Tag Archives: Michelin three star

La Pergola

La Pergola at the Waldorf Astoria in Rome was never on our short list of restaurants to seek out. Actually, Rome wasn’t on the short list either, but when we decided to vacation in Italy instead of France we thought it worth a review of the Michelin list. Turns out, there is only one 3-star restaurant in Rome. There is literally no way we can pass this up.

This will be our first European Michelin-stared dinner. We’ve pointed out before that our French Laundry experience had spoiled us to the point that we wondered if other restaurants would ever stack-up. We speculated that France might have an equivalent. But we also wondered if the level of formality might go up with out being “nicer.”

Of course, this is not France. It’s Italy and that means several things: The recipes are codified differently, the flavor profiles are different, and the traditions for service are different. Also, Rome is not a foodie city. Then again, Chef Heinz Beck is German, so maybe we can lump all of Europe together. As Americans, this is our best option.

What’s the most important distinction between American and European Michelin 3-star restaurants? Wine portions.

Americans, as we know, are pretty tight with the wine. Six 2-ounce pours are about all you’re going to get on a tasting menu. It’s all carefully measured and administered. You’ll leave happy, but standing.

At La Pergola they do things a little bit differently. Each course has its prescribed wine selection. Your two ounces are poured shortly after the last course is cleared. But then something sneaky happens: they refill the wine if you drink it.

This has significant ramifications. If the wine is good (and it was), one might be inclined to finish before the food arrives. Refill. And if you empty the glass while you’re still eating? Refill. At this rate we are killing over a bottle a piece. It’s hard to know since we were not keeping track and if we had, would not have been able to do math.

Obviously it was a good night, if a little blurry. Moments stand out: The spectacular sunset over the Vatican. The water menu. A pleasant and nervous young man serving bread as if he would be beaten by the chef for bad performance (they do that in Europe). A trolley of unpasteurized cheese. The waiters pulling together around the credit card machine to see Mickey Mouse on our Disney Visa card.

We were generally impressed with the food. The progression of stronger to lighter flavor was unexpected, the reverse of most tasting menus. They started with beef and progressed down through shell fish, pasta, fish, then ending on veal. It worked well and we wondered if that was an affectation of Italy or the Chef’s creation. We would have thought to ask when he came to table if we weren’t smashed.

The most notable dish was the fagottelli. Little pasta packets containing their own sauce. They explode in your mouth like soup dumplings, Italian style. They are a standard on the menu and for good reason.

The menu was short on molecular gastronomic tricks. One exception was the tuna with tuna powder. No tuna is tastier than tuna dredged in a powdered version of itself.

What La Pergola lacked in tricks it made up for in flavor. Each dish was perfectly cooked. And cooked a la minute, so there was very little cheating in terms of plating pre-prepared components.

Desserts were very good, but again we are a little fuzzy on the details. Something chocolate. Something fruit flavored. In addition to the plated desserts a box with little drawers filled with treats was placed on the table just to make sure you were maxed-out.

Service was exceptional. Formal, but not overbearing. Courses were served at a regular, unhurried pace. As mentioned we were never to want for bread or wine. The waiters might have been a little over attentive at the start of the evening, but by the time the tables filled we hardly noticed them.

Tables are given a generous amount of space. Conversations at neighboring tables did not spill over to ours and servers had plenty of room to work. While we were seated on the terrace, we could have been seated inside because they keep two tables for each party; one in and one out in case the weather changes.

Overall, La Pergola met our expectations by showing a level of skill and luxury rarely seen.

Le Bernardin

Eating at Le Bernardin has been a goal for some time. After eating at the French Laundry, we felt the need to compare our experience against another Michelin 3-star rated restaurant. People have said that the French Laundry is the best in the country, but does that mean other 3-star establishments are inferior? It seemed unlikely, but it may be the case that we waited too long to try Le Bernardin.

Le Bernardin has gone though some changes in decor recently. Most notably, they opened up the dining room such that connects with the bar. While this is likely to provide a more inviting space to get a drink, we found it distracting. It might have been the plan to make the restaurant more lively and modern looking, but it seemed incongruous with the formal brigade-style service.

The dining room is (when looking from the bar end to the back) a very pleasant environment to dine. Rich, yet understated, it offers a generous amount of space between tables and is never loud. But while the room is very nice, we found that the staff never really went away. The servers maintain their quarter and are very attentive because the are right there. Right there.

We arrived early, 5:15 with the intention of getting in the Chef’s tasting menu before catching a show. We were assured that they could do it. At 7:30 we were out the door and walking to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The pacing of the meal was spot on. Apparently this was not their first rodeo.

Le Bernardin is known for seafood, and we’ve got to say, it is fantastic. Not that they are the most inventive; although, they take from a variety of European and Asian cuisines. Simply, each course is perfectly cooked. The consistency is really what they are all about. Fish is difficult to cook and they can do seven courses in less than two hours and each one is perfect.

The wine pairings were also really good. Le Bernardin has an extensive wine list and it was clear that they had put some thought into each course. We were surprised by several parings, which is exactly why we let them pick the wine.

We took some pictures, but as frequently is the case, we starting eating before deciding to do so. Here is our meal:

Lobster and Mushroom “Cappuccino”

Leaping Waters Beef, Langoustine and Osetra Caviar Tartare Black Pepper-Vodka, Crème Fraîche, Pomme Gaufrette
Dom Pérignon – Moët & Chandon 2000

Warm Lobster “Carpaccio”; Ruby Red Grapefruit and Heart of Palm,Verjus Sabayon
Vouvray Sec, Domaine Huet ‘Le Haut Lieu’, Loire, France 2010

Charred Octopus “a la plancha”; Green Olive and Black Garlic Emulsion, Sundried Tomato Sauce Vierge
Albarino, Trico, Rias Baixas, Spain 2009

Shellfish Medley; Yuzu Scented Custard, Smoked Bonito Broth
Yuki no Bosha, Yamahai Jumai, Akita

“Ultra-Rare” Arctic Char; Truffled Peas and Favas, Butter Lettuce-Tarragon Emulsion
Sauvignon Blanc, Floreado, Cantina Andrian, Alto Adige 2010

Roasted Monkfish; Wilted Mustard Greens-Daikon “Sandwich”, Adobo Sauce
Pinot Noir, Duijn ‘Jannin’, Baden, Germany 2008

Lychee Gelée, Rose Emulsion, Raspberry Sorbet
Côteaux de Layon, Chaume, Château, Soucherie, Loire 2007

Madagascan Chocolate Ganache, Peanut Mousse, Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Château La Rame-Reserve, Saint Croix du Mont 2001

The French Laundry

We were pretty lucky to get a reservation at The French Laundry. Our going there wasn’t by plan, but we knew we would be in Napa Valley and thought it worth trying to get in. Reservations are made two months to the day and we happened to call on June 30th, the last day of the month; thus, doubling our chances by allowing us to book August 30th or 31st.

With reservation in hand, we really wanted to make the most of the experience. We booked a hotel a block away (so as not to concern ourselves with driving). We had a camera, but had no intention of taking pictures of the food. We wanted to enjoy the meal, supposing, as Thomas Keller would have wanted us to.

In short, it was really good and really hot. It’s hard to deny the beads of perspiration shown in the pictures.

Street view of the French Laundry

Picture 1 of 12

Yes, it was rather warm in the dining room and the very apologetic head waiter explained that the the new geothermal A/C system wasn’t quite up to snuff. Normally men are expected to wear a jacket, but that rule was officially not in effect. Doug decided to tough it out, operating under the philosophy that there are too few times in modern society that one must stand on ceremony.

We were seated promptly in the upstairs dining room and given menus that included a la carte and pre fixe tasting menus, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The tasting menus also having several optional items at additional charge. We decided to go non-veg with all the options.

There has been a lot written about food at The French Laundry, but the thing that really stood out was the service. It is like no other restaurant. The servers move silently. They glide in, put down plates, describe the dish, and then disappear. After you are done with the course, the head waiter comes in and chats. If you have questions, he answers them. The setting is cleared and the process repeats.

We must have been under surveillance because they never approached unless it was the right time. Sometimes we missed seeing the table get cleared. Several waitstaff would swoop in and move though the dining room like ghosts. No chatter. No bumping into one another. No clanging of glassware. It was as if it were all rehearsed, and probably was.

When we did notice the waitstaff, we felt a little bad for them. It was clear that they had to truck downstairs to get the food then make themselves presentable in the heat before entering the room. Presumably there was someone with a towel on the other side of the doorway, because they would enter dry then gradually start to bead with sweat before whisking themselves away.

The food was a good as people say it is. Each course is light, flavorful, and creative. Some of the presentations are playful, like the well established salmon tartar ice cream cone amuse bouche. Some were just the only way food should be made, like the butter poached lobster. The ingredients are either local (like from across the street) or sourced from a specialty farm. Ruth was especially impressed with the choice of butter from France or Vermont.

The French Laundry is a tourist attraction in a manner of speaking. Not that it is tacky like some roadside wonder, but everyone there seemed to have traveled some distance just to eat there. The table of Australians next to us had made a much more significant effort than we had to get there. Then there was the young couple diligently photographing every course as so many have done. The head waiter divulged that there are few regulars. It’s just too hard to get into.

If we could afford it, we would go back. It would be great to try out the a la carte menu. Chances are we will not go back if only because there are so many good restaurants in Napa Valley. For any given price point, every restaurant we ate in was as good or better than Boston restaurants. The wine selection was always better.

And yes, they comped the extra courses for the failing air conditioning. Here is our menu:

Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” with Beau Soleil Oyster Glaze and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

Salad of Toybox Tomatoes with Poached Baby Corn, Hass Avocado, “Fines Herbes” and Tomato Vinagrette

Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon” with Medjool Dates, Celery Branch, Périgord Truffle “Coulis” and Cutting Celery

Grilled Fillet of Pacific Kahala with Melted Savoy Cabbage, Tokyo Turnips, Watercress and Dijon Mustard

“Confit” of Mediterranean Cuttlefish with Yukon Gold Potato “Coins,” Grilled Baby Artichokes, Piquillo Peppers and Cilantro Shoots

Maine Lobster Tail “Pochée Au Buerre Doux” with Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm, Passion Fruit Butter and Mizuna

Ginger-Glazed Kurobuta Pork Belly with Roaster Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Sweet Carrots and Wilted Pea Tendrils

“Tartare” of Japanese Waygu with Sautéed “Matsutakes,” Asian Pears, “Akita Komachi” Rice, Pine Nuts and Broccolini

Elysian Fields Farm “Selle D’Agneau Rôtie Entrière” with “Persillade” Melba, “Cassoulet” of Summer Pole Beans and Thyme-Infused Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Bittersweet Plantation “Fleur Di Lis” with Compressed Silverado rail Strawberries, Sicilian Pistachio Purée and Fennel Bulb

Grape Sorbet with Sultana “Financier,” Verjus Foam and Raisin “Coulis”

“Délice au Chocolat et à la Menthe” with Amedei Chuao Chocolate-Mint “Parfait” and Mint Syrup

“Glace aux Noyaux D’Abricots” with Apricot Sorbet, “Pâte de Fruits,” Nutmeg Frangipane and Streusel