted to shut him in a mad house--that he wanted to charge $300 and make a joke out of elBulli. But Chef Adrià saw it in a different light--he started to look at cooking at that point in time like film, and what would become the forty to forty-five courses at elBulli would function as the film's "scenes." He shared with the audience that he wanted to evoke emotions in the restaurant's patrons--feelings such as generosity, memory, sense of humor, surprise, etc.

Here's a brief summary of some points I found interesting:
  • When Mr. Gopnik tried to summarize what Chef Adrià was trying to convey (i.e., paying close attention in the kitchen and in cooking), Chef Adrià replied that it was much simpler than that. He gave the example of visiting the Museum of Modern Art here in New York--that you ultimately decide what you want to during your visit, that it is not always about concentration (i.e., trying to find the meaning behind every work of art, etc.). He applies this line of thinking to cooking at elBulli.
  • The discussion about the profound ideas of elBulli and the resulting eager chefs that apprentice there each year led to Ms. Abend revealing that these lucky stagiaries arrive disappointed because instead of the "sorcery" they expected to take place in elBulli's kitchen, they're expected to perform tedious labor required in the kitchen (e.g., the corn risotto from the 2009 season's menu requires pulling out the teeny germs from each and every corn kernel)! The silver lining, Ms. Abend notes, is that these apprentice chefs learned to think more about food than they've ever in the past.
  • For Chef Adrià, he reported that he hasn't many intensely memorable meals, but he says the meals he has had in Japan come the closest, as they are the "strangest," in the sense that they're so different (not in a bad way, of course) from Western-style cuisine. Before stepping foot in Japan, he cooked with his heart, his hands, and his head, but after leaving Japan, he then learned to cook with his soul. The example that best describes this for him is with wasabi. In Japan, they stress and highlight that the very wasabi leaf used to make it fresh on the stop was picked by someone that morning. Chef Adrià said that the Japanese see effort behind it all and emphasize appreciation--something that is elemental in the country's cuisine. While in contrast, he feels that Westerners feel something totally different--more so a sense of entitlement. On the same lines as the thinking in Japanese cuisine, Chef Adrià said he values every member of the kitchen staff equally, that the dishwasher is just as important, if not more so, as a member of the creative team.
  • Chef Adrià noted that his relationship with food was normal from the getgo--nothing crazy as you may imagine--which made him question many aspects about food later in his life. But he was wary of letting passion for food become an obsession, which he finds to be very dangerous if one doesn't keep a certain distance between the two. In the same light, he finds creativity can be dangerous as well, with Mr. Gopnik responding that it is quite a Zen approach to food.
  • When addressed with the question as to what role does technology play in his kitchen, Chef Adrià says that people expect to step into his kitchen and be at NASA, but instead, as presented in Ms. Abend's new book, there are forty-five people using their hands. This isn't to say that there is no technology at the kitchen at elBulli--don't be absurd! Of course there is technology. Everyone has a continuous relationship with science and technology, especially with the omnipresent mobile phone these days, he pointed out, but nobody really thinks anything of it. But when it comes to the cooking and kitchen at elBulli, people expect different things. Chef Adrià added that science in cooking requires knowledge, not only of the culinary arts, but also of design, history, ecology, etc. He reiterated that things like liquid nitrogen (something that people always ooh-and-aah over when it is used in cuisine) aren't super technological--when it dissipates, it disappears right into the air that we breathe. It is all incredible amazement, but in reality, it's just a product, he added.
  • Ms. Abend noted that many of the apprentices asked to be moved from the kitchen to the front of house as part of the service team. So instead of loading tricks in back of house (i.e., in the kitchen), they wanted to see the magic in action (i.e., the reaction on patrons' faces as they're working through the "scenes" of Chef Adrià's culinary "film") noted Mr. Gopnik.
  • Chef Adrià mentioned he separates ingredients and the cooking of those ingredients into coherent courses into two categories. The first is a product-based cuisine (e.g., raw tomato), and the second is preparation-based cuisine (tomato salad, tomato soup, tomato sauce, etc.). He said he finds that it is always an issue in cooking, especially for traditionalists who dine at elBulli. It is obvious to Chef Adrià that you wouldn't enjoy it if you were looking for product-based cuisine. In the same way you can eat steak raw, you can also humanize it by cooking it, however style you want.
  • Ms. Abend noted that Chef Adrià never repeats a dish for a single diner (in a given season). She said that it has been like an evolution through past seasons to the current one--moving from product-based cuisine (as discussed above) to preparation-based cuisine.
  • When Mr. Gopnik asked Chef Adrià when he started molding the poetry of elBulli to begin evoking memories, Chef Adrià answered, quite aptly, "When I met journalists--I was inspired not to repeat dishes." He felt he had to be radical--if it was only a subtle change to elBulli, why bother to change at all, he reiterated. He continued to say that he could've continued elBulli for the next fifteen years, compiling a menu of "top" dishes from all the past seasons and live off that, mainly because diners would likely not know if anything had been repeated.
  • Chef Adrià briefly discussed his upcoming book that will be released in October of this year, which will focus on "Family Meals" (aka cooking at home). For staff kitchen meals, the challenge was putting a limitation of the amount to be spent on ingredients yet to be able to create a good meal. He noted that most recipe books usually are written for four servings. Ironically, he said, all the people I know that do cook at home are either singles, doubles, or have kids, which may require less portions and a completely different menu.
  • Continuing on the book discussion, he said the difference between professionals and nonprofessionals in cooking is basically one thing--"You're not organized!--It's like comparing Lady Gaga to Beethoven!"
  • Chef Adrià then posed the question as to how to change this, when Mr. Gopnik replied perhaps a good palate. Chef Adrià simply answered, "Nobody knows--it's a mystery," where he then went on to say maybe it's a good palate in an "enlightened capacity." He gave the example of Japanese cuisine once again. He asked the audience to imagine that you're given a pair of chopsticks, some wasabi, ginger, soy sauce, and a piece of sashimi--but the clincher is that you have no prior knowledge that the ginger acts as a palate-cleanser, that you use the chopsticks to swirl around a small amount of wasabi in the soy sauce, and that you use the chopsticks again to season the piece of sashimi with the soy sauce. The capacity to know how, why, and what are important to knowing how to cook and eat.
  • When an audience member asked about how elBulli addresses the ethical dimension in cooking, Chef Adrià answered saying that it seems like you can't write a book without emphasizing the uses of organic products. However, he noted, the premise of his book ("family cooking" and making cooking more affordable yet delicious) cannot use organic ingredients as it contradicts cooking on a budget, the more pragmatic approach.
  • Ms. Abend answered an audience question about her desired last meal on Earth as the last meal at elBulli on July 30, 2011--it will be the 1,846th course served at elBulli, which is in dedication to the year that Georges Auguste Escoffier was born.
  • Chef Adrià briefly discussed what will become of elBulli after its last season this year. It will become a "think tank" via a foundation, which aims to begin operations in 2014. Chef Adrià said he wanted to go this route because he considers himself a fortunate and lucky mean during the course of his life so far, so as a way to give back to society through culinary creativity and talent. The motto of the elBulli Foundation is a simple as this: "Freedom to create"--it will serve as the aforementioned think tank but will also serve as an archive of elBulli's history. The menu will be eliminated, and patrons will eat whatever the Foundation feels like feeding them, like the way you would eat over at a friend's house, he added.
  • When asked why he decided to close elBulli this year, he answered with words as poetic as his gastronomical wit: "A night at elBulli is like a day in the life of a concert pianist," where the pianist (chef in this case) is constantly practicing for upcoming performances (meals in this case) that the audience (new patrons in this case) are hearing (tasting in this case) for the first time.
Findings: I found the lecture to be quite inspiring and informative. Chef Adrià is quite the playful guy, and his openness and lively personality definitely made it even more enjoyable. I had read many an article about Chef Adrià and elBulli, but it was refreshing to see the chef in the flesh talk about the place that brought him to fame and success. It was also nice to hear Lisa Abend speak--I'm currently reading her book! I think the story she has to share about the stagiaries at elBulli is one of the few ways I can get close to elBulli without actually being able to eat there during its final season in 2011. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet Chef Adrià that night--the bookseller had sold out of books after I briefly waited in line, and I left my copy of A Day at elBulli at home--so that was a big disappointment. He did mention that he will be back in October to promote his new book, so I will be all over that, and I will make sure I have the copy of my book so I can finally meet him (and add said signed book to my library of cookbooks)! So if Chef Adrià is ever in town, I highly urge you to go hear him speak. He is quite the funny character--I think the slight language barrier makes it comical and light-hearted. I apologize for the wordiness--I just wanted to share everything I heard them discuss that night. So many interesting and mind-stimulating points!

Price point: $29 per ticket.

--March 24, 2011

92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10128

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fresh Find | Knock Knock foodie goods

Ariana surprised me with two belated birthday gifts. She definitely knows the way to my heart is with anything food related. She really found some really quirky, cool things for me to allow me to be the best foodie a girl can be!

She got me a deck of Foodie Flashcards, which makes a great gift for that special foodie in your life (thank you, Ariana!), or for you and your friends to get up to speed on foodie lingo. The deck of cards guarantees you'll be speaking "omnivoriously" in no time! The cards within the deck have two sides. One side reads a particular "foodie" related word (e.g., crudo), and the other side, its meaning, along with a cheeky diagram and cleverly crafted sentence (both humorous and sly). Along with the cards, there is a game insert, which reads ways as to how to play with the deck of flashcards in game. Can't wait to whip these out at my next dinner party!

Also, she remembered how much fun she had at my birthday wine tasting at Bacchus Wines last year, so she thought this Rate That Wine pad would be a great for the aspiring wino in me. I told her it'd be perfect for my upcoming trip to San Francisco (and Napa Valley!) with Marcus--it'll definitely help me with the notetaking!

Anyways, a big thank you to Ariana for thinking of me and finding these really cute items from Knock Knock!

Knock Knock
Rate That Wine pad and Foodie Flashcards
Price point: $8 and $11, here and here at

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dinner | Cellar 58

Ariana, one of my best friends from university, and I met up for dinner this past Friday to catch up at Cellar 58. I stumbled upon this awesome neighborhood gem while I was trying to find a good wine bar (I mean, what better way to pass the time with a really close friend than with glasses of delicious wine?) that also had a nice selection of dinner fare. Plus, the restaurant's prices were really reasonable, so I thought it'd be a good fit for us.

Chef Fabio Bano from the exclusive hotel and private club, Soho House New York, has collaborated with the owner of Cellar 58, Maria Pezzella, to create the restaurant's offerings of Italian dishes (e.g., pasta, paninis, etc.). Chef Bano has already remade the dishes and menu at Cellar 58, bringing new specials that change daily. On another note, Ms. Pezzella was "one of the first people to represent international wines, working to introduce a broader palette of the world’s selections at a time when American wine lists were still very limited." The combination of Chef Bano's culinary expertise along with Ms. Pezzella's 16 years of experience in the wine and restaurant industry has resulted in the lovely wine bar and enoteca (Italian for "wine repository") that is Cellar 58, offering creative and classic Italian tapas along with entrées that are to be enjoyed with the restaurant's extensive listing of wines.

Inside Cellar 58. We sat at this nice table right by the window, making for really good lighting for my later photographs.

We started off the dinner with a plate of homemade hummus, and what a great starter! The hummus was the perfect consistency and had lots of flavor in addition to its staple seasonings of tahini, salt, and garlic. This particular homemade hummus had added sesame seeds, crushed red pepper, and other spices which added a kick of spiciness to an otherwise plain, garlicky hummus. It came with two crostini and a few sliced cherry tomatoes.

But don't worry about not having enough crostini or carbohydrates to eat the hummus with! Our waitress gave us enough bread to finish up the last of it!

After perusing the menu (and the waitress noting to us the kitchen was temporarily out of buffalo mozzarella) and hearing the day's specials (with our waitress emphasizing how the restaurant's house specialties offered daily) Ariana and I decided to go off the menu and to each try one of the specials offered that day.

I went with the scallop special which came with homemade penne pasta, leeks, and cherry tomatoes in a light cream sauce. This was probably, hands down, one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had! You could definitely tell that the penne was made in house (so fresh!), and the scallops were soft and melded really well with the cooked cherry tomatoes and leeks. It wasn't overly creamy, which has been my main issue with many of the pasta dishes I've had at Italian restaurants, and the portion was perfectly sized, where by the end of the meal, I didn't feel overstuffed or bad for not finishing it all. Nothing beats a bowl of handmade pasta and fresh ingredients!

Ariana went with the skirt steak served with sautéed mushrooms, arugula, and slices of cheese (I believe it was provolone or mozzarella). The mushrooms were so good--really juicy and aromatic, which accented the steak. The texture of the steak was soft and had tons of delicious flavor, in the heartiest way.

For dessert, Ariana and I shared the chocolate mousse with a lingue di gatto cookie, which is a traditional Italian biscuit. In Italian, lingue di gatto literally means "cat's tongue," and these cookies are thin, disk-shaped with a darker color around its circumference, with the color gradually turning lighter as it gets closer to the center. It was garnished with almond slices and confectioners sugar. It was really light and crispy, yet with an essence of almond. The mousse had a denser texture than I had anticipated--I was expecting something light and fluffy--but it was a dense texture that I really enjoyed. It was almost like gelato, without being all melted when exposed for a bit at room temperature. I wished there were a lingue di gatto cookie for each scoop of mousse--I like have a nice even ratio between different items on my plate (e.g., enough meatballs for a bowl of spaghetti, enough runny poached eggs for each bite of eggs benedict, etc.).

Findings: I was so surprised at how great the food was at Cellar 58. The reviews I had read raved about the wine (which we thoroughly enjoyed, too) and noted that the food was even better. It was something I had to see for myself, and sure enough, the kitchen at Cellar 58 proved the reviews to be keen and wise. I think my main problem with a lot of the usual Italian restaurants in the city, from what I've observed, is the overload in quantity (portion-wise) and sauce (marinara sauce with spaghetti instead of vice versa). It certainly wasn't the case at Cellar 58. The daily specials that we ordered were far from the typical dishes menu offerings (e.g., chicken parmagiana, penne a la vodka, etc.)--they were fresh, original, light, and perfectly portioned. I also loved the homemade aspect of the dishes at Cellar 58--the homemade hummus, the house-made penne pasta. And Ariana's steak was so great with all those flavorful mushrooms! I would love to go back to try the Buffalo mozzarella truffle oil bruschetta when they'll be restocked with mozzarella along with any future daily specials offered by the kitchen. The prices were really reasonable for the quality and flavor of food we were getting, so it was definitely worth the trip there to catch up on old times!

Price point: $6 for the starter, $18-22 for each main course, $7 for dessert.

--March 25, 2011

Cellar 58
58 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lunch | Bouchon Bakery

After a long day of trekking through the city for macarons to celebrate Macaron Day in NYC, Marcus and I made a final stop at Bouchon Bakery over at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Bouchon Bakery was on the list of 2011 Macaron Day NYC participants, but by the time we got there, I overheard the servers saying that they were out of free macarons. Marcus and I had hit the ending point of the macaron euphoria, so luckily not all was lost. We just wanted some real food in our stomachs before the sugar settled in nicely to cause stomachaches of the ages.

Another tidbit to add to the background of why eating here was quite significant -- the two of us have our trip to San Francisco planned for May 19 through May 25. That being said, we've had our hearts set on finding a way to nab a table at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's well-renowned flagship restaurant in Yountville, California. Per the restaurant's reservation policy, reservations can be made two months in advance to the calendar day, so we had to start calling on March 19 to attempt to get a table. We had no such luck that Saturday afternoon--even after 30 straight minutes of hardcore dialing by myself, Marcus, and Lisa (only to get a damned busy signal), the mâitre d' informed us, to our pitiful dismay, all tables were taken. Repeat the same situation on March 20 (this very day), so imagine how disappointed and bummed we were, after only two days of trying, with a remaining four chances left. After all, we were planning our whole vacation around this impossible dinner. So as a consolation (however desperate and sad), I made a comment as we sat down on the third floor elegant makeshift bistro that is Bouchon Bakery, pointing out this may be the closest we'll ever get to Chef Keller and The French Laundry. Marcus was determined and didn't really appreciate my sarcastic comment. Little did I know that Marcus's ingenuity would score us lunch reservations the next afternoon for a table for two on May 21 (more to share in the next couple months), so I was really biting my tongue then.

I didn't want anything too heavy, especially after having so many macarons that afternoon, so I opted for the tartine of roast beef with pickled vegetables, Bordelaise mayonnaise-aioli, and melted cheddar over a heavy slice of bread (which I believe to be a variation of French sourdough). I can't seem to find the official menu item description, but that's as precise as I can recall it! In any case, the Bordelaise aioli made the tartine's contents come together really nicely. The slightly sour taste of the pickled vegetables (an assortment of fennel, carrots, and radish) with the soft and tender roast beef and a mildly sharp melted cheddar mixed in with this Bordelaise aioli spread (typically a brown sauce with beef marrow and red wine) was, hands down, the best tartine I've ever had. It was a little bit difficult to eat because the slice of bread it was on was long and not cut into shorter pieces, the way I've usually seen tartines served, but this minor inconvenience was diminished by the tartine's amazing flavors.

Marcus decided to go with the oven-smoked Turkey -- smoked turkey breast with hook’s 5-year cheddar cheese, and apple mustard (custom ordered without watercress and red onion) on whole wheat pecan bread. He enjoyed the bread the most, mainly because it was toasted with a nice texture and not very messy. The mustard had a mild taste to it which didn't overpower the rest of the sandwich's contents. Though he wished there was a slightly more turkey, he reported to me that overall, it was a very good sandwich.

Findings: Overall, Marcus and I enjoyed our experience at Bouchon Bakery. We enjoyed its casual setting and the sandwiches that it had to offer. We went around 3-4PM so there was a casual afternoon lunch crowd, most catching up after a day of sightseeing or shopping, while others were just meeting up with friends. During a next visit, I'd love to try the pastries and desserts on the menu. I know Williams-Sonoma carries a line of Bouchon Bakery products (mostly pre-made mixes that come with easy-to-follow instructions), and I've successfully made the chocolate bouchons (i.e., cork-shaped miniature chocolate cakes) and cinnamon pecan waffles. I'm curious to find out how good the other desserts and offerings they have are! Also, the restaurant doesn't accept reservations, but I would say that tables aren't hard to come by. We just asked for a table for two, and we were seated immediately. So I recommend Bouchon Bakery for a casual afternoon lunch and urge you to try the desserts and pastries, too.

Price point: $13-14 for each sandwich/tartine.

--March 20, 2011

Bouchon Bakery
Time Warner Center
10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10019

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tastings | Macaron Day NYC 2011

Last year on March 20th, Francois Payard, world-famed pastry chef, organized the first annual Macaron Day in New York City. As described on its official website, "Macaron Day NYC is inspired by and coincides annually with the Jour du Macaron in Paris, created by la Maison Pierre Hermé in association with the Relais Desserts." All participating bakeries were to offer free macarons to customers that day in celebration of the Jour du Macaron in beloved New York City. A portion of the day's macaron sales at participating locations will be donated to City Harvest, the world's first food rescue organization dedicated to feeding the city's hungry men, women, and children, serving NYC for over 25 years.

Fortunately, this year I knew March 20 was the day to be celebrating and eating macarons, so Marcus and I set forth on a mission to hit a majority of the bakeries on the participant list, making a point to hit ones that were in close neighborhood clusters making for easier travel as well as to try bakeries we've never been to.

First, I'd like to note that I properly readied myself for the big day. I wore my Snoopy graphic tee with "NOM NOM NOM" emblazoned on it. This was serious business we were about to embark on.

So Marcus and I set forth once again on a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge (just as we did to make a visit to Grimaldi's Pizzeria back in November 2010). We made it over in about 15-20 minutes, making our way to Water Street, where Almondine Bakery, our first stop, is located.

A friend of mine had mentioned this bakery to me couple years ago, but I never had a chance to make it over here because it was located over in Brooklyn. Little did I know it was right over the Brooklyn Bridge!

Right when we walked in, I saw the macarons, in all of its bright, food-colored glory. Only problem was that I didn't see anyone asking for free macarons, so I immediately felt bad for wanting to walk in for a free macaron and walk out without purchasing anything. Also, it was around noon, and Marcus and I hadn't eaten any breakfast, so it wasn't forced or anything. Besides, all of its pastry goodies looked so delicious!

Because everything looked so delicious, I couldn't decide which route to go on (e.g., croissant, madeleine, sticky bun, etc.), but when I saw the guy in front of me order a couple beignets, I just went for it and ordered a beignet, deep-fried choux pastry filled with raspberry jam and sprinkled with sugar, later discovering it's the bakery's weekend specialty. Marcus ordered a hot chai.

I loved the beignet dough--it was very soft and light. The jelly, on the other hand, was a little too sweet, a little too much, and a bit sticky. If it had about half as much jam, it would've been perfect for me. Perhaps, it's because I'm not totally in love with jelly doughnuts, but if you're a jam/jelly/preserve lover, this is the beignet for you! Nevertheless, it was mostly enjoyable.

Marcus and I each got a free macaron, after we asked if the bakery was celebrating Macaron Day (as instructed by the website). I got the chocolate (left), and Marcus got pistachio. Chocolate was pretty standard (not much stood out), but the pistachio was very nutty and had lots of pistachio flavor! Almondine Bakery made for a great start to our macaron shop hopping adventure that day.

Coincidentally, Jacques Torres Chocolate, another participant, has a location directly across the street from Almondine Bakery. Since we were already there, Marcus and I decided to just walk over and sample a macaron there, too. Jacques Torres, the youngest Meilleur Ouvrier de France ("Best Pastry Chef of France" competition winner), spent eleven years as Executive Pastry Chef at Le Cirque before opening his own chocolate boutique, Jacques Torres Chocolate, where he refers to himself as Mr. Chocolate.

I asked for raspberry, and Marcus asked for lemon. The raspberry was pretty good, but the lemon was great! Very refreshing. Marcus even noted that this is probably the best lemon macaron he has had to date.

We then took the F train to 2nd Avenue and walked over to Clinton Street, where DessertTruck Works has its bakery. Love the DessertTruck cut-out sign sticking out on the right side! Jerome Chang, former sous pastry chef at Le Cirque, left in 2007 to start DessertTruck, a high-end dessert truck at "dressed-down" prices, with his business school friend, Chris Chen. It became a smashing success, leading them to open up this store front, DessertTruck Works, on the Lower East Side with two former Le Cirque alumni, Susana Garcia and Vincent Jaoura.

Here is the case of macarons at DT Works! Notice the yellow ones that are in the shape of bananas because they are banana-caramel flavored! Incidentally, Marcus and I will be taking a macaron making class here at DT Works in June, so stay tuned for my full details on that later this spring!

Marcus selected the salted caramel, and I, the praline butter cream macaron with a hint of Meyer lemon. We overheard one of the DT Works attendants say that these two are his favorites, so we chose wisely! The salted caramel was done really well--not too sweet with the hint of saltiness making for a great sweet-and-savory macaron! It was one of Marcus's favorites of the ones we sampled that day.

The praline, I'd have to say, was my top favorite of the day. It was nutty, buttery, and lightly sugary with brown sugar. I liked the added bonus of the nuts on the macaron's exterior. Marcus said it tasted like a Fig Newton for him.

As an extra added treat, Marcus ordered donut squares, which are yeast-risen doughnuts with Nutella filling! When we arrived, they notified us that they wouldn't be ready for at least another 15-20 minutes, so we decided to wait. It was definitely worth the wait! I think one thing's for certain--I prefer my doughnuts/beignets to be filled with chocolate! Since they were just fried shortly before we ate them, they were still warm and light, and the Nutella was on the runnier side, too. Nice consistency for a fried doughnut! Marcus found it a little messy but still delicious! My motto is you can never go wrong with more Nutella!

We continued through the Lower East Side to bisous, ciao., a boutique-style macaron shop. Most bakeries that serve macarons also sell other sweet goodies, but bisous, ciao. only offers macarons--a bold menu!

I liked the chalkboard that read "March Macaron Madness!" Quite appropriate for Macaron Day in NYC!

The macaron counter reminds me of the haute chocolate counters where you choose by flavor, by piece. I also like the minimalist layout of the shop. It cuts straight to the point--macarons, that is.

The free macarons they were giving out at bisous, ciao. were a dark chocolate ganache surrounding salted caramel. However good that may sound, this was just okay for me. The exterior was kind of heavy, and while the interior had really good dark chocolate, the added salted caramel just didn't seem right to me.

Our next stop was at the pop-up pâtisserie, Cours La Reine, at Eva Scrivo Salon in NoHo. Created by Taryn Garcia, Cours La Reine comes from the annals of French history. Per the macaron creator's website, the Cours La Reine, commissioned by Queen Marie de Medici in 1616, "became a popular eating place for the nobility where young aristocrats looked for husbands and wives of equal rank. One of the oldest parks in Paris, and part of the Champs-Elysees, this beautiful place can now be enjoyed by all." Chef Garcia worked as an associate producer on media television shows like Barefoot Contessa and Martha Stewart Everyday Food, which later led her into the area of food styling, inspiring her to further her education. She attended the French Culinary Institute's La Technique. From there, a trip to Paris reignited her love for the French pastry arts, when she came across the Parisian macaron, "a symbol of beauty and class." Shortly after, she moved to Paris to attend Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Francaise Gregoire Ferrandi. Upon graduation, Ms. Garcia completed her training with famed and noteworthy French pastry chef, Arnaud Larher, incidentally a recipient of Meilleur Ouvrier de France title (just like Chef Torres above).

Here is the pop-up shop set up in the front of the salon. Ms. Garcia is on the right.

There were so many wild and original flavors to choose from (more to share shortly), but after much contemplation, Marcus decided on the lemon yuzu (the latter is a Japanese citrus fruit), and I, the guava bergamot (the latter is a type of orange). Marcus liked this macaron as much as the lemon one from Jacques Torres, as they both have a really strong citrus/lemon flavor--in his words, "actually tastes like a lemon."

I enjoyed mine in a similar way--I liked the citrus accent that the bergamot added to the guava flavor (which made the macaron actually taste like a guava fruit).

Since I was dying to try more of the flavors, Marcus and I gave in and bought a box of 6 macarons at Cours La Reine. Since Marcus devoured his macaron in a matter of seconds, I opted to get a lemon-yuzu macaron for myself (bottom left). Going clockwise from there, I also got a campari-pamplemousse macaron (pink) and a passion fruit macaron, while Marcus went with a cassis-violet de Toulouse (purple) and a Tahitian vanilla macaron (white). The one in the bottom right corner is a pomegranate-pur caraibe dark chocolate I chose as our last one.

The campari-pamplemousse consisted of Campari, an Italian, mildly butter apértif, and grapefruit (the latter word is simply just French for "grapefruit"). It made a crazy combination that tasted like a tropical drink that you'd enjoy on the beach. Plus, you could really taste the Campari and the grapefruit flavors! The passion fruit macaron was lightly sweet with the expected tang characteristic of the fruit. The cassis-violet de Toulouse macaron had a strong (and delicious) black currant flavor (from the cassis, which is a black currant liquer), but I couldn't catch the violet. It was probably because I didn't know to look out for it! Marcus really enjoyed the Tahitian vanilla--"Probably the better of the vanilla macarons I've had," he reports--particularly because black specks from the fresh vanilla bean used. This certainly makes a difference in producing a more substantial amount of flavor. Lastly, the pomegranate-pur caraibe dark chocolate reminded me of the berry-accented dark chocolate that is sandwiched between a Pepperidge Farms' raspberry Milano cookie, the same way a few fresh raspberries add that needed tartness to an otherwise simple flourless chocolate ganache cake. Definitely our favorite stop of the day (next to DT Works)!

Our last stop was at François Payard Bakery (FPB), the home to Chef François Payard's gourmet pastries and sweets. The organizer of Macaron Day NYC, Chef Payard grew up surrounded by classic French pastries, attributable to the tradition carried by his parents and grandparents at his family's bakery on the French Riviera. As an adult, Chef Payard moved to Paris, where he "learned the artistry and refinement of transforming traditional desserts into exquisite plated presentations whose taste, texture and originality opened new horizons in his career." From there, he landed the position of pastry chef at two three-Michelin star rated restaurants in Paris. He soon ended up in New York City, where he worked as pastry chef in the kitchens of Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin as well as of Daniel Boulud's Daniel. A few years later, he won the James Beard Award for Pastry Chef of the Year in 1995. In 1997, he was finally able to open up a restaurant of his own called Payard Patisserie & Bistro, which unfortunately closed its doors in 2009 due to loss of its lease. Since then, Chef Payard has expanded both nationally (Las Vegas) and internationally (Korea and Japan) while opening up two new locations here in New York City, including FPB and François Chocolate Bar.

FPB offered three types of free macarons: cranberry, vanilla, and passion fruit. Marcus chose the vanilla, while I went with the cranberry. We were a little bit disappointed with these macarons. Maybe it was because we had so many other macarons already that we were hitting that threshold, but really, we just thought these were a bit bland. There was a hint of flavor there, but not as powerful as the ones we had previously at Cours La Reine. You could definitely tell what flavors they were, but it just wasn't spewing in flavor.

Findings: Marcus and I were really glad to participate in celebrating Macaron Day NYC by trying out six new bakeries we haven't been to for macarons--plus, we were able to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge again for a cause! I'm really glad we trekked from 11AM to about 3PM in search for some good, solid macarons. We discovered two new favorites (DessertTruck Works and Cours La Reine), along with tried new desserts at bakeries we haven't been to before! Having the opportunity to try the macarons offered at DT Works has made me even more excited for the macaron baking class that Marcus and I will be taking in June over there! The reason why I've fallen in love with the macarons at DT Works is mainly due to execution of texture and depth of flavor, from a chocolate/sugar/candy perspective. And the reasons are the same for Cours La Reine, but with respect to depth of flavor, I will have to say it is mostly from a fruit perspective, as most of the macarons we tried contained a fruit or two in each. So if you want to get your hands on some quality macarons, please go to DessertTruck Works and Cours La Reine. I promise you'll be raving about them in no time! Oh, and Happy Belated Macaron Day, New York City!

Price point: one free macaron per person from each participating bakery on Macaron Day, $2.65 for a raspberry-filled beignet from Almondine Bakery, $6 for two square doughnuts from DessertTruck Works, $12 for a box of 6 macarons from Cours La Reine.

--May 20, 2011

Macaron Day NYC

Almondine Bakery (DUMBO)
85 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Jacques Torres Chocolate (DUMBO)
66 Water Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

DessertTruck Works
6 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002

bisous, ciao.
101 Stanton Street
New York, NY 10002

Cours La Reine
[pop-up pâtisserie]
Eva Scrivo Salon
50 Bond Street
New York, NY 10012
open Fridays and Saturdays from 12:30pm-7:30pm

Francois Payard Bakery
116 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, March 20, 2011

High Tea | The Russian Tea Room

My best friend Lisa and I made reservations for high tea at The Russian Tea Room this past Saturday to catch up over tea and bite-sized fare. Lisa has always been going on about how she wants to try all these places in the city for high tea, and this weekend seemed like the perfect opportunity as we both had an unusually open agenda. What better way to spend time on a Saturday afternoon than over pots of tea, gossiping about the latest happenings in our life?

Founded in 1927 by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, The Russian Tea Room served as a gathering place for Russian expatriates as well as those in the entertainment industry. The iconic New York space boasts a gilded interior with bold colors of persimmon red and a greenish blue.

Inside The Russian Tea Room, looking towards the restaurant's entrance. The mâitre d' seated us in a cozy, intimate booth.

The Russian Tea Room offers two high tea tastings. The first is the high tea menu, which includes assorted sandwiches and a tastings of two American caviars over blinis (i.e., miniature Russian buckwheat pancakes), assorted scones, cupcakes, and petits fours, as well as a personal pot of brewed loose tea. The second, royal high tea menu, includes everything in the high tea menu but includes an additional tasting of two Russian caviars over blinis. I went with the high tea menu, as I'm not really passionate about caviar, with English Breakfast tea (i.e., Ceylon tea), and Lisa went with the royal high tea menu with Formosa Oolong tea (i.e., India black tea).

Our assorted sandwiches and blinis came served on a stacked plate stand, the top holding the caviar blinis, and the bottom two holding the assorted sandwiches. Our waiter said the chef recommends starting at the top and working our way to the bottom plate. The blinis I had during our high tea was the tasting of American Paddlefish caviar (on the left) and American Hackleback caviar (on the right) served with a little bit of crème fraîche or sour cream over a miniature blini. The first was really subtle and light (just how I like my caviar), and the second was a little sharper and saltier in flavor. The blinis were soft and thin, probably my favorite part of the top plate. Lisa's included an additional tasting of Siberian Osetra caviar and Russian Osetra caviar.

The second plate in the stacked stand contained three miniature sandwiches. Starting at the back left, going clockwise, were the following sandwiches: artichoke with red pepper and a sun-dried tomato goat cheese, Roquefort bleu cheese and pear with walnuts, and shrimp salad with rémoulade. I really enjoyed the artichoke, red pepper, and sun-dried tomato combination, as it had a strong sun-dried tomato flavor throughout. I also enjoyed the shrimp salad sandwich--it was simple and refreshing. The bleu cheese sandwich, on the other hand, was utterly repulsive for me primarily because I think blue cheese tastes like stinky feet. I wish I was a lover and connoisseur of cheese, but my taste buds dictate a different destiny for me. I do have to say that I was brave enough to give it a try (something I normally don't budge on when it comes to stinky cheeses, haha). Not all was lost though--Lisa wasn't disappointed as she just ate my share along with hers.

The bottom plate of the stacked stand contained four miniature sandwiches. Starting from the back left, going clockwise, were the following sandwiches: New York smoked sturgeon with dill and sour cream, curried chicken salad with raisins and pecans, smoked ham and turkey with truffle croque monsieur, and smoked Scottish salmon with chive cream cheese and cucumber. All four of these were definitely my top favorites during the main part of our high tea. The smoked sturgeon was just like a whitefish salad sandwich--very solid here. The curried chicken salad had a zing of spice from the curry flavors along with a little crunch from the pecans and sweetness from the raisins. The croque monsieur was toasted and melted perfectly. Even though the truffle flavor was very subtle and inconspicuous, I still enjoyed it very much, as it just reminded me of the authentic version I'd find in a Parisian café. Also, the smoked salmon on pumpernickel is a classic high tea nibble--I love the clean flavors of the cucumber mixed in with the punch of the chive cream cheese.

Butter cookies served in between sandwiches and dessert.

Similar to the sandwiches, the assorted desserts came on a stacked plate stand. On the top plate, there was milk chocolate and white chocolate. On the middle plate, there were two kinds of cupcakes--on the left, a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting, and on the right, a red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting. On the bottom plate, there were three types of scones--from the left, going clockwise, a plain scone, a red currant scone, and a pecan scone. The scones were served with butter and Bonne Mama preserves (peach, bing cherry, and another flavor that escapes me now). I was already full at this point, so I just tried the red velvet cupcake and the non-plain scones, adding butter. The cream cheese frosting was done really well, but the red velvet cake was a little on the dryer side. The scones were perfect and delightful, adding a lovely end to our high tea at The Russian Tea Room. They were still warm when they served them to us on the stacked stand, so imagine a tad bit spread of butter melting onto its warm center. Delicious!

Lisa and me having high tea at The Russian Tea Room!

Findings: I would say making a trip to The Russian Tea Room is a must on every New Yorker's local bucket list. It is a delicate gem on the island of Manhattan and having its beautiful space, attentive service, and delightful tea fare grace your life will definitely put a smile on your face. Lisa and I had a great time catching up here--in fact, we were so relaxed that we spent a total of three hours from the start of high tea at 2 PM talking, sipping, and munching)! Tea time in the city on the weekends might turn into a monthly ritual for us now, since our inaugural visit to The Russian Tea Room was so fun and enjoyable. The food was pretty good, but what I really believe is that you come here for the experience. I would say the price is a little steep for it to become a regular place to dine at, but making a visit here once or twice on one's New York City dining repertoire will surely bring back great memories when you think back to it down the road. I know I'll remember my first time having high tea here!

Price point: $50 for the high tea menu, $85 for the royal high tea menu.

--March 19, 2011

The Russian Tea Room
150 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dessert | Beard Papa's

After the JAQK Cellars wine tasting at Bacchus, I was craving a cream puff from Beard Papa's, maker of these amazing cream puffs of Japanese origin. I had recently discovered that the Beard Papa counter at Cafe Zaiya, a Japanese bakery and café, had closed shop back in 2009, and the only other location I knew that carried these awesome pastries was near the Greenwich Village, which again to my dismay, had been closed also! So I pulled out my trusty smartphone, crossing my fingers that there was still a place in Manhattan that sold them. Luckily, I was able to find an actual Beard Papa's, and an added plus was that it was also located in the Upper West Side, a few blocks north of Bacchus Wines!

Beard Papa's "Fresh'n Natural Cream Puffs" café!

Known as the bakery of the "world's best cream puffs," Beard Papa's began in a small store in Osaka, Japan back in 1999. Since then, Beard Papa's has expanded worldwide, throughout Japan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Thailand, the Philippines, Tahiti, Malaysia, Russia, Canada, and here in the United States. I remember a family friend taking me to Sogo, a Japanese department store in Hong Kong, to the Beard Papa counter during my visit there, and there was a crazy long line!

Beard Papa's offers five types of shells, detailed above. I went with the eclair puff and the original cream puff. As for custard, they offered original vanilla as well as green tea, which was the flavor of the day. I just went with the original vanilla for simplicity.

The original shells (for both the regular cream puff and the eclair puff) are made from a pie-crust outer shell enveloping an inner shell made from French choux pastry, i.e., a light pastry dough that contains only butter, water, eggs, and flour and employs high moisture content to create steam during cooking to "puff" the pastry. Per Beard Papa's website, this patented, two-layer pastry recipe creates a unique crunchy and spongy combination." All shells are baked fresh daily. The only difference with the eclair puff shells are the obvious--it has a dark chocolate top layer, emulating a French éclair. The eclair puff shells are refrigerated and brought out only when ordered.

The counter attendants use the above contraption to pump in Beard Papa's original vanilla whipped cream custard, which takes over two hours to prepare. They blend the custard in several steps and whip cream directly into the custard just before the cream puffs are served. This detailed process creates a "delightful, fluffy texture and a fancicul marbled appearance" of the custard. The vanilla flavor within the custard is made with all natural ingredients and is made from the highest quality, imported vanilla bean grains available.

My goody bag from Beard Papa's!

Here is the eclair puff, with a generous amount of dark chocolate for its top layer!

The eclair puff was absolutely scrumptious! The choux pastry shell was crunchy and in tact (not at all soggy from the custard). The dark chocolate top layer was hardened from being refrigerated (adding a nice texture and bite) and had a balanced richness and bittersweet flavor, meshing really well with the pastry shell (like the way Nutella does successfully on toasted bread) and the custard. The custard was light, creamy, and very aromatic with vanilla. In fact, you can see the black vanilla beans right in the custard! I saved the original cream puff for breakfast the next morning, so it isn't pictured here.

Findings: I think I have fallen in love with the eclair pastry, more than I already have with the original cream puff. Unlike the traditional French dessert, Beard Papa's take on the éclair arguably works better than ones I've had before. Its patented two-layer pastry shell does wonders for lightness and crunch, and the dark chocolate used to top the pastry is quality chocolate, making a huge difference! If you don't want something overly rich, but rather something a tad bit sweet to end your night, the original cream puff will fulfill that for you! With either cream puff, it'll be filling, but not super filling as a normal-sized cupcake. Even as an afternoon snack between meals, Beard Papa's is the way to go. I'm looking forward to my next visit, when I will want to try the other pastry shells to see how they fare against the original choux pastry shell.

Price point: $2.10 for an eclair puff, $1.95 for an original cream puff.

--March 18, 2011

Beard Papa's
2167 Broadway
New York, NY 10024


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