I mentioned in my review of the chef’s omakase at Yasuda that despite my overall excellent showing in an all-seafood meal, there was one slip-up that night. My boyfriend was taking notes at Yasuda because he’s an encyclopedia of fish names, and I was no doubt going to be writing down things like “Motown shrimp” instead of “botan shrimp”. Well, at this point in the notes, he writes, “Katie loses her shit.”
Let me explain first that I’ve been having trouble with oysters since about my second one. The first time I tried one, at Momofuku Ko, I didn’t even think about it; I just gummed it a little, swallowed it, and put a gold star on my shirt. Every subsequent oyster has given me pause, though. I actually like the flavor of them, which is the really maddening part, and I don’t consider their texture snot-like or anything along those lines. Something about them, though, just subconsciously goes to work on me, and I have a hard time keeping them down.
Well, at Yasuda this night, I actually didn’t keep mine down. We told the chef to give us whatever he wanted, and he started us slow with progressively finer tunas and then moved into some more adventurous clams and shrimp. I’d heard that the oyster Yasuda serves is this giant, sprawling thing that they slice smaller pieces off of, but I didn’t think that bothered me. And the actual appearance of my oyster was like a nice, creamy alfredo sauce. There were some black, stringy parts, but it’s not like I haven’t seen that before.
So I downed the thing like usual and immediately knew it was going to give me trouble. I gagged a little but told myself, “You ARE going to eat this oyster.” Like there was any alternative. So I took a swig of water to force it down, and instead, a bunch of rice came back up. It felt like all of the rice from all of the previous pieces of sushi, each grain still fully intact. I buckled down and again told myself that I was going to swallow it again, laced with bile as it probably was.
And then I just full-on vomited into my napkin.
I held it to my mouth in an attempt to disguise what was going on, but I’m sure it was pretty obvious to everyone as I abruptly stood up, all wild-eyed, trying to remember where the bathroom was from my only other visit years before. A server rushed over to pull back my chair for me, and I’m sure I looked like an idiot still holding this napkin up to my mouth as I ran to the back of the restaurant. I felt like all eyes were on me and that they all saw the creamy oyster bits dribbling down my chin.
It was such a traumatic event that I can’t remember if I threw my napkin in the bathroom trash or if I tried to salvage it and nonchalantly bring it back to the counter with me, but I hope for everyone’s sake that I didn’t carry a bunch of vomit back into the restaurant. My boyfriend just told the sushi chef that I must not have liked oysters as much as I thought, and I felt up for anything again once it was out of my system, but for the rest of the night, the chef would ask, “Is salmon roe okay? Is eel okay?” before serving us anything remotely adventurous. And I felt like a dumb white girl from the Midwest.
I thought the experience might ruin me completely for oysters and was really troubled to imagine a life in which I not only don’t ever get to enjoy that briny, fresh flavor but in which I also have to annoyingly ask that chefs leave the oysters off of my dishes. Luckily, I’ve had two since then and have just learned to chase them immediately with a glass of water. Which sort of defeats the whole purpose of eating them for the flavor, but hey, at least I’m eating them.
Degustation is designed entirely to facilitate a relationship between the chef and the diner. With only 16 seats arranged in a half-rectangle around a bar that encompasses the prep area, you don’t miss a moment of your dinner being made. For better or worse.
Do you want to see the plastic storage bowl your rabbit liver came out of? Do you want to look at a whole container of cooked bacon slabs on the counter throughout your meal and know that you only get two tiny pieces? Is that worth it to get to watch your chef so delicately place a single slice of Fresno pepper on top of a sardine with a pair of forceps? It’s not exactly the most romantic of date spots, but dinner at Degustation is special in its own way.
Being served this the moment we walked in the door was kind of hilarious, if you know me. While I can at least eat seafood without much complaint now, I still don’t find it the least bit comforting or homey. And it was actually my first time at Degustation that I tried fish skin for the first time. At least that was attached to a piece of actual fish, though; this was just straight-up skin.
And I actually kind of liked it! It was only slightly fishy, and the texture reminded me of Cheetos: crispy, puffy, and full of tiny air holes. The sherry vinegar was so sour it made me wrinkle my nose, but I liked the combination.
Clearly this is much more my speed. A crunchy exterior, a creamy potato interior punctuated by ham bits, and a smoky emulsion underneath that I kept coming back to, trying to scrape more off my plate. This still wasn’t as good as the one at Tenpenny, but I think it was improved over the last time we were at Degustation.
This was our favourite on the plate because it was the most original and complexly-flavored. The tortilla had the texture of a Shanghai bun skin, and the filling was like caramelized onions: sweet and sour and like it came off the bottom of a cast iron pan. The shallot jam is just really nice, too; it has all of the flavor of an aged wine with all of the texture of a homemade jelly.
• hamachi crudo
I somehow didn’t take a photo of this, but it was served on a spoon with pickled vegetables. It wasn’t fishy but had that distinctive fresh ocean flavor that you find in mild seafood like scallops and shrimp. The refreshing bite was a nice palate-cleanser for the more intensely-flavored amuses.
I love a savory panna cotta; you just don’t get enough creaminess in savory foods. Panna cotta topped in sea urchin is a little bit different, but I understand that uni is considered a major delicacy, and I’ve only had it a handful of times at this point, so I was open-minded.
It tastes like iron, looks like orange chicken skin, and has the texture of mousse. Which is not to say that I didn’t kind of enjoy it. The spice of the single slice of pepper really pervaded the entire bowl, and I can really get behind the idea of uni pudding, which is basically what this was.
The problem is that everything in the bowl was just so unfamiliar. About halfway through, it started seeming just, you know, something someone should eat only if beef isn’t available. I ended up mixing the rest of my uni into the panna cotta so I could disguise it. I’m still a work in progress, I guess.
On the other hand, I think I can honestly say that I like monkfish liver. I had it first at an Asian buffet (Ichi Umi), but it was drowning in some sort of sweet sauce that I figured was the only thing making it palatable.
But no, it tasted like any other totally non-fishy organ meat and had a wonderful flaky, chunky texture. And, as I’ve probably made abundantly clear, I hate tomatoes despite years of trying not to, yet these were weirdly delicious. The cilantro and red onion overpowered that gross not-quite-sweet, not-quite-savory thing tomato has going so that the topping tasted like a fresh, crisp salsa. I really loved the way that nothing could get soggy because of the way it was cut into little slivers.
I was really excited when this was set down in front of me. I was ready for something earthy and familiar. We sunk the contents of our spoons into our cups of soup and were delighted by crunchy bacon and artichoke tips and . . . SALMON ROE? I wrote in my notebook, “Just give me something without fish!” Even the wine this was paired with tasted salmony to me. At least the soup itself was delicious, with a savory foam on top that reminded us of eating garlic and onion potato chips.
We loved the salty, garlicky flavor of this dish. After a pretty dismal experience at Flex Mussels recently, this brought me back to bivalves a little. The textures in the dish were all of a similar chewiness, but luckily, I like chewy.
My boyfriend was worried I wouldn’t like this due to its silver-skinned fishiness, but on the contrary, it was just a big, salty, crunchy fish stick. I loved the spicy pepper against the cool pickled vegetables, and the tzatziki was like a better version of tartar sauce.
This one kind of overwhelmed us and sent us into a five-star-dish coma, starting with the adorable presentation of the brown egg on blue-and-brown-striped plates and ending with the tiny chunks of ham hidden in the cheesy egg filling. We loved the texture progression from creamy egg to chewy ham to crunchy crouton.
Watching a chef form your rabbit liver into a quenelle with two spoons right in front of you is kind of a joy. So is eating different preparations of the same animal in one dish. The liver was smooth and organy, but the pate was like eating a really fine lunch meat–spicy, flavorful, but so likeable a kid would eat it. Spread on the crisp baguette and topped with some pickled greens, it was hearty and filling.
This lovely little chunk of rare lamb was wrapped in lamb bacon and proved once again that any kind of bacon is good bacon. The Romesco sauce was nutty, garlicky, and sweet from the red peppers it’s made from; we weren’t sure if it was just the color, but when we swiped our barley through the sauce, we swore it made them taste like orange Nerds candy. We loved the sour dirt-looking topping, and I was shocked to learn it was made from my enemy, the olive.
I wish I had any memory of what this was, but between wine pairings and my not writing anything about it in my little notebook, it’s pretty hazy. Some sort of meringue, an orange supreme, and a slice of jelly. I remember liking it, but I guess it wasn’t quite memorable enough to overcome the wine.
On the other hand, it’s almost like I can still taste this little square of French-toast-like brioche. It was our favourite dish on our first visit to Degustation and definitely did not disappoint the second time around, even without the benefit of newness on its side. The way they torch the outside but leave the inside doughy and uncooked makes for such interesting taste and texture contrasts. The chef in front of us, sensing our delight, informed us that the bread is soaked in heavy cream for twenty-four hours. And that explains that.
We didn’t, however, care for the grapefruit segment on the side. I really, really love grapefruit, but next to the super-sweet caramelized bread, it became savory; usually I love the play between sweet and savory in dessert, but in this case, the grapefruit just sort of lost all its flavor, like fruit does when it’s out of season.
I wasn’t using a ratings system at the time of our first visit, but I think I would’ve given Degustation four donuts back then, too. It doesn’t exactly reflect how I feel about the place in certain circumstances, though. I don’t think the food is technically perfect, and for me, it’s way too heavy on the fish. But for diners who are just getting into high-end food and don’t mind a little roe here and there, I think it’s one of the best values going.
For $80, you get to try ten tasty and creative courses and watch the chefs make them right in front of you. Things can get pricey if you opt for the wine pairings, which run the same as dinner itself, but it’s still several hundred dollars less than you’d pay at many of the restaurants I’ve rated five donuts. Of course I’d argue that the several hundred dollars is worth it for a five-donut meal, but while those might be once or twice in a lifetime meals, Degustation serves more of an everyday dinner in a less-stuffy environment. Plus, did you see that torija?
Flex Mussels gets pretty good reviews. It has four stars on Google, four stars on Yelp, four stars on Menupages. So when my boyfriend insisted that I eat a steaming pot of mollusk in exchange for getting to try some of Executive Pastry Chef Zac Young‘s famed creations, I thought I was probably safe.
We showed up at 7:55 for our 8 p.m. reservation and were asked to wait. Not a big deal. A couple came in after us and were seated immediately. Fine. Then another. And another. Even though we were standing right beside her, my boyfriend thought maybe he needed to mention to the hostess that we were still waiting to be seated. She said we were next. And then seated some more couples. I had read reviews that mentioned the aloofness/disorganization of the service, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I also kind of felt like saying, “Um, you DO know that the Upper East Side is the middle of nowhere to me, right? I could be at any one of the Momofukus right now.”
Finally, after fifteen minutes, we were given a table, and the guy who seated us said, “I’m so sorry that happened.” And I asked, “What DID happen?” And he said there had been a problem in the kitchen and gave us a beer and a glass of wine to make up for it. I appreciated the gesture and will try not to automatically deduct two donuts from my rating from the start because of it.
I basically think salad is a waste of space, but I’ve been known to eat my words when I come across a truly delicious one. For some reason, I’m more likely to like a wedge salad than any other kind (especially the ones at Docks Oyster Bar and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que); maybe because they’re usually heaped with all sorts of nasty, fatty goodies? This one was clearly no different with its loads of crunchy bacon to contrast the freshness of the grapes and radish. I found that the sharp blue cheese dressing just really overpowered everything else on the plate, though.
My boyfriend got the 23rd mussel iteration on the menu, which changes daily. He had wanted multiple types of seameat in his pot, so that night’s special seemed like the perfect choice for him. Firstly, there were exactly two clams mixed in with his mussels. Secondly, his lobster was one giant chunk that was nearly impossible to eat with the spoon provided. He said it “wasn’t much of a to-do, flavor-wise”. And this was from the person who really loves and craves seafood.
From the description of this, I maybe-foolishly pictured it being thick and creamy. New England Clam Chowder was one of the first seafoody dishes I had when my boyfriend was trying to get me acclimated to fish after eating a diet of only land-based foods during my twenty-five years in Ohio, and there was nothing not-delicious about it. I guess my broth was a little thicker than his, but at the end of the day, it was still broth.
The mussels were actually better than I expected. I didn’t like how chewy they were right out of the shell, but when I extracted them all using my tiny fork and left them to soak in the steaming broth a while longer, they fell apart in my mouth. I liked the firmer texture of the lobster and the familiar comforts of the bacon slivers and corn kernels, and as far as taste goes, I think I got the right combination for me.
It’s just that . . . mussels are weird! Some of them had sand in their bulging, black digestive systems still, which was unpleasant enough to begin with, but that got me thinking about the fact that I was eating the digestive system, and I developed this mind block that just wouldn’t let me enjoy my heaping portion of bivalves.
My boyfriend said, “Just slurp ‘em down. Don’t look at them too much.” But that’s kind of a problem for me. Half of the fun of eating is the looking! So while I usually say, “I thought this [any other kind of seafood] was going to be icky, but it was actually awesome!”, I won’t be saying that about mussels.
The reviews on these are either “way overrated” or “OMGbestfriesever!” They were fine, but they weren’t $6 fine, especially when Pommes Frites is serving better and more fries for $4.50 with interesting sauces to boot. The only reason I’m glad we ordered them is that it gave me something else to fill up on when the mussel flavor got monotonous.
Finally, dessert time! The warm, sugar-dusted donuts lived up to their hype. So soft they deflated under the slightest touch, their pure bleached carbiness was only intensified by the vanilla crème anglaise served on the side. The gooey, flavored sauces nestled inside each one were too delicious to exist in such small quantities.
We thought we’d saved the best for last. Before starting in on the donuts, we’d each scooped a little of the ribbon of caramel onto our forks and nearly died from the shock of how good it was. But . . . the whoopie pie was not delicious.
I almost feel bad saying it, because how could it not be good? I’m a total glutton. I make fun of frou-frou desserts that favor fruit over chocolate. But this was just overindulgence for the sake of it. It wasn’t thoughtful. It was complex but not sensical. It was just deep-fried cake with some mismatched accoutrements.
The cake was nice and warm, but that was part of the problem. See, where I’m from, this is a whoopie pie. My mom was known for her whoopie cake. Every year in Ohio, at the neighboring town’s pumpkin festival, I gorge on whoopie pies. I’m something of an expert when it comes to whoopie.
Whoopie pies are two pieces of cookie-shaped cake with a big schmear of icing between them. And since this was just one giant hunk of deep-friedness, the filling in the middle had melted into the cake. Oh, and by the way–the stuff in the middle? It was just cream cheese. Not cream cheese icing. So it was unpleasantly not-sweet.
On the other hand, the non-whoopie-pie portion of the dish was absolutely decadent in a good way. The caramel mousse was rich and thick and salty and nicely contrasted the less-sugary ice cream. The white chocolate piece was iridescent, which we hoped was thanks to the pastry chef’s famed “disco dust”. I would order the caramel and ice cream on their own again but couldn’t even begin to finish the whoopie pie the first time.
Flex Mussels was just disappointment after disappointment for me. I liked our actual server quite a bit, but between the wait for a table when we had reservations, the too-pungent blue cheese, the un-chowdery chowder, the two clams, and the throwaway ball of cake, it ranks with some of the least-impressive dining experiences I’ve had for $100. I’ll give one star for the mussels that were tender and not undigested-food-filled, one star for the donuts and amazing caramel, and a half star for the idea of the whoopie pie.
Seriously, though, if this is attached to your lunch and you go ahead and eat it anyway,
you have to understand why I’m weirded out by you.
Dr. Boyfriend and I both have birthdays this month, and we want to eat delicious foodz on our special days. For mine, I made us a reservation at The Wright, which is the restaurant inside the Guggenheim Museum. (Click on the link and look at how beautiful it is! I don’t care how good the food is, ’cause I’m going solely for the decor.)
For his birthday, he was thinking about going for an elaborate sushi dinner at the best place in town, but it just so happens that I saw a Momofuku Ko reservation open for that day and decided to snatch it up and try to convince him it was time to go.
In case you’re unaware of the ridiculousness of getting into Ko, it involves logging into a reservation website precisely at 10 a.m. every day, selecting lunch or dinner and the number of people in your party, clicking on every available timeslot, and finding out that they’ve all been taken in the time it took you to move your mouse to them. And you can do this over and over again for weeks without ever getting a reservation. Each night’s spots fill up literally before the clock hits 10:01.
But I got us one! And it’s for lunch, which lasts an extra hour . . . and costs an extra $50! For a total of $175!(!!)
The other ridiculous thing about Ko is that Chef David Chang famously doesn’t allow photos. My blogfriend Chubby memorably drew her meal on a notepad with a Sharpie, but other than that, you rarely, rarely see any of the food they serve. So to be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into.
The website says, “We try our best to serve delicious American food,” which I imagined meant, you know, lots of red meat. But then Dr. Boyfriend IMed me with this:
And then he sent me this photo from VIP in the City:
Which is just mean, right?
We spent the next two days dancing around the issue of me not wanting to eat shrimp heads while I secretly showed the photo to everyone I knew and asked if they thought I could handle it. Their answers ranged from “shrimp heads are delicious” to “those freaky tentacle things scrape the top of your mouth and make you BLEED”, but I kept going back to what Kamran and I always say about challenging foods, which is that anything you’re being served in a fine dining establishment is edible at the very least and more than likely is actually life-changingly delicious.
This morning, Kamran announced out of nowhere in the midst of my watching “The Biggest Loser” before work, “If you’re not going to eat that shrimp head, you can go ahead and cancel our Ko reservation.”
I said, “I’m going to try to eat it! I really want to eat it! But I can’t control the weird things my brain tells me about eating shrimp eyes! An irrational fear is still a fear!”
And he said, “The way you’re reacting to this is making me seriously consider whether or not you can handle what they’ll serve us at Per Se.”
I said, “Don’t threaten me with Per Se! Shrimp heads are objectively gross!”
And he said, “If you feel that way, cancel the Ko reservation. And while you’re at it, cancel The Wright, too.”
So we broke up.
No, just kidding. So I went to work, and we apologized to each other over IM, and he sent me a more recent review that didn’t include any shrimp heads whatsoever. There’s a chance I might have to eat the dreaded SOFT SHELL CRAB, though. I’m so scared.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)