Tag Archives: tasting menu

Menton

We have wanted to visit Menton for a couple of years. There always seemed to be a barrier to going. Menton is expensive and with Boston being a city that the Michelin Guide refuses to go, there is an implicit question of value. Yes, it got a 4-star review in the Globe, but that was four years ago. We needed a special occasion to push us over the edge. Fortunately that occasion presented itself in Ruth’s birthday.

Let’s start with the atmosphere: Menton is quiet. There is a lounge, but no bar. The staff is well dressed, but not formal. Overall the room is dimly lit, but the tables have enough light to read by. We were seated immediately and offered a cocktail which we declined on anticipation of the tasting menu with wine pairing. Better to start slow.

It was restaurant week, but both the regular menu and the discounted menu were available. Not that they were honoring the restaurant week pricing. They did have a special menu starting at $58 for three courses, but we were there for the n-course tasting menu. We’ll do restaurant week next year.

Service is provided as a team. The captain did visit our table to start. She checked allergies and preferences. She should have asked if Ruth demands that her birthday dessert be made of sweet chocolate, but we’ll get to that later. When the food started coming, each course and wine were presented by the server. The service was relaxed and absolutely top notch.

It’s a little hard to define how many courses there were. The first four plates came out rapid-fire. They are small and served as finger food and no utensils are provided. We finish up our Keller-esqe snacks and sparkling wine then move on the knife and fork food.

From here on out we are served a different wine with each course. There were a couple misses and one we couldn’t agree on, but overall the pairings were excellent. We shouldn’t have been surprised; No. 9 Park blew us away with their wine pairings, so we know Barbra Lynch has our back.

The menu is heavy on fish. As the name implies, Menton is French, but near Italy and on the coast, so that’s what you get. It gives them license to throw in a little meat and a little pasta while staying within a theme. It’s a nice rationalization.

The fish preparations were all excellent: caviar on tuna tartar in a crunchy wrapper, mussels poached in their own shell, scallop with black truffles, cobia with poached celery, and pan seared fluke all perfectly cooked. Really outstanding, as was the pasta with fava beans and sweetbreads.

We said we liked foie gras, so Ruth got seared foie and Doug got a a slab of torchon. You can’t go wrong with foie gras, but you can improve on the toast points and they needed some refinement. That’s a quibble. We made them promise that they would never take foie gras off the menu.

The only oddity in the whole meal was the chicken. Light meat, dark meat, and liver pâté. Very simple, but maybe too simple. The chicken, as it turns out, was an heirloom breed. Sadly, the thing we noticed was that the chicken breast was a little dry. It would have been good as an early course, but by this point in the meal we had consumed way too much wine to appreciate the subtlety of the special bird.

The lamb served three ways was excellent. It had Moroccan spicing and was a great end to the savory courses… or so we thought. In response to our condemnation of the chicken the chef sent out braised veal tongue and cheek. Literally. It was outstanding, but now we were getting really full.

Did we mention there would be cheese? Ruth passes. They had some really nice choices (all pasteurized) and some nice accompaniments include candied rhubarb. At this point it was getting a little hard to remember what was going on. Yes, more wine with the cheese, too.

After a palate cleanser we are into dessert. Now the trouble starts. Something not chocolate arrives at the table with a candle in it. Actually, it was a pretty nice presentation, but Ruth is ready to flip the table over in protest. Ruth explains, calmly, that all birthday desserts should be made of sweet chocolate. Without question (and there is a lot to question here) two more desserts are delivered, both chocolate. They have a really great staff.

Several more sweet nibbles and we roll out of there after four hours of outstanding service. There was never a moment that we felt like we were waiting for food or felt rushed. They are really close to Michelin three star service. The only place they failed was in not offering a black napkin to Ruth who was wearing black (white napkins can leave lint); however, they provided one when asked. Food-wise, they are a solid two-star by our estimation. With their excellent sommelier and chef willing to cater to even the most demanding birthday girl, they should welcome a Michelin review. Now all Boston needs are enough restaurants to attract the Michelin Guide.

P.S.

It did seem like the music increased in volume and tempo over the course of the evening and peaked when the room was busiest then dropped off as the dining room emptied out. We thought this was really clever, but when asked the staff said this was unintentional and that (to their irritation) the music was the same every night. It’s an important lesson: You can perceive systems at work even if there are none.

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.

Victoria and Albert’s Queen Victoria Room

Disney’s Queen Victoria Room at Victoria and Albert’s wants to be the best, most overlooked restaurant in the country. Or maybe that’s what visitors of Victoria and Albert’s want to believe. After all, it’s really expensive. And it’s hard to get reservations. And the chef has been on a short list of possible nominees for a regional James Beard Award. So, where is the disconnect?

If your not a Disneyphile, you need to know that Walt Disney World in Florida has several excellent restaurants. Victoria and Albert’s is marketed as the best of those restaurants. The Queen Victoria Room is the inner sanctum of V&A’s where the most personalized service is given and the menu is limited to an expanded tasting menu. It is also the only Disney establishment that forbids children. So it has to be totally awesome, right?

First, we have to address the price. It is the most expensive meal we have ever eaten. There is only one way to rationalize this: Disney World is expensive, and some would say, about 20% overpriced for everything. The fact that V&A is more expensive than Le Bernadin, yet begs that it is unfair to compare it to New York restaurants can quickly be compensated by a completely rational (albeit fictitious) 20% discount.

There are only four tables in the Queen Victoria Room. It’s quiet. Maybe too quiet as we initially felt like we had to speak in a whisper so as not to disturb the other diners. Later the wine kicked in and to hell with the others who all looked like they were on their 20th anniversary.

Our servers, a man and a woman (not named Victoria and Albert) were the only people to serve the table. They were very pleasant and attentive. And this is where we encounter the first reason they have no Michelin stars: We have found that in the fine dining world there is a kind of shorthand used when serving food to people who know food. At V&A, every little thing is explained with an unnecessary bit of pomp and circumstance.

In Disney’s defense, we understand what they are up against. There are a lot of people who look to Disney to guide them though new experiences. To a large extent, Disney is travel without travel. Sanitized versions of foreign countries. Adventure without risk. If your experience with dining out is limited but you are intent on jumping into the deep end, this is your place.

One thing they got right: purse stools. Little ottomans for your handbag. Ruth gives this a big thumbs-up, declaring that all restaurants should have dedicated furniture to keep your purse discretely within reach. Sadly we learned that not every table is allocated a purse stool. Some are relegated to using a purse hook.

The food, however, is really good. With its basis in French, the cuisine also pulls from Asia and America. Each course was perfectly cooked and the pacing of the meal was good.

The flavors are not adventurous, but they did have some nice combinations. The chef leans toward comforting rather than surprising. Chicken liver pâté, Lamb and curry, salmon and soy. Nice cuts of meat with rich sauces. The presentation is pretty and simple. No molecular gastronomy. No French Laundry-esque play on words. Thankfully, it is also not based on Victorian era British food.

Service is unique in that the waitstaff is given a table-side task for almost every course. At times, this presents a nice opportunity to speak with the servers and learn more about the food or the operation of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of our waiter were limited to some fairly mundane tasks: warming croutons, shaving bonito, shaving truffles, and pouring sauces. The interaction seemed forced, as if, because it’s Disney we must include a bit of showmanship. A little bit is good. Knowing when to stop is what separates great restaurants from Victoria & Albert’s.

Our menu:

Soft-poached Quail Egg with German Caviar
Chicken Liver Pâté
Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Siberian Caviar
Porcini Mushroom Cappuccino
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut, Reims

Maine Lobster with Herb Aioli and Miniature Greens
Michel Redde “Les Tuilieres” Sancerre, Loire 2010

Cold “Smoked” Niman Ranch Lamb with Fuji Apple and Curry Dressing
Grans-Fassian Piesporter Kabinett Riesling, Mosel 2009

Sake-Soy Marinated Alaskan King Salmon with Bok Choy and Soy Beans
Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” Gohyakumangoku Junmai Ginjo, Nigata

Poulet Rouge “Oscar” with Alaskan King Crab and California Asparagus
Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhone 2010

Marcho Farms Veal Tenderloin with Truffle Bread Pudding
Hartford Court Land’s End Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2007

Australian Kobe-Style Beef Tenderloin with Smoked Garlic-Potato Puree
Mollydooker The Maitre D’ Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia 2009

Peruvian Chocolate Cylinder with Elder Flower Sauce
Chocolate and Navan Bubble