Food & Travel / Words & Photos
I love the hype surrounding the announcement of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants* – it somehow points out how goofy and subjective it is to rank them (where are Pinotxo and the Agawam Diner?!?!) while reminding us how wonderful they are.
For anyone interested in a trip down memory lane to the places on the list where I’ve been lucky enough to eat, here we go…
noma – Rene Redzepi (see photo)
El Bulli – Ferran Adria
El Celler de Can Roca – Joan Roca
Pierre Gagnaire & Plaza Athenée - Pierre Gagnaire & Alain Ducasse
*Congrats to my pal Lexy Topping for breaking the 50 Best story for the Guardian – woop woop!
I imagine people like Wylie Dufresne or Ferran Adrià sitting around conceiving dishes - thinking of flavor combinations, what goes with what and how to make it work. Three-star chefs also tend to try to dazzle – they work hard to blow your mind.
Jean-Marie Amat is like The Oracle – the little old lady from “The Matrix” who bakes cookies and knows the future – his conception process comes naturally. He just knows.
How else do you come up with a forkful of roasted squab coated with cinnamon, soy, cumin and powdered sugar? And how do you know that if you put a little bit of raw fennel tips from the garden on that same fork, your feet start doing the uncontrollable happy dance? He doesn’t need to set out to wow, it just happens.
It’s the last step in cooking - to know and execute as a matter of instinct and reflex. What else do you need after that?
There’s a customer who eats at Amat’s restaurant in the Chateau de la Prince Noir (love that name) once a month, all by himself. If Amat makes the rounds, they have a conversation that lasts about 30 seconds, max.
Eating by yourself is a skill that makes you call on your inner M.F.K. and half the time, you’re either self-conscious or bored out of your mind, plowing through a book and shoveling your food, alternately praying that the host will keep you company or leave you alone.
Here, by myself, I just wanted to learn by eating.
Lunch prix fixe 30€
Dinner prix fixe 50€
A la carte, count on 100€ without wine
Full disclosure: I ate at Amat’s while working on a story for The Boston Globe and spent the first half of the dinner service in the kitchen shooting some of the photos. I paid my bill. I saw versions of what I ate go out to other customers and the only difference between my experience and theirs was that I knew what my meal would look like when I ordered it.
There’s a lot to notice when we arrive at WD-50. The most outstanding is a booth of guys who look like they could be fraternity brothers, yet they’re silent as monks, paying close attention to what they’re eating; the antennae are up, they love the challenge.
You have to be up for the ride. Chef Wylie Dufresne bristles at the thought of preparing anything leaning toward making standard bistro fare for his customers. He’s just not interested.
What would he rather do? Stuff like floating plump scallops and pine needle udon in a bowl of grapefruit dashi. He deconstructs eggs benedict. He chars avocado. (?!?!) Even if his family is in the business you have to wonder how he thinks of this stuff, but when you put bites in your mouth, the combinations and preparations will stand hairs on end and leave you wondering how no one thought of it before.
Daniel Boulud’s kitchen at Daniel has a beautiful wall of spices sourced from around the world while Dufrene’s wall has pectins, starches and syrups. Yet the adjectives Dufresne cuisine inspires are words like ‘clean’ and ‘clear’ – you leave feeling like you’ve eaten a healthy Japanese dinner. His parsnip tart somehow makes me rethink my understanding of the vegetable. Parsnips!
Some argue the validity of this type of experimental cuisine - they should eat here to join the converted.
Finally, all hail Dufresne for having the confidence to keep and highlight the work of pastry chef Alex Stupak. Instead of a clash of egos (that would usually lead to the latter getting dumped), you just sit there and say ‘wow’ all meal long.
Full disclosure: I ate at the restaurant while working on an upcoming story about Dufresne and his collaboration with chef Daniel Boulud. That said, Dufresne didn’t realize we were in the restaurant for dinner until dessert was over and the check was paid.