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Which Restaurants Are Raising the Bar Right Now?

Posted By mchiarello On October 8, 2010 @ 12:33 pm In Food | No Comments

In most restaurants the food comes to the table, the guests taste and then sit back in their chairs to savor. At José Andrés’ Minibar in Washington, D.C., you’re on the edge of your seat the entire meal: the food, the service, José’s imagination – it’s all theater. Every bite is unexpected and so is the setting, which is more laboratory than restaurant. Minibar is 100 percent molecular, 100 percent fun – like a drink that comes to your table hot but ends up icy cold, cotton candy eel, or dragon’s breath popcorn –take a bite of this and exhale, and you see a cloud of smoke (steam really) come out of your nose.

I was also blown away by Bazaar, José’s restaurant in Los Angeles, which serves side-by-side tastings of a traditional dish and then the same dish reinvented through José’s molecular skills. José knows my style is more traditional, so he bumped up that side of it a little, serving us about 60 percent traditional and 40 percent molecular dishes. For the Caesar, there was a true beautiful Caesar salad next to his organized Caesar, a packet made of thinly sliced jicama, filled with quail egg, anchovy, and romaine and served in what looked like a small zinc taco server so you didn’t need to use a fork but just lifted it to your mouth. I loved his “olives” that were actually delicate ovals in spoons – like small egg yolks – made of olive juice with liquid centers. These explode in your mouth and are fantastic.

What I liked best about Bazaar was the pacing – the meal’s syncopation was impeccable, every plate set in front of us at exactly the right moment.

The other side of the coin in Los Angeles is Animal, led by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. I love these guys – their style is very primal and carnivorous but still inventive and humorous. If Bazaar is very Beverly Hills, then Animal is definitely West Hollywood – edgy, cool, with a young hip crowd showing lots of piercings. I love the way Jon and Vinny seared foie gras and then slabbed it on a biscuit and poured a classic roadhouse gravy around it. Perfect. And I like seeing how they did their pork belly – barbecued and served on a bun – and comparing it to how we do our pork belly, in small little squares so it’s one intense bite served in place of bacon with our crispy eggs.

When we felt like we couldn’t eat one more bite, we were talked into the Bacon Chocolate Crunch Bar (okay, it wasn’t a hard sell). Dark ganache with just the right amount of bacon, this was the perfect last bite before we hauled ourselves out of our chairs and took our time getting back to the hotel. This is not food for the faint of heart.

I like what chef Michael White is doing at Marea in New York City, especially his White Fusilli with baby octopus and bone marrow. Jan Birnbaum is an old friend and one of those chefs that just keeps getting better and better. His tableside tartare at Epic Roasthouse is something I find myself craving in the middle of a workday.

I could write another six pages, but tell me your most exciting restaurant experiences and the chefs that inspire you right now.


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