Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Grill all the things! (Etxebarri 5/25/2016)

Etxebarri was the meal to which we were most looking forward in Spain -- at least before we had Eneko's food at Geranium -- so there was no way I was going to let us miss it, food poisoning be damned.  Twelve hours after I first got sick, I was exhausted on only a few fitful hours of sleep but had kept down a banana and some dry toast.  Armed with a bottle of Windex-blue Powerade, I dragged myself into the passenger seat for the drive to the picturesque hamlet of Axpe.

Everything cooked at Etxebarri is grilled in some way -- even dessert -- a style for which we're a super enthusiastic audience.  As pescatarians, we're always eager for a hint of what we're missing, and grill smoke comes closest to filling the meat-shaped holes in our hearts (/stomachs).1

As a sub for chorizo, we got a plate of simply grilled and well-flaky salted padron peppers as good as any we've ever had.  (Certainly better than the dish we'd had pintxos bar-hopping the night before.)

I've talked a lot about butter in connection with this vacation.  If I were to make a list of the ten best butters I've ever eaten, I'm guessing Scandinavian restaurants would get at least half the spots.  But Extebarri's butter, my God.  Adam summed it up succinctly with the first bite: "This butter is unreal."  A distinctly goaty butter -- teetering on the edge of being a creamy cheese -- it was perfectly salty-smokey from the sprinkling of black volcanic salt.  So good that even while showing a bit of illness-induced restraint, I wouldn't let them clear the butter away until the very end of the meal so that I could pick at it for as long as my stomach would allow.  The buffalo milk fresh cheese was also delicious -- almost yogurty in its tangy richness.  Not the cheese's fault that it couldn't compare to its platemate.
Butter goat's milk; Buffalo fresh cheese fine herbs and hazelnut

We had eaten a lot of tasty anchovy-containing pintxos the night before, but this was my platonic ideal of a pintxo.  A perfect sliver of grilled pan con tomate, a bit of onion, a beautifully briny anchovy -- crunchy, grill-charred, oily, salty, just enough acidity to balance everything.
Salted anchovy toasted bread

Oh, white asparagus, you found us in Spain.  Here, it was grilled and topped with shaved raw mushrooms, baby favas (one guess on how they were cooked!), and an excellent fruity olive oil.  Very nicely springy.
Asparagus green leaves and St. George's mushrooms

When we'd initially looked at the menu, I'd asked for a substitution for the oyster because I wasn't sure a raw oyster was such a good idea.  It turns out it was cooked with spinach (but I still left it to Adam).  As a replacement, I got these oceany, oily, tasty clams.  (Recurring theme: very fresh seafood very simply but well done.)

Oyster and spinach

Pristine, sweet prawns.  So tasty.
Prawn of Palamos

Resulting in:

As a substitute for baby octopus, we got nicely charred sea cucumber and baby favas (a tad bitter).  Adam: "Very earthy in a light way."  

The oily, salty mushrooms were good, but the soft, smokey eggplant was excellent!  
King bolete and aubergine

This dish made me realize for the first time what would become a sad theme over the next few days: thanks to my recovering stomach, I was put off by the idea of anything overly fatty or fishy.  (I tried to separate my temporary aversions from dishes that just weren't my taste.  Adam's similar reactions to some, including this one, helped to distinguish.)  The mushrooms were a bit watery, and the eggs tasted like barely cooked yolks badly in need of salt.  Too rich for my current state, I barely ate more than a bite or two, but even Adam wasn't tempted to finish it.
Scrambled eggs of St. George's mushrooms

Lovely, sweet baby peas and broth, punctuated with a bit of salty fish jerky.  More springy deliciousness.
Peas with its juice

In lieu of  a beef chop, we got our first taste of a regional specialty: kokotxas al pil pil.  The almost heart-shaped hake jowls (for lack of a better description -- the cut comes from under the fish's jaw) are crowned by a gelatinous morsel (which you are apparently supposed to eat, given the waitress's reaction that we hadn't) and served in a sauce of garlic, oil, stock, and herbs, thickened with the fish's natural gelatin.  I wasn't a fan of the slightly dense, slightly stringy texture of the cut, but Adam liked it.  As with everything, the hake was nicely grilled, but I wanted salt in the sauce and found it too fishy for my vague queasiness.  (It turns out, I think that I just don't like kokotxas much.  I also didn't like them at Ibai, where I was feeling much better.  Gelatinousness isn't my thing.)

I felt terrible leaving behind most of these beautiful pieces of grilled toro, but I never love the really fatty tuna so prized at sushi restaurants, so I wasn't the target audience even if I'd been feeling 100%.  (And I was definitely lagging at this stage in the meal.)  It was well salted and nicely accompanied by a delicious red pepper sauce and a mayonnaisey sauce, which felt very Spanish.  Someone with slightly different preferences than I have would likely have loved it.  (I consoled myself by picking on more of the goat butter.)
Red tuna belly vizcaina sauce

For all that I whined a bit about the lack of non-frozen desserts on this trip (especially in Copenhagen), we had some great ice creams.  Extebarri's awesome milk ice cream was hands down the best.  (Adam thinks it's the best he's ever had, and I haven't been able to come up with a counter-suggestion.)  Gorgeously creamy, tantalizingly smokey, it was nicely offset by the beet juice but would have shone on its own.  Adam's attempt to engage in Spanish conversation about ingredients with our only slightly English speaking main waitress got little more than "milk" in response. (Adam is admirably very game to try his Spanish -- which is much better than the dregs of my high school French -- but he is definitely far from fluent.) Luckily, an English-fluent waiter (who also kindly escorted us to tour the kitchen and meet the chef at the end of our meal) was able to explain that the chef makes his own wood charcoal in two ovens; when they're not in use, milk is left in a still-warm oven to reduce, where it picks up the charcoal flavor.
Reduced milk ice cream beetroot juice

Delicious bon bons had a very distinct pumpkin flavor, which I loved.
Bon-bon pumpkin

The chef grills cocoa beans and then makes a fabulously complex hot chocolate with honey, which was paired with excellent, moist little almond muffins.
mignardise et eclats de cacao

A waiter led us out onto the beautiful terrace, down through the woodshed, and into the kitchen to see the ovens and grills.  It's amazing what the chef -- who was extremely friendly, with the help of the waiter's translation -- can do with a tiny space and minimal equipment.  (Apparently they do weekly Sunday night pintxos for a euro a piece; I can only imagine how awesome they must be.  The waiter told Adam that given the choice, his girlfriend asks to come to the restaurant for that.)  Unfortunately, we had to decline the chef's offer of a gin & tonic -- another regional staple -- before we headed back to the hotel; I could barely wait to drag myself back to the car, where I napped for almost the entire return drive.

I'm not sure that we'll be rushing back to the region in general, but I hope that some future travel itinerary will bring us close enough to return here.  Etxebarri is one of those rare restaurants that has a real sense of place.  Even given how semi-awful I felt, there was a lot to enjoy and admire over the course of our lunch (although I would be inclined to order a la carte next time), and I would love to experience it at full gustatory strength.

And I'm still thinking about that butter.

1. Bacon's still delicious, right? Oh, it's even better than I remember? Yeah, that's what I figured.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Kadeau wins Copenhagen (5/21/2016)

Our slightly disappointing meal at Noma on Friday night left a lot riding on Kadeau's performance.  The new, more formal space is very nice, a hopefully successful bid for their second Michelin star without getting too stuffy.  (They've also adopted my least-favorite aspect of the Noma experience: the collective hello from the staff when you first enter.)  I wish it were more brightly lit in the dining room, but adjustable/removable track lighting facilitates food photography, which is presumably not a coincidence.

We were served a tart, refreshing herb-infused gooseberry juice in the lounge area, with a view of the lovely outdoor patio.  (The herbs included angelica, woodruff, and mint.)

Gooseberry and angelica infusion

The first dish (at our window-side table) was also the first appearance of the season's ubiquitous asparagus, served with kohlrabi, blackcurrant leaves, ramson, pureed spinach, wood sorrel, and mussel broth.  Some of the liquid (the mussel broth?) was more acidic, the kohlrabi was slightly crisp, and the springy combination tasted best when I got bits of everything (especially the broth) all together.
Blackcurrant, green asparagus and kohlrabi

A blanched kale leaf was filled with chopped oysters and some more cooked kale, dusted in pea powder, and accompanied by cream.  I really liked the kale -- a balanced combination of almost raw and nicely cooked -- and the pea dust was doing a lot of work, adding both mild springy sweetness and a bit of acidity.
Oysters, kale, parsley
The terrine of pickled, fermented, and raw vegetables, garnished with sliced gooseberries and tiny pine cones, was a bit more polarizing.  I loved the fermented tomato and chamomile oil broth, which was thicker than I'd expected and a surprising combination of tomato and herbal notes.  Adam, however, didn't like the texture of the terrine with the broth.  (We were also told that there was some beach onion in there somewhere. The cheese didn't leave an impression.)
Pickled vegetables, fresh cheese, September tomatoes juice and chamomile

The tiny pine cones were a bit of a theme throughout the meal, appearing again in the next course: a beautiful crackerscape of clams, pickled apple, pine fronds and pickled cones, and flowers.  A very interesting dish -- Christmasy from the pine, sweet-sour from the apple, the clams briny but not overwhelming.
Mahogany clam, elstar apples, fermented wheat, pickled pine cones, and flowers

Kadeau's play on potato salad was excellent, the best dish of the meal to that point.  The potato was cooked with lovage, served under sorrel dusted with kale powder, and doused in a sauce of turbot bones, wine, butter, cream, herring, capers, with bits of potato chips.  Adam thought it was the best beurre blanc of the week, which featured many very good beurre blancs (beurres blanc?).  Fishy-creamy, punctuated with hits of acid and bits of crisp texture, just delicious.  Felt very updated traditional Nordic.
Withered sorrel, potatoes, smoked herring and lovage

The memory of Kadeau's bread and butter still lingers two years later, so just as I was thrilled to see that Amass still served the potato bread, we were a bit preemptively disappointed to see that Kadeau's bread had changed so dramatically.  The emmer flatbread (brushed with cep oil) wasn't my favorite bread of the week, but it was a delicious delivery vehicle for an amazing butter.  The butter was infused with smoked cherry wood and dusted with spices, rendering it beautifully umami-rich.  (It vaguely tasted of oregano, but not quite.)
Roasted bread, herb butter infused with cherry wood embers

The sweet langoustine was a bit overpowered by the brininess of the shaved scallop bottarga and the nuttiness of the shaved walnut.  Very interesting -- challenging -- evocative of flakes of the fish food that my parade of childhood aquarium fish was fed.  (Not that I ate fish food; I'm going off of my memory of the smell.)  I liked it more than that connection suggests, but it was my least favorite dish of the night.
Langoustine, walnuts, seaweed, and salted scallop roe

I loved the fermented asparagus sauce, the asparagus itself had an excellent grill char, the sorrel was a nice bright note, but there was too much salty caviar.  (I scraped the sauce off the plate but left a little mound of the caviar in its dregs.)

White asparagus, caviar and woodruff

We already wanted to visit Bornholm on the strength of Kadeau alone, but our server's description of the smokehouses -- where locals stop in for smoked fish and beer (hence the beer pairing, common enough back home but apparently unusual in Copenhagen) -- made us want to go even more.  (And we'll swing by Daniel Berlin on the way?)  A chef dished up the soft interior of the smoked side of salmon, dressed it in a lovely, brightly acidic vinegar of red berries, and garnished the bowl with sliced unripe figs.  (Although not a berry, we were told plum was one of the ingredients in the vinegar, maybe something got lost in translation.)  Very delicious, with an excellent sense of place.  (But we also wanted to eat the jerky-ish top layer!)

Cold and warm smoked salmon, sloe, cherry blossom and fig
with 2012 Frank Boon, Gueze Mariage Parfait, Belgium

Sweet chunks of pickled pumpkin were dressed in ramson, slightly nutty sunflower seeds, and a wonderfully umami sauce made with "leftover pieces of mackerel" and cheese fat.  (Our server brought over the large glass jar of oil-infusing cheese, which smelled amazing.)  Adam's commentary: "pushes the limits of salt, oily in a great way, almost Asian."  My clear favorite of the night, and a strong contender for best of the trip.
Pickled pumpkin, garlic, sunflower seeds and cheese fat

Danish lobster tail (subbed for pork rack) had a nice grilled crust, but it was a tad tougher than ideal as a result.  Nevertheless, it paired beautifully with the great, deeply red, sweet sauce -- beets, raspberries, strawberries, currants, black garlic (described as fermented garlic, but I'm not sure whether it actually was or that was just the way it was explained) -- that had just enough bite.  Pickled green garlic stems, corn flowers, and chive blossoms added a bit of beauty and allium depth.
Lobster tail roasted in the fireplace, black garlic, blackcurrant and salted flower buds

We got flowers instead of lamb heart to accompany a super-roasted beet, which became almost a plated cheese course as a result.  The strong blue cheese cream cut the beet's sweetness, while a vinegar "of all the red berries" added acidic balance.  Another highlight.
Ember-baked beetroot, grilled blue cheese, pickled beach rose

The dessert-that-isn't-ice-cream for which I'd been waiting all trip!  Caramelized buttermilk custard was swathed in a layer of deep green pine oil and elderberry gel and dotted with tiny fresh pine cones.  Creamy, fresh, acidic, a bit floral.  Just great.
Caramelized buttermilk tart, pine cones and elderflower

I liked the lovely housemade creme fraiche and sweet-tart berries (fermented raspberries, white currants preserved in gooseberry juice), but the walnut schnapps added a bit of an acetone note that made me unsure how I felt about its addition.  Adam suggested that this would be a great place to use shaved walnuts, and I agree.
Fermented raspberries, white currant juice and walnut schnapps

We readily moved to the outside patio for petit fours and a soothing chamomile-rose hip tea.  (Plentiful throws made it cozy despite the slightly chilly night.  May Copenhagen temperatures fluctuated a lot over our stay.)  The slice of caramelized apple with wood sorrel and pine shoots suffered from a bit of a structural integrity issue but was nicely fresh.  The tartlet was very good.  But the fried sourdough with (very salty, in a good way!) caramel was the standout -- as my notes read, SO GOOD.
Juniper cookie with pear and thyme; Crispy sourdough with caramel of oak buds; Apple and woodsorrel (clockwise from top)

In 2014, Adam and I spent a lot of time debating whether Noma or Kadeau was the better meal (as subjective as such a title is); I finally persuaded him that Noma's greater consistency and overall experience topped Kadeau's standout dishes and lower lows.  This time around, Kadeau has upped the polish of its service -- not necessarily our preference, but hopefully will appeal to the Michelin judges -- and decreased the dish variance over the meal (raising the average, although never quite hitting the same level of individual dish high), while Noma performed less well (especially at the first dinner).  No need for an extended debate; Kadeau takes this round.
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