Wednesday 31 August 2011

Eleven Madison Park, New York

My first signature restaurant meal in the United States was meant to be at Jaleo in Washington DC (a José Andrés restaurant). However, Hurricane Irene derailed those plans, so next on the itinerary was Eleven Madison Park in New York. The restaurant has received numerous accolades and is listed at number 24 on this year’s San Pellegrino Best Restaurants list.

The menu concept at Eleven Madison Park is novel: the entire lunch menu is sixteen words presented in a four by four grid. You are advised what the main ingredient in any course is but no further details are provided. You are able to select a dish from each row (cold starters, hot appetizer, main course and cheese or dessert). The kitchen will accommodate any dietary requirements or preferences and remake any dish to suit you. As my waiter advised “each dish will still remain a surprise but you can be assured that the surprise will be a good one”.

The meal started with an amuse bouche of parmesan and chilli crisps and tomato tea.

Next up were goats cheese gougeres, and a goats cheese lollipop coated in beetroot which was delightful.

They were then followed up with a smoked sturgeon sabayon which was smooth and rich with flavour but not heavy or creamy.

At this point, the bread service arrived. I have never had more delicious bread in my life; it was light, airy and oh-so- buttery. I was trying so hard not to fill up on bread but it was sensational. To accompany the bread, a goats milk butter and a cows milk butter were also provided.

For my appetizer, I ordered “Tuna”. The dish was a tuna sashimi and tartare accompanied with tomato and basil salad and tomato “snow”. The tuna was lovely and the cold snow was an interesting contrast. However, I have an issue with fresh tomato as I don’t like the texture so it wasn’t my favourite course. I know that I could have advised the kitchen about my preferences but I prefer to see the dish as the chef intended so I choose to simply “take my chances”.

For the hot appetizer, I ordered the “Lobster”. The dish was an open lobster lasagna with summer squash and lobster bisque dressed tableside with lobster oil. It was perfect.

The main course was “Pork” which was suckling pork served two ways: loin and belly. The pork was served with spinach, apricots, pistachios and jus.

For the cheese/dessert course, I chose “Chevre” which was a composed plate of assorted cheeses, corn bread and dried prosciutto.

At this point, my waiter asked if I would like to see the kitchen to which I eagerly answered an emphatic “yes”. I met the Chef de Cuisine and also was given a tour.

The pastry chef then came over to introduce himself and asked if he could make me a special dessert whilst I watched which was a frozen apple cocktail with numerous components.

After talking to the kitchen staff for a while and advising where I planned to eat whilst in town, including a need for pastrami and good Chinese food, the floor manager offered to take a poll of the chefs and come back with their dining recommendations. This attentiveness and thoughtfulness was simply wonderful and most appreciated.

Finally, it was time for the mignardises which were some fruit jellies, an earl grey tea macaroon and some sesame crisps.

My meal at Eleven Madison Park was truly memorable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

New York City: I've finally arrived

I have been looking forward to my stay in New York for months. I decided to splurge and had booked into a four star hotel in the Theatre District.

There's always that nervous moment when you arrive at your hotel. You've been given your room key and as you slide it into the lock and open the door, to inhale slightly hoping you like what you see on the other side of the door.

I LOVE my room. I have a king sized bed with two pillows, cable TV, a bath tub, iron, hair dryer, a proper sized towel (actually 4 proper sized towels) and all the other standard amenities. There's nothing here that's better than what you would expect for a hotel of this class, but since I've been in hostels for over three months, I am in pure heaven. A room to myself, no waiting for the bathroom, no snoring roommates to ruin my sleep.

I have been looking forward to the next five days for weeks : meals at Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku, tickets to four Broadway shows and a visit to one of my favourite cities in the entire world. This is gonna be good.........

Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene may go down in the history books as "much ado about nothing" as the media buildup turned out to be much greater than the actual storm for most of the US East Coast*. For me, however, Hurricane Irene was at times terrifying and potential costly as travel plans were ruined.

I was staying in just north of central DC in Takoma, almost near Maryland. We were advised that our area was safe and that the storm will miss us, we might just get some rain.

In fact, we were at the centre of a ferocious lightning storm. One bolt struck so close to the hostel, items fell off shelves and the room flashed red, causing everyone to panic thinking the hostel was on fire. The windows were shaking and rattled with such force that we were convinced the glass would shatter at any minute.

In the morning, the electricity was out, fallen trees littered the neighbourhood and power lines were down across the street.

I was meant to take the train on Sunday morning up to New York but it was cancelled. Upon calling my NY hotel to advise that I was stranded, I was told "sorry, but you have a non-refundable booking and you will be paying for the room regardless of when you get here".

On Sunday, Takoma was without power but luckily the metro was running so we headed into town so we could find food and I charged my phone at the Smithsonian.

The hostel exterior; not much to do without electricity

My train was rebooked for Monday night but that was cancelled again. Fortunately for me, I had also booked a bus for Monday as a backup plan and that service was running allowing me to get out of DC. The same could not be said for the dozens of people in the stand-by line trying to get out of DC to NY as every bus was full.

Upon arriving in NY, I was amused to see that some entrepreneurial folks already had "I survived Hurricane Irene" t-shirts and badges for sale. Even more pleasing was that the very nice man at the front desk of my hotel decided to waive the charge for Sunday night (when I was stranded in DC). So in a way, with respect to my trip, things worked out for the best.

* For New York City only. Of course, the damage has been huge in other areas coupled with a tragic loss of life.

Wing Supreme, Takoma Park

With Hurricane Irene quickly closing in, I decided to quickly grab some dinner before bunkering down. A few hundred metres from my hostel, was Wing Supreme selling, well, wings and other assorted sides.

The numerous wing options

They had a huge range of wings available together with shrimp, chicken fingers and other fried foods. I asked the staff to select two flavours of wings for me and left my order in their hands. The result: Caribbean jerk (delicious) and teri-que, a mix of bbq and teriyaki that was too sweet for me.

Caribbean jerk


The interior Wing Supreme is spartan with a few wooden booths; you wouldn't go there for the ambiance. However, the staff were overwhelmingly friendly and I spent over a hour in the restaurant talking to them about Australia, wings and learning their recipe of collard greens.

Five Guys Burgers, Washington

Five Guys is a chain of restaurants serving that all-American of foods: burgers and fries. Based on the signs on the wall, it has won every award and recommendation available so when I walked past, I decided to drop in for a light snack.

The main reason I was attracted to Five Guys was that you are able to list which toppings you want on your burger and it is custom made to order (no pre-made burgers sitting in warmers here). I ordered the smallest burger they had and although I initially declined to order fries, they looked great so I succumbed and ordered the smallest size they had.

The burger itself looked less than appealing but was in fact very tasty. I prefer my burger buns a little crustier but it really tasted like a good homemade burger. You could see that the patty was hand formed and not the smooth-rubbery discs you get a other chains.

I know it doesn't look at all appealing, but it was delicious.
Some crustier bread and it would have been just like homemade.

My meal at Five Guys reminded me of the golden rule of eating in the US which I had forgotten: "the portion sizes are huge". When I received my fries, I took them back to the counter to advise that I had only ordered one small serve, not the family size but alas, this was the small size.

The "small" serve of fries

Did the meal satisfy? Yes. Do I need to return? No.

Washington DC

After an uneventful flight from London, and another interrogation by immigration, I made it to Washington DC. This marks my 6th visit to the United States since 2001 but my first to DC and now, I wonder why I didn’t come sooner. In short, I fell in love with DC and could easily move here.

Like Australia’s capital city, Canberra, Washington DC was designed. It's a planned city, rather than one that grew organically. As a result, the streets are easily laid out in a grid system and it is very walkable and easy to find your way around.

I arrived in DC on Thursday afternoon, before Saturday’s hurricane (more on that later). I spent Friday at the “Newseum”, Smithsonian Museum of American History and walking around the key landmarks and monuments (White House, Capitol, Washington Monument, Vietnam War Memorial, World War II Memorial and Lincoln Monument and also fit in a visit to Crossfit Balance for some long overdue exercise.

US Capitol Building

The National Mall

Outside Julia Child's kitchen in the Museum of American History

Exhausted after my first Crossfit workout in six weeks

The Washington momument

World War II memorial at sunset

On Saturday morning, I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and Natural History Museum before rushing back to shelter in the hostel was as Hurricane Irene approached.

After the hurricane, I was able to visit the Martin Luther King Jr memorial that was due to be dedicated on Sunday but was postponed because of the hurricane, as well as hit some shops and finish off my Smithsonian visits.

The "yet to be formally dedicated" memorial to Martin Luther King Jr

View of the Jefferson Memorial from the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

As a backpacker, Washington is a delight – all public museums and buildings are free to enter with only a few private museums charging admission. The Smithsonian museums were the best museums I have visited anywhere, ever and you could easily spend a week in DC working your way through each of the separate buildings. My stay in DC was highly eventful due to Hurricane Irene but I know that next time I return to the east coast of the US, Washington must be on the itinerary.

Edinburgh, Scotland

I managed to squeeze in a flying visit to Edinburgh, Scotland before departing for the United States. My trip coincided with a visit to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a show my father watches each year and I have always found boring (or at least complained it was boring so I could change the television channel). However, when the chance arose to see the Tattoo live, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived in Scotland the night before the show and discovered that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was also running whilst I was in town. The town was full of tourists and performers with a multitude of free shows and street performers on every corner to keep one entertained. Taking advantage, again, of the New Europe free walking tours, I spent the morning learning about the main historical sites and landmarks.

Edinburgh Castle

The Royal Mile

There were two food stereotypes that I had to eat in my limited time in Scotland: haggis and a deep-fried chocolate bar.

The traditional way to eat haggis is with mashed potatoes and turnips, but I opted for something a little less confronting.

Oink is a small shop on Victoria Rd that sells Scottish pulled pork sandwiches served with your choice of white or grain roll, chili or relish and stuffing or haggis. I asked the salesgirl for whatever combination she recommended and had a wheat roll with chili and haggis. It was surprisingly delicious. Like any other sausage or mystery meat, I found the haggis very tasty and I think most peoples’ resistance to haggis is the mental issue once you know how it’s made.

Shop front logo

My sandwich

At the beginning of the day, the full pig is displayed in the window and served throughout the day until sold out. Whilst most tourists recoil at the sight (where do they think meat comes from?), the sight of the tender meat and crackling was enough to get me through the shop door.

The second cliché was a deep-fried chocolate bar; Mars is the most popular but I chose to have a Bounty. Dipped in a very light batter, the bar was fried until the batter was crisp. I was expecting an oily mess that I would hate but steeled myself to try it for journalistic purposes. I hate to admit it, but it was lovely. It really just tasted like a warm Bounty, the batter was so light it was unnoticeable and it wasn’t overly oily at all. However, I think leaving your chocolate bar in the sun for 5 minutes before eating will produce the same effect with significantly less effort and calories.

The finished product

The interior - oozy gooey chocolate

Finally it was time to head to the Tattoo. It was a perfect summer’s evening for Edinburgh with a temperature of 12ºC (my relative’s back home in an Australian winter were warmer). I put on every layer of clothes I owned and although my torso was warm, the rest of me was numb with cold for the entire evening. The show itself was fantastic; there is something very moving about Scotland the Brave played on bagpipes and I am so pleased I was able to make it to this spectacle.

The finale

The Hogwarts Express

When at Kings Cross station, there is one thing you have to try:

Monday 22 August 2011

Paris, back where it all began

As an Australian, I can stay in Europe for any 90 days in a 180 day period, which means I had just enough time to return to my family in Paris to say hi, tell them how I managed on my travels and do some much needed laundry.

My cousin and I at Versailles

I also had time for one last piece of sightseeing and we went to Versailles with my family. Aftewards, we squeezed in my final meal in Europe, for which I chose to have an assorted plate of French meats and cheeses with salad.

An assiette of french meats and cheeses

Looking back, the past 90 days have flown past and I am amazed at how much I have seen (and eaten). I am truly grateful that I have been able to a trip like this and have discovered many places in Europe that I know I will have to return to.

Brussels, Belgium

I had two reasons for going to Brussels (well three if you count the fact that I had to pass through it to get back to Paris):

1. To eat a Liege waffle; and

2. I read once that you should aim to visit as many countries as years you have lived and visiting Belgium gets me one more entry on my list (Belgium is number 27).

So, what do you do when you have five hours in Brussels? You walk from the train station to the Grand Place, eat a waffle and end up at the Cinema Multiplex watching Horrible Bosses whilst it storms outside.

Mission Accomplished!

The Grand Place (the weather looks good now.....)

Reypenaer Cheese Tasting, Amsterdam

Second only to the French, Holland is considered as Europe’s “other” cheese country and whilst in Amsterdam, I decided to partake in a cheese-tasting experience.

The exterior of the Reypenaer cheese shop and tasting room

Wyngaard Kaas is a family owned business that has been making cheese for over a century. The flagship brand is Reypenaer (cow’s milk cheeses) but they also make goats cheeses under the brand Wyngaard. Before the tasting, we were given a lesson on the history of the family business, the changes in cheese making techniques and maturation processes and the resultant effect on the flavour and texture of each cheese.

Learning about the history of the Reypenaer brand

The tasting lasted about 90 minutes and you were free to eat and drink as much as you liked. I never thought I’d say it, but “too much cheese can be enough”.

We tasted six cheeses (two goats’ milk, four cows’ milk) in total and these were matched with two wines and a port whilst detailed tasting notes were made. Their flagship cheese, Reypenaer VSOP, was on the menu at E Bulli before it closed.

A selection of the cheeses sampled

My tasting notes

Upon completion, I was presented with a certificate acknowledging my skill and expertise as a cheese-taster which was cute and then it was time to hit the shop upstairs where all cheeses were available for purchase.

Proof I am an expert in cheese tasting

The afternoon was very enjoyable; the only downside was the person sharing a table with me was a cheese hog and would never pass the knife. After a period of maintaining a polite lady-like demeanor, I switched tactics and just lent across him to get to the cheese; he evenutally got the message.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

On the backpacker trail, Amsterdam is famous for two things: marijuana and legal prostitution possibly making it an unwise choice as a destination for a single non-smoking female.

Despite advertising to the contrary, my hostel was smack-bang in the centre of the red-light district and the rooms had large curtains that faced street level, with working women on either side of our dorm. The room itself had a distinct “sweet” smell. I shared the room with 5 other males, all in various stages of “stoned-ness” and often bragging and comparing notes about their conquests with the numerous working girls during their stay.

However, instead of feeling uncomfortable or threatened, I found it hilarious. Two of the boys in the room were 18 year old college kids who were debating what they should do for the day. The conversation went like this:

A “What should we do man?”

B: “I don’t know, should me maybe see some sh*t other than the red light district?”

A: “I don’t know man, it’s kinda fun there”

B: “Yeah it is, but that’s all we’ve done beside smoke weed”.

A:” How about we go smoke some more and then decide what to do?”

B: “Great idea bro!”

Amsterdam by day, however, is quite pleasant. I spent my morning taking a walking tour with New Europe and the afternoon sampling local cuisine and making a visit to Anne Frank’s house which was very moving. Whilst I am pleased I made a stopover in Amsterdam, I was glad to leave for Paris at the end of my stay (and to wash the pot out of my clothes).

One of the many canals

The park inside a religious sanctuary

Amsterdam's thinnest house (the red one)