Sunday, 17 September 2017

Quintonil, Mexico City

Two days after Pujol, we had lunch at Quintonil. A couple of places behind Pujol in the World’s Best Rankings, it’s at No. 22.

The dining room was much more modest than Pujol, no zen garden or glowing indoor tree, but then again there were no banners warning us about dodgy dealings either. We were told to order two or three smaller dishes followed by one (or two) main courses for each person. After the portions we experienced at Pujol, we decided to cut back as Mexican portions are quite generous. So went with 3 starters and 2 mains to share.

We started with a selection of mole and salsa, followed by an amuse bouche of mango and lime granitas.

Charred avocado tartar with escamoles and mexican herb chips
Escaroles are ant eggs, which used to be a key ingredient in Aztec cuisine. We were slightly apprehensive about the idea but damn these were so delicious. The small globules were buttery, they melted away in mouth like mini balls of ice cream, leaving a trail of fragrant richness. The smoky avocado added extra creaminess to each spoonful, it was a beautifully indulgent dish.

“Salbut” with pink oyster mushroom, “agave” honey, seasoned with “chile mixe” salt

Chef Vallejo came round with a heaped bowl of fungi to show us the various species that went into the small dish. 

The crispy bowl of puffed tortilla was filled with a concoction of mushrooms in a savoury broth. The flavours were intense with concentrated fungi aroma, mixed with bouncy morsels of mushroom that released more juices with every chew.

“Jaiba azul” tostada with lime, radish and “chile habanero” mayonnaise
The crab tostada was one of the signature dishes. The crab was hidden under the large toasted tortilla, dressed with a slightly piquant mayo for a creamy texture to contrast with the crunchy veg. It wasn’t crazy spicy, just a hint of sharpness which was quickly washed away by the sweet crabmeat. It was good, but not as stunning as the ant eggs.

Catch of the day Puerto Nuevo style, grilled salicornias, fermented cabbage and sea weed mojo
Our server said he didn’t know what this fish was called in English. We think it’s monkfish. Quite disappointing dish, especially after such excellent starters. The fillet was marginally overcooked, leaving the fish slightly parched on the exterior and rough on the tongue; the flesh had lost the succulent silkiness. The thick sauce didn’t work either, it was very salty with small grainer bits that resembled black bean.

The portions turned out to be much smaller than Pujol, just as well, we didn’t enjoy it very much.

Braised pork jowl with blue corn “cegueza”, lettuces and pickled “rajas”
Having had an insane number of carnitas, we thought pork would always be a safe option as the Mexicans have nailed pork. Well, this was an exception. The pork jowl was dry and bland, but the most offensive part of the dish was the over seasoned ragu pooled at the bottom. It was like the kitchen had forgotten to dilute a whole box of stock cube.

“Zapote negro” rocks with a guava puree and caramelised white chocolate 
We saw the same dessert arrived at our neighbour's table covered in nitrogen; by the time ours arrived it was just a flat bowl. Well, at least it was back to the standards of the starters. The rocks were frozen ice cream, mixed with tart guava puree at the bottom. It was really quite delicious.

Quintoil was very different to Pujol. We felt Quintonil was more contemporary and perhaps more experimental, though the risks in our mains didn’t quite pay off. Whereas there was a set formula in Pujol and though small deviations may happen, the core flavours were more or less the same. If I am honest, despite the service / decor / ambience being less impressive in Quintonil, I feel we had the most memorable dishes of the entire trip here.

World’s Top 22nd restaurant? Yea, probably.

Newton 55
Mexico City

Tel: +52 (55) 5280 2680

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Pujol, Mexico City

This post is over 2 months late. We had two great weeks in Mexico back in June, mostly diving and swimming cenotes in the Yucatan region, but also spent a few days in Mexico City to check out two World’s Best restaurants; Pujol (no. 20) and Quintonil (no.22).

On our walk to Pujol, there were banners lining the street that claimed the restaurant was corrupted and illegitimate. Slightly worrying. Once inside, the restaurant zen garden was stunning with a wooden bar adorned with colourful plants. The dimly lit dining room was equally impressive, with a small indoor garden glowing in the dark decor. 

Our server greeted us, introduced the concept of Pujol and presented the wax-sealed envelop that contained the menu. There were 6 courses and 4 options for most of them. Obviously we chose different dishes to try as much as we could. Our server first listened to our choices without writing anything down, then he apologetically came back and asked again, this time with a notepad. A few minutes later, he came back with the notepad and asked again what we wanted. Funnily enough, they still got the orders wrong and kept giving me his dishes.

Street Snacks

The first course was two snacks; smoked baby sweetcorn covered with chicken toner powder, lime juice and coffee mayo, which was sweet and crunchy with a mild earthy tone, and gordita topped with wagyu salsa on corn bread. 

Jerky Tartar, mukato chilies, bean blossoms
After 10 days of Mexican pulled pork and beans and tacos, some raw beef was a welcomed change. The thick slices were soft and marbled with fat, slightly chewy with gentle bounce. The heat from chilies were subtle, paired with peppery blossoms and a refreshing dressing - a solid tartar.

Octopus, habanero ink, ayocote, veracruzana sauce
The octopus was covered in spicy ink - so deceiving. The succulent tentacle was wrapped in fierce heat, finished with a Mediterranean touch.

Softshell crab, meyer lemon, herbs
A surprisingly meat crab with an impossibly crispy batter. Though thoroughly enjoyable, we thought this dish had the least Mexican flair.

Charred eggplant tamal, chard
The small parcel enveloped smoked aubergine puree. I remembered this being delicious, but can no longer recall the sauce.

Pork Chicharron and purslane in salsa verde
This was the highlight was the evening. The cubes of pork with a generous layer of wobbly, melt-in-mouth lard were godsend, served with a thick avocado sauce mixed sharp lime juices to dissect the fat. 

Wagyu, fennel seeds, herb guacamole
It was a hunky piece of beef, we would probably get a third of the portion in other tasting menus. Sadly the beef wasn’t the top grade wagyu I anticipated, it was too lean as far as wagyu is considered, and too subtle in flavour. The creamy ripe avocado (lots of it) somewhat made up for the lack of buttery richness of the wagyu in terms of texture, but the juicy bovine goodness was lacking.

Mole madre 1315 days, mole nuevo
The number of days the mole madre mature get added every day, and it was served with a dollop of new mole and some green tortilla. Even now, we can’t really grasp the idea of mole… it’s a concoction of spice cooked together, to form a thick sauce that absolutely everyone in Mexico adores. Yet 90% of foreigners just don’t get the obsession. The two tables beside us poked at the puddle of mole and pushed it away. Maybe they ran out of space in their stomach. We really wanted to appreciate it; to understand how this became the ultimate signature of the World’s No.20 restaurant.

And it grew on us a bit. The mole madre had much more depth, and understated sweetness combined with a rich, almost chocolatey bitterness, plus a lingering aftertaste. Then the new mole, in bright orange, had more spices that came and went. When mixed together, the combination was quite sophisticated with complex flavours. We grew to like it enough to clean the plate.

That said, we didn’t like it enough to start ordering mole when we see it on the menu.

The sweets were the weakest section. Shockingly poor. The gelatinous cake was made with sugar and ground maize, so it resembled an odd jelly of no real flavour.

Chocolate tamal, guava, soursop, brown butter
There was nothing chocolate about this tamal, it didn’t help that we are not fans of the texture of tamale. It was a really strange creation.

The saving grace was the coil of fresh, piping hot churros to round off the meal.

We were stuffed to brim at the end of evening. The portion was much more generous than a regular tasting menu, we felt we had 2 full sized starters and 2 full sized mains. We enjoyed Pujol very much, especially when we were growing tired of stodgy meals drowned in thick sauces and endless tacos. The kitchen showcased how typical Mexican ingredients were used in a more sophisticated dishes, reining in chillies and brought out more flavours.

Tennyson 133
Polanco 11550
Mexico City
Tel: +52 (55) 5545 4111

Monday, 5 June 2017

Ellory - a World of its Own

The dining room went for the extreme minimalistic look; stripped back with low-hanging trendy light bulbs, concrete floor and simple polished wooden furniture. Almost like a pop-up establishment. The atmosphere warmed up as the dining room began to fill, and the soft murmurs began to echo from the high ceiling.

The a la carte menu is small, so we skipped the tasting menu option and cherry-picked the items of interest.

Lamb sweetbreads, courgette and horseradish 
I love sweetbreads. The kitchen did an excellent job with these soft doughy morsels with slightly charred edges, oozing distinctive offal flavours. The beautifully roasted bites were paired with a strong savoury gravy, infused with a faint trace of horseradish to offset the pungent aroma of sweetbreads. The succulent courgette carried a slight crunch, its clean juices helped to lift the strong flavours. It was quite a unique dish.

Boudin noir, Raf tomato, parsley and shallot
It's a unusual choice, he doesn't normally go for a second offal dish - too adventurous. But it was a small menu, and it turned out to be a very good choice. 

The thick disc of black pudding was surprisingly light, moistened by the thin sauce and nicely contrasted by the shallots. It had a power tone but nothing offensive, and the acidity from the small wedge of tomato relieved the metallic taste in the blood. It was interestingly different, a good kind of different.

Octopus, sorrel and bone marrow
The thick octopus tentacle was not quite perfect; slightly overcooked and the rubbery texture was coming through. The centre had lost its creamy juiciness and the mild bitterness from the charring was the only flavour left. It had gone over. The  unconventional pairing of bone marrow didn't pay off either. Without the beefy melted grease, the globules of marrow lost its magic and we're limp on the plate. Not one of the better dishes, but the worst is yet to come.

Cod, watercress and chestnut mushroom
A very dainty dish for sharing. At £22 I was tempted to ask for the other half of the dish. The fish was excellent, marginally undercooked to retain its silky smoothness. The skin could have been crispier, and there could have been a thicker layer of fish oil essence. The mushroom fragrance was subtle, more for substance than flavour.

Bavette, beetroot, ricotta and anchovy
He decided he was still hungry after the last dish so we added an order of the steak. And how we wished we didn't. The two thick strips of beef were served medium rare, exposing its coarse ruby grains. It was difficult to cut against the grain to avoid the sinewy textured as we had to slice lengthways, but even then the steak was tough and chewy, interweaved with far too much tendon. The meat was lacking flavour, as if it had been pumped with water to drain its natural goodness. The jus was flat, overseasoned and flimsy, but the worst was the awkward pairing of anchovy with ricotta that simply didn't belong. I'm afraid this eccentricity was a tad stretched.

Soft chocolate, yoghurt and Griottines
It was okay; uninspiring yet unoffensive. The kirsch-soaked cherries turned out to be the highlights and I don't even like cherries.

When we were paying, we fedback to our server that the bavette was the weakest of the dishes and asked why it was sliced in such manner. He tried to explain bavette is a very tough cut and it required very precise cooking; slicing it any other way was apparently not possible. Well... I wasn't convinced. Not that it mattered.

Was the Ellory a Michelin star experience? Not sure. Perhaps on the innovative front and the experimental aspirations, but the results are hit-and-miss. Compared to other one-star establishments, I felt this was underwhelming. Of course we could have visited on an off-night, or we missed their signature dishes, but from what we have tried, we felt there is more mileage to cover.

Netil House
1 Westgate Street
E1 3RL
Tel: +44 203 095 9455

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Monday, 29 May 2017

Pintxos Bars in San Sebastián

We had one afternoon to check out the pintxos bars in the city, and he did the research to make sure we hit the best bars. It was tough to narrow down to 3 places and only order a couple of dishes from each.

We were quite disciplined to only order 2 or 3 pintxos from each joint. Though it was so tempting to order more.

La Cuchara de San Telmo
Oreja de Cerdo Prensada Crujiente Melosa. Hummus de Garbanso - Honeyed pressed Pigs Ears 
This was one of my favourite dishes of the trip. The sheets of cartilage were slow-cooked to a melty gelatinous texture that dissolved in mouth that leaves a trail of fragrant nutty essence. The ears were sweet and savoury from the light drizzle of honey, soft with a bit of chew and a bit of bite, playfully delicious.

Cochina de Salamanca Asado con Keeler y Deshuesada - Roasted Boneless Suckling Pig with Local Beer
The sucking pig was soft and juicy, sprinkled with an array of aromatics including citrus peels to keep a refreshing note.

Foie-gras salteado con Compota de Manzara, sal gris y caramelo de sidra - sautéed foie gras with apple compote, grey salt and cider caramel
The generous slab of foie gras was beautifully seared to a crispy top, simply seasoned with flecks of sea salt, sat atop of a bed of apple purée, sweet and tangy to life the grease from indulgent foie gras. 

Borda Biretti
This pintxos bar was just as casual, with a good mix of locals and tourists. Like La Cuchara, we placed our orders at the counter. Instead of yelling out names when the food is ready, we were just signalled by the lady behind the counter.

Arroz "Bomba"
This was quite good. The rice was cooked with bits of squid and a shellfish stock, oozing seafood goodness. 

Risotto de "Puntalete"
The risotto was very cheesy, al-dente and all. Just not very exciting.

"Kebab" de Costilla de Cerdo
This was arguably the least enjoyable pintxos. The thinner part of the rib was dry and sinewy, there was only one bite mingled with softened grease that was good. A bit annoyed we wasted space in our stomachs.

Bar Zeruka
La Honguera de Bacalao - Smoked Cod Bonfire
This was incredibly delicious. The slithery smoked cod was served with a cube of smoking charcoal, and a small tube of herb dressing. The fillet had a texture similar to sashimi, glistening with a layer of fragrant fish oils, paired with the crunchy caramelised onions on a slice of baguette that had soaked up the sweetness. Crazily good.

Vieira a la plancha - Grilled Scallop
There were two jumbo scallops with their roe intact, simply grilled to perfection to retain its creaminess. 

La Viña - Cheesecake
We were recommended to have only cheesecake here. One portion came with two slices - dense, rich and velvety with a slightly burnt top - gorgeous.

The food was amazing, and we were spoilt for choices. I was still thinking how we could cram another pigs ears dish into our schedule when we were walking to Mirador de Ulia for lunch our flight...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Mirador de Ulia, San Sebastian

To make the most of our weekend trip in San Sebastián, we booked lunch at the 1-star Mirador de Ulia. It would be way too indulgent to have two 3-star meals back-to-back, and Mugaritz was booked out.

We decided to work up an appetite by walking up to the hillside restaurant; including the wandering around town, it was a good 1.5hr walk. We felt slightly underdressed when we were shown to the table by the window in the conservatory. Thankfully other diners were more casual than smart too, except for a group of Asian ladies that wore bridesmaid-style dresses.

We were offered a lemon and brandy welcome drink, which was so refreshing after walking in the heat. We took a long time deciding between the tasting menu and a la carte. The oyster with champagne was only available on the tasting, and it had the lobster and tuna belly that I wanted, but I couldn't care for the asparagus and duck; I really wanted to try the cod cheeks too. Ended up a la carte with a bottle of vintage cava.

The amuse bouche selection was very intriguing; we started with the soft mini bun stuffed with chopped chorizo served with the mushroom velouté, then the pressed chicken wing and crispy ball with explosive runny purée. The puffed chicken feet cracker lined with a layer of pâté was one of my favourites, as was the slightly sweet olive with a smear of anchovy.

Norway lobster laced in fresh herbs emulsion, Iberian nuances and yuzu pearls
The lobster pile was muscular and succulent with its sweet oceanic juice, perfectly cooked to retain a marginally creamy centre enveloped by bouncy lobster meat. The delicate fragrance from yuzu pearls highlighted the natural essence in the lobster, simply seasoned with gentle herb foam. It was immensely satisfying.

Kokotxas - hake kokotxas, black garlic, bread soufflé, txakolí pearls
I love cod cheeks, it's the softest part of the fish, contrasted with some toasted fish skin brittles. The txakolí (local fizzy wine) jelly was served at the table and I can't tell you what it tasted like. Making it into a jelly took out all the gas and so it was just cubes of jelly with a mild alcoholic aftertaste. The fish morsels were lightly torched to leave the skin crispy with slight charring, topped with a puffed cracker filled with creamed-garlic. Although the cheeks were very enjoyable, I felt this dish was lacking some sauce.

Merluza - hake with kokotxas
Its hard to be impressed by a hake fillet after the one we had in Akelare the night before. Though perfectly cooked and deliciously silky, it just didn't have that je-sais-quoi. Very good, not extraordinary.

Ventresca de Atún - Tuna Belly with mojo of their own skin
I was so excited to see this on the menu, and it certainly didn't disappoint. The slithers of tuna belly were flash-seared on the outside so that the centre was still raw but the glorious fish oils were melting. The tuna belly was at its optimal state. Unlike the clean-tasting o-toro sashimi, the searing brings out the fishy flavours, which was quickly washed away as the slice of fish melted in mouth, releasing its mind-blowing fish oils. The dried cherry tomatoes scattered on the plate are worth mentioning; the sugars concentrated in a tiny pocket with a chewy texture. No doubt one of the best dishes on this trip.

Pichón guidado y a la brasa - pigeon stewed with their own interior and pumpkin
The pigeon has been spread over the plate, in an artistic way. The meat carried powerful flavours, as well as the mild metallic tone from the game meat, it had an earthy tinge from the gizzard jus, nicely balanced by the sweet pumpkin wedges. My favourite was the whipped liver parfait on the light airy crisp; there were all kinds of textures on the plate. Delicious.

Basil sorbet with snow

Chocolates en Texturas - textures of chocolate and raspberry ice cream
Popping candy is the best!

Esferas - crispy spheres, cream acidulated with raspberry and vanilla ice cream
We preferred this one, the crispy shells were buttery, bursted with delicious cream in mouth.

We thought we would probably be unfair to Mirador de Ulia having had our 3-star dinner at Akelare the night before; inevitably the bar was set a tad higher than usual. That said we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at Mirador de Ulia. The food was meticulously prepared and showcased a vast range of techniques. Each dish was designed to bring out the flavours of the ingredients, showing off the quality of the produce. Undoubted one star quality. And of course, the panoramic view over the beach and the city was quite extraordinary. 

Mirador de Ulia
Ulia Pasealekua 193 
20013 Donostia 
Tel: +34 943 27 27 07

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