#barndivaabroad: what defines fine dining?


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Happily, EAT THE VIEW just completed an inspirational voyage out, eating and drinking through London, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. It was, without doubt, a very entitled journey. Travel by choice is always a privilege; the opportunity to appreciate the fullness of hospitality performed at its highest levels is a gift indeed, especially if you also have your head and heart in the game.  

It's a complicated, messy world right now, even when you can afford to rest that head on a feather pillow after a night of dining in the best a foreign city has to offer. I landed in London to meet Mr. Hales the day of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo - Europe was reeling, with all eyes on Paris where we were headed in two days time. Many called it a 9/11 line in the sand for Europe, and while I could not quite see that, the assault on freedom of expression alongside an alarming rise of anti-semitism was frightening. Profoundly sad. But if anything, it spurred us on. Hospitality is commercially driven but at heart it's just a meta version of the decency that should transpire between human beings all the time. When expressed with talent and passion through food, drink, and design, hospitality can be an art form.

If you live in the countryside and follow traditions handed down from your grandmother, chances are you eat pretty well. But running a restaurant that is committed to sustainable sourcing and cooking in tune with these traditions, whether in a large city or small tourist destination like our town, is a constant challenge. From my humble perch in Healdsburg like everyone else in the food world I've watched the rise of Noma with great curiosity, wondering whether in style and substance it might be a game changer in ways that really matter. The fact that René Redzepi had moved Noma - chefs, spouses, children - to Tokyo for three months did not effect our itinerary though. To really count, food movements must resonate. 

From London to Paris, Amsterdam to Copenhagen, it did seem like something had shifted. The restaurants we enjoyed most all had what the French call esprit de corps...a feeling of pride and fellowship aimed at contributing, and in a few cases dramatically extending, new definitions of hospitality. Each restaurant we admired had fashioned a distinct ontology built to survive its own mutable landscape of diners that could be as fickle as the weather, but all shared a commitment to excellence that more often than not went beyond the talents of a single vision. 

In London and Paris there was greater emphasis on old world cooking traditions - doing things the way they had always been done but selectively choosing aspects that could be cohesively reinterpreted for 2015. In London, at the century old RAC Club this was as simple (and elegant) as cutting wild smoked salmon off the bone from a rolling cart brought to the table. At The Clove Club, housed in what was once the Shoreditch Town Hall in East London, one early mid-course in a wonderful tasting menu had the Sommelier arrive with a tray of wine glasses and a bottle of  1908 Madeira, which he 'rinsed' the glasses with before filling them with Mallard consommé poured from a cut glass decanter. The beautiful way this was served, the fragrance of fortified wine lingering on the nose, spoke both to the restorative nature of broth and the thoughtful direction the Chef was taking his menu. 

In Paris, at Chez Georges, when I ordered Maijtes herring as a first course a half dozen plump whole fish submerged in brine were presented in a huge porcelain bowl, as if instead of sitting at a table for two I was suddenly at a family dinner at Grand’Mere’s house by the sea. I only managed one, but they left the bowl on the adjoining table, just in case. Even at the tony Le Coq Rico, one of four restaurants "directed" by Antoine Westermann, where a small fortune affords you a choice between a whole “Cou-Nu” yellow chicken from Landes or the infamous Bresse, you are also served a beautifully succulent plate of roasted giblets from the same bird. Even from the old guard, a nod to 'nose to tail' (in this case, beak to tail feather) dining.

 At Caffè Stern in the historic Passage de Panoramas the dining experience prompts its particular magic from the setting with Philippe Starck, channeling Fellini, setting the stage with bejeweled wolf and lynx in the windows, a winged white rabbit behind the fireplace, miniature Murano chandeliers encased in bubbles. Somehow it all works. Every corner of the 18th century Stern's Engraving workshop is an enchantment that refers back to various points in its history, an exquisite frame for old world style service, a memorable wine list, perfectly sourced and executed classic Italian dishes. 

In Amsterdam, whether at the humble Marius, the elegant Brasserie van Baerle, or the knock-out De Kas, where you dine in one of a set of greenhouses that date back to 1926, emphasis is sourcing, sourcing, sourcing. At play here is allowing flavors to sing but keeping them honest, with simple plating that ensures food arrives at the table minutes after it leaves the stove.

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Dead winter there is only so much one can grow in Amsterdam, even for a greenhouse restaurant like De Kas, with farms in nearby Beemster. This meal in particular celebrated its immediate landscape thoughtfully, with grains and fruits preserved from the summer, controlled portions of proteins. I was so impressed with the food as it began arriving I broke a hard and fast rule and walked into the kitchen, unannounced. Surprisingly, they let me stay, not dropping a stitch as they plated 6 and 8 and 10 tops, even inviting me to shoot them "so long as you get our good side."  As far as I could see, there were no bad sides in that kitchen.

Nor any in Copenhagen, as it turned out, where I had managed to book two restaurants bound to be fantastically busy: BROR and Amass. (When I invited them to go online and check out Barndiva to see if Mr. Hales and I could score a table, on the weekend no less, both responded graciously, with Julie and Matt Orlando of Amass - who many are calling the next Noma- going so far as to make space for us prime time, Saturday night.)

Nordic cuisine is not adaptable to many parts of the world, but Noma's style of foraging and sourcing oddities from their own landscape - to seriously eat the view - has been considerable, especially in the city it calls home. First day out we wandered off the tourist path along the docks at Nyhavn (New Haven) and on a hunch descended into a shadowy candlelit basement inauspiciously called Gorms. Gorm turned out to be a Jamie Oliver styled TV chef/personality whose absence from the kitchen didn’t seem to effect surprising combinations, all fresh and delicious. The joyful mood in this little place - at least that afternoon - was infectious. Ditto lunch at the Torvehallerne food and spice market and again with a simple cold lunch of smoked salmon, fennel and black whole grain Danish bread at the Copenhagen Design Museum. All were spot on, enjoyed by appreciative crowds of all ages. With a gorgeous new waterfront development that will eventually encompass more theatres and parks next to the stunning Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen is hot right now, accessible but not overly precious. Go before it turns into Brooklyn.

Our first port of call for serious dining was BROR, (or Brother. Lille Bror, with only ten seats, opened to great press a few months ago). There would be significant differences in the level of our dining experience at BROR and Amass, but they had one thing in common which again came back to Noma. Beyond inspired sourcing there was a concerted effort to dissolve the hard wall that almost always exists between BOH and FOH….the place where you dine, and the kitchen. The word teamwork doesn’t do justice to what this lends to the dining experience: you can get teamwork in spades at any Whole Foods. This was a schema with purpose and passion, serious food that didn’t make you feel a ‘holier than thou’ headache coming on every time a dish is placed in front of you. It's hard to fathom how chefs involved in split second timing decisions can move away from the line to deliver a course to your table (usually one they cooked) at all, much less converse, then calmly walk back into the kitchen. A different chef delivered each course to us at Amass (Matt delivered two, but more on that in a minute) and while there were designated servers and a sommelier who performed excellent wine duties, they too seemed to know as much as the chefs about the smallest details that went into each dish. Though BROR was more freewheeling, like a talented rock band was cooking in the semi-open kitchen, both of these dining experiences stood out because they had a vibrant, informed vibe at play throughout the meal that worked like connective tissue between the food and the experience.

Mind you, we had indifferent service in Copenhagen, at a Michelin starred restaurant no less, which shall remain nameless. I’m not saying the city is nirvana. Nor do I want to piss off Michelin, whom we respect greatly, but the two most uninspiring meals I had on this trip were at one and two starred Michelin Restaurants. Go figure.

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I had broken my only lens in Amsterdam, so did not have a camera at BROR, and while I took a few iPhone images for #barndivahealdsburg they really don't capture the food the way I want to remember it. Course after course, all served on old faience plates, was an artful jumble of beautifully cooked vegetables and well chosen proteins. I’m not confident, even if I’d had my 50mm that I could have made the Cod Sperm dish look appetizing, but hell if it wasn’t an (excessively) creamy few mouthfuls of delicious. The meal started with large Jerusalem artichokes that looked like they had been foraged from the moon, dark and blistered on the outside, split to reveal a soft mash of ground hazelnuts, bone marrow and yogurt-butter finished with pine salt. (note to self: we have pine trees at the farm! This salt was delicious!) This was followed by a sour milk and parsley broth with crisp tapioca, soft ling cod, roasted celeriac and a single nasturtium leaf. We’d already come across crispy chicken skin dishes in Copenhagen - must be trending- but BRORS was the best, with baby cabbage and red kale leaves floating in a broth of ramp flavored chicken stock with a delightfully unexpected kick of horseradish. Pickled garlic and a grilled chicken heart “garnished” the dish. The dessert that really stood out was an ethereal floating disc of toasted buckwheat ice cream you broke through to reach a mound of fresh lingonberries on lingonberry purée. I felt like Bambi eating it, standing in a snow covered glade. I later found out the ice cream had been dipped in liquid coconut butter, thus allowing it to form a thin carapace that melted the minute it hit your tongue.

Actual snow started falling the next morning and continued through the day as we shopped for a new lens and spent blissful hours at the Design Museum. Sunset found us crossing Sankt Annae Plads (St Ann’s Plaza), trying to working up a world class appetite for Amass.

Located outside the center of town in the open industrial part of Christianshavn, Amass is a huge converted warehouse where you climb concrete steps, walk through a dim candlelit entry, then descend again into the main dining hall. Julie, Matt Orlando’s beautiful Danish wife, greeted us- though we did not know who she was at the time - saying she’d saved a table next to the kitchen. No sooner had we sat down and checked out the gleaming open kitchen when a huge flame shot up in a snow-covered field just beyond glass walls at the opposite end of the dining room. We’d had innovated bread service this trip in London, Paris and Amsterdam, where all kinds of heirloom grains are being used with various butters and fragrant lard but this was the first time (ever?) a bread course- crunchy, billowy fermented flatbread - was bonfire baked moments before arriving at the table.

Because of its size and the amount of floor to ceiling glass that wraps the dining room, Amass could be coldly overwhelming but the minute you sit down the experience is a warm one, with no pretensions whatsoever. Polished concrete floors glow in candlelight; one entire wall is covered in graffiti, a modern hieroglyphic that sets the stage for an evening of discovery. We went for the tasting menu, paired, which leaned toward biodynamic. None were from vineyards or producers we had ever seen before. All were uniformly excellent. This was new cuisine for us, but even things like cod, (called simply, ling) or buckwheat, (which appeared in different courses, starting with that fantastic bread) or a simple potato, tasted and often looked different. 

For a start, the potatoes were not simple, not by a long shot. They were dried, looking as pale and soft as ballet slippers, redolent of an earthy creaminess that took on flavors both green and nutty as you pulled them through streaks of almond and parsley cream. In the next course, soft pieces of pumpkin hid beneath a cool disc of cultured cream, a layer of burnt honey and buckwheat holding the two soft textures apart until your fork drew them together into a surprising tango. One course paired tiny bullet shaped onions with teardrops of pistachio cream and delicate rose petals. I remember thinking the rose petals would be floral, surprised upon finding them vinegary and bright. 

A tangle of squid and pickled pork fat shaped like pasta was another dish about indulgent texture, until you crunched into the sea lettuce - our bright eyed Portuguese server called it "scurvy grass" because that's what it prevented once upon a time when sailors took it to sea. Brussels sprout leaves in the next course floated over a foam of virgin butter while your spoon led you down gently into a loose custard-like substance of creamy egg yolk and lemon peel.

Ling was paired with bone marrow and young cabbage leaves from the greenhouse, wild ramp greens and hazelnuts, while in another course, one of my favorites, lamb neck, pink and divinely fatty, met a hillock of sculpin roe. The salty whitefish eggs played against the unctious richness of  lamb, Angelica seed brought herbal notes while raw leaves of Icelandic red and green kale were sharp and wonderful. So too the creamy acidic butter, the color of Meyer lemons. These were complicated dishes, yet seemingly executed so simply they made you wonder why you'd never thought to pair these elements before.

At this point in the meal we were asked if we wanted a short break before desserts, but we didn't, what we wanted was the Aged Danish Beef, not on the tasting menu. A few minutes after ordering it I looked over the low embankment separating us from the kitchen surprised to see Matt cooking, one of the few times he'd left the pass where he oversaw or plated every dish with a serious young woman. All of the sous and chefs de partis were heads down throughout the evening "Yes Chef!" rings out across the dining room every time a new table's order is delivered), but Julie and the sommelier, Bo Bratlann, a big fellow in suspenders with an impish grin, strode in and out throughout the evening, updating information on guests, cracking wise, lightening the mood.

The beef was the best dish in a remarkable dining experience - ribeye cap, loin and shoulder, all with great crust, perfectly cooked inside, smothered with hot smoked bone marrow pearls that popped and melted into the meat as you chewed. Turns out ordering the beef had been a litmus test, which we’d passed. Aged Beef is a particular passion for Matt, one of many. “What did you think of the beef?” was the first question he asked when he came striding over to the table just as we’d finished the dish and were busy licking our fingers. “Pardon my French, but fucking A,” I replied. The ex-surfer from San Diego smiled. “That’s exactly what I said when you ordered it.”

A dessert amuse of "beets, chocolate, coffee, condensed milk" was followed by a salty, sweet swoop of soft caramel ice cream over a crumbled chestnut cookie. The menu Julie printed out for us says black trumpet mushrooms figured somewhere in the dish, but I have no memory of how, just that the balance of sweet to earthy (which could also have been the chestnuts) was the perfect end to the meal. Except it wasn’t. A small basket of hot golden muffins arrived wrapped in linen with a pot of comfiture. How could we not?

As soon as the last order went out every member of the kitchen brigade got to work scrubbing and washing, which I know from Ryan is integral to the training you get working with Thomas Keller. In addition to time spent at Per Se, Matt Orlando's impressive resumé includes working under Eric Ripert at  Le Bernardin, Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saison, and Heston Blumenthal at Fat Duck. This was all before his two stints at Noma, the last, just before he opened Amass, as its first ever chef de cuisine.

With Matt in little more than a T shirt we traipsed across the snow to the small greenhouse where he explained how starts are inserted into vertical metal channels stacked with earthworms, then consistently sprayed with 'juice' from the compost. Upstairs we saw the fermenting fridges and peered into cool meat cabinets, which he is about to expand behind a glass wall which will face the private dining room, flanked on the other side by the impressive wine cellar. The joints and ribs looked almost prehistoric beneath thick layers of cracked fat, which, if memory serves (I’d had quite a bit to drink by this point) was the result of a cider (apple?) and VOO mixture he sprays on to seal the surface. Mr. Hales remains dubious well heeled diners will embrace a wall of raw meat looming at them in the private dining room, even flanked on the other side by a wall of wine, but I'm betting on Matt's belief that the more real the experience of dining is made, the more dramatic the connection to where the food we eat comes from, the better. Besides, his boyish energy for everything he’s doing at Amass is contagious. Dining there was an unmitigated delight, inspiring and incredibly delicious. It was also surprisingly sexy food. 

So what did I learn on this journey, or needed to be reminded of?

Solidarity in the workplace has many faces, all of them essential. The closer servers get to understanding what chefs do...not just the what but the how, the better. Interactions with diners must be informed, not pretentious, never rote. Pride starts at the source - where food is grown, animals raised- it must radiate from every member of the brigade through every member on the floor. Look, unless you are Nobu bound, intent on world domination (and hey, I had the worst meal at a Nobu in Perth last year) this is not a career you go into looking for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The rainbow is in the pot, or should be. You will eat and drink well, love what you do and the people you work alongside, feel a real connection to the sea and the earth and what we grow in it and raise on it in a way most folks won't, though you’ll never give up hoping to share it with them so ultimately, it resonates.

We ate in many other restaurants, drank in many bars this trip: by no means is this Eat the View post a comprehensive overview of dining in the four cities we visited. Some restaurants, like le Caprice in London, we return to only because of fond memories. Others, like Summer, in a gorgeous setting in Somerset House, because we believe in the talent of the chef whose vision it is supposed to represent - in this case Skye Gyngell who cooked up a storm (and lit a firestorm when she regretted being awarded a Michelin) at Petersham Nursery a few years back. We had a wonderful dinner with old friends one night at Palomar, a packed Palestinian restaurant in the heart of Soho - the only one, I might add, that had women cooking front and center. It's not included here because while the food was full of flavor,  the service and the experience in general was frenetic, so loud you could not hear yourself think, much less talk to dining companions or truly enjoy what I hope will become a more popular cuisine. 

We had gone in search of fine dining that was exciting and meaningful, both in its approach to food and to service, which extends to what's happening in the kitchen. Fine dining with or without the bells and whistles, though we love the bells and whistles, especially when they come in the form of flowers, soft lighting, an artistic attention to detail. At the end of an evening what we hope to convey at Barndiva is that fine dining is an ideal that cannot, should not, be separated from where food comes from. Having that knowledge in the glow created by genuine hospitality and beautiful surroundings the experience of dining moves to a higher dimension. Tall order, I know. But appetite is all about expectation followed by fullness, of both the literal and metaphorical kinds. Beyond being sated, you should walk away from a great meal with the memory of time well spent. If we can honor healthy food systems while we're having a whaling good time, so much the better.

 

Cheers.

LINKS:

Amass
ASA Spices
Brasserie van Baerle
BROR
Caffè Stern
The Clove Club
Copenhagen Design Museum
le Coq Rico
Gorm's
de Kas
det Kongelige Teater
Marius
Torvehallerne
 

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