The Search Is Over, Part Two (AKA – Molto WTF?)

I remember many years ago listening to a radio show or something like that where the speaker was talking about restaurant expectations. He was discussing something I had experienced, and he gave me the answer I had been looking for to a problem about which I was mystified.

He said, for instance, that people go in droves to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkley and are often disappointed to find that it’s just food that she offers. This is largely due to the expectations that diners have developed by listening to stories, reviews, and marketing pieces about a place. As human beings we take in the hype and we come to expect something much different than can be delivered in reality.

I remember dining at Lutece in NYC back in the late 80’s with no expectation and was truly overwhelmed by the flavors of foods I normally don’t even eat. I dined at the once (locally) famous Restaurant Million (previously Phillipe Million) in Charleston, SC a couple years later and had the meal of my life. Never heard of the place previously.

Went to Charlie Palmer’s place in New York, Aureole, and was very disappointed. A trip to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago left me wondering what these high dollar celebrity chefs have that I don’t.

What I settled on was the concept of an agent, a crack marketing team, an enormous staff of talented people, and a whole lot of operating capital.

World class motivator Tony Robbins would say that what they have is drive, acuity, and perseverance. I suspect there’s a lot of truth to that as well. I lack most of that some of the time…or some of that most of the time.

So, I think that the idea of expectations has a lot to do with one’s dining experience these days! But that’s not everything because if I ain’t got nothing I do have good taste and an excellent palate.

And that my friends brings us to the steak house of (Molto) Mario Batali–Carnevino. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this because it just gets my blood boiling. I was just at the doctor today and my blood pressure was great. I wanna keep it that way.

Carnevino is a place where you can get a steak that has been aged for at least 60 days, and it will cost you about half of your net income for the same period. Well, it seemed like it anyway.

A New York Strip is $54 and an enormous Ribeye, weight unknown, is $65 per person for two. Yes, $130 for one steak. Had it been an amazing steak I wouldn’t be writing this. In fact, I bought a ribeye at our local Kroger two weeks prior and cooked it at home. It could have been one the 10 best steaks I’ve ever had. I paid about eight 9 bucks for it.

The waiter came to our table and greeted us with his idea of what we should have. He fancied that we should order one of three different items from the grill and split them among the 6 of us. When he returned to take our order and we told him that we preferred to order separately he criticized us and persisted to sell us his idea of a check that would’ve been about half what it ended up being. What an idiot.

Reminded me of the one time at the poker table that I went “all in” when I had a hand that would’ve beat anything. Rather than drawing out a pile of money I forced everyone to fold. Valuable lesson…but I digress (again).

So then he brings over some warm bread, not homemade, and two little vessels of condiment. One was butter. The other was “lardo”, which is apparently the rendered fat of a pig that has been seasoned, cured, and aged. Fucking repulsive!

Sorry, I can’t think of a better way to describe it. “It’s an acquired taste”, they said. We couldn’t acquire it.

When beef is dry-aged, what takes place is water is evaporated out of the meat which concentrates flavor. There is further enzymatic breakdown of muscle tissue which increases tenderness. The outside of the meat turns black and must be trimmed before cooking.

The resulting piece of meat, if aged properly, is simply amazing! It cooks very fast because what cooking is really all about is denaturing protein and evaporating water. It melts in your mouth. Like a complex wine or a good cigar it tastes like several different things…a well aged cheese being one of them usually, maybe a little chocolate, and a little wine. There’s nothing finer, and there was nothing that even comes close to it at Carnevino.

We told the waiter how disappointed we were, but none of that made it back to the manager until the next day when Dave and I went back to collect the $80 they stole from us. Well, it turns out it was only a pre-authorization on the credit card that was released a couple days later. The manager had read the comment card I left and was very apologetic. I guess we were the only ones who ever complained.

Nonetheless, if you’re ever in Vegas and want to have a round or two of free drinks send me an email and I’ll give you the manager’s name. He’ll be delighted to have you! Let me know if they took my advice and started chilling the bottled soft drinks before serving them. Mine was warm, flat, and expensive.

When in Vegas, Molto Mario should take the straw out of his nose and the stripper out of his lap and pay attention to the overpriced food that has his name on it! But that’s just my opinion.

Then…

Lemon Gelee with Fennel

Just 48 short hours later we walked through a back hallway at the MGM Grand into what I will forever remember as the most amazing meal of my life. Right back where this whole story began–Joel Robuchon

First came the Amuse. Amuse-bouche means “amusement for the mouth” and is usually something designed to whet the appetite in just a couple of bites. Everyone at the table usually gets the same thing, and it is a course generally conceived as free or gratis by the guest (of course it’s built in to the price). The amuse is also not usually posted on the menu or ordered by the guest. Understate and over-deliver is my favorite motto in our business.

Foie Gras Salad with Artichokes

Our amuse was Lemon Gelee with Fennel, Fennel Cream and Basil Coulis. It came out in an almost egg shaped glass dish and must have been around 33 degrees. It was ice cold. This made a huge difference. Basically the best, most tart, coldest lemon Jello (I hate to call it Jello, but that’s what gelee is) you could imagine with finally diced fresh bulb fennel, topped with half- whipped cream that was flavored with fennel puree, and garnished with pureed basil.

Even if you didn’t like the combination it was hard to argue with the mastery of flavors, textures, and temperature. From the first bite some of our table was disgusted, but I knew at once that we were in for the ride of a lifetime. I think I even giggled just a little bit.

Next came Carpaccio of Foie Gras with Violet Artichoke Salad and Shaved Parmesan. Black truffles were not listed on the menu…another extra! Again, I’ve never eaten anything that was so perfect. Perfect flavors, perfect amount of dressing with the perfect amount of acid, served at the perfect temperature. Spectacular how-did-they-cut-that-so-thin presentation, and I’m certain that nothing was leftover from the day before.

Scallops

Also at the table was a dish of Lemon Flavored Scallops with Red Turnips and Radishes. I didn’t taste the scallops but they looked divine. What was most remarkable was the radishes were whole and about the size of a fingernail, but smoothly and evenly coated with a bright green herb butter. It was as if they were grown that way. I’m blown away by the details in this meal, and we’re only on the second course!

Chestnut Veloute with Smoked Lardons Foam followed. Imagine a warm cappuccino with extra foam, but it’s flavored with bacon and chestnuts…heavy on the cream. Somehow there were almost microscopic flakes of bacon on top of the soup. Micro-planed I would guess, but perhaps Robuchon is as particular about knife skills as my Skills Development instructor Bruno Elmer was.

Anyway, each taunting bite left me wanting just a little more bacon…just a little more chestnut…and alas, the bottom of the bowl appeared.

Sea Bass and Octopus

For the main course (Les Plats Principaux in French) we had Sea Bass and Octopus with Lemon Grass and Baby Leeks, Chicken En Cocotte with Fricassee of Salsify, Spiny Lobster with Daikon and Nori in Sake Broth, and my Braised Veal Cheeks with Thai Spices and Fondant Carrots. I did not try the bass or the chicken. I’m told they were delicious. I did try the lobster and thought to myself for the first time in 20 years, “Oh, so THIS is what lobster tastes like”.

After eating the veal flavored chewing gum at Jaleo a few nights previous I was able to share with one of my fellow diners that THIS is what veal cheeks taste like as well! They melted in my mouth like braised butter. OMG! They were surrounded by a clear veal broth that was ever so slightly scented with lemongrass and a little Thai chili, but not enough to know it until just after the very last bite, and only for a moment.

Veal Cheeks

All of our entrees were accompanied by a small side dish of Robuchon’s signature Pommes Puree (mashed potatoes). The potatoes are painstakingly made by boiling fingerling potatoes with their peels intact, peeling them, pushing them through a ricer…then a tamis. Then the potatoes are cooled and held for service, at which time they are heated with cream and mounted with butter–almost 50/50.

They’re more like potato buttercream. They only gave us a small portion each, and after what I guess came across as a bewildered glance they brought another bowl for the table. They shouldn’t have. They knew what they were doing the first time.

Throughout the meal we had been tantalized by a bread cart that carried at least 15 kinds of bread loaves and rolls that had baked that morning. We tried several of them…several times. There was bacon bread, mini baguette, petit pain, basil rolls, two kinds of cheese rolls, butter rolls, brioche, and a few others. But that was over now.

Apple Dessert

Our tables were cleared to make room for Fuji Apple Confit, Cinnamon Sable, and Manzana Milkshake; Guajana Chocolate with Coffee Ice Cream, Caramelized Puffed Rice, and Lemon Confit; and Banana and Passion Fruit Cream with Dark Rum Granite and Coconut Foam.

About 10 or 12 years ago a friend asked me, “What’s the best dessert you’ve ever had?” I responded that I hadn’t had it yet. A year or so later I had a Creme Brulee Napoleon with Butterscotch at Etienne Jaulin’s Townhouse in Charlotte, NC. Etienne was trained by Michel Richard and Jean Louis Palladin. His restaurant closed years ago and he moved on to better things, but his legacy lives on in preparing “The Best Dessert I’ve Ever Had”.

Robuchon’s were awfully pretty though!

Mignardises

And when it all had ended, along came the mignardises (min-YAR-deez). Like the amuse-bouche, mignardises are perceived as being free by the guest, they are not ordered, and everyone usually gets the same thing. It’s dessert after dessert in just a few bites. For that matter in America after-dinner mints are mignardises, but nothing like these!

I’ve looked back at the picture of the cart and counted 36 different hand-made candies that our waiter described for us by name and served to us each by choice. Between us all we tried most of them I’d guess. It was another lesson in “how did they do that?”

I remember blackberry opera torte, Poire Williams, blueberry custard, caramel with sea salt, pineapple gelee, pineapple marshmallow, blueberry financier, chocolate feuilletine, ganache macaroon, and five-spice chocolate. But if I studied my whole life I don’t think that I could figure out the flavors and textures. They were not of this world. I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate, but never anything like this.

Fifteen cooks and six bakers and pastry chefs labored over this meal, some French…some American. Of course the Chef himself was unavailable, but he had been there a week or so prior and was expected back in a couple of weeks.

I can’t tell you what it cost because my boss’ boss might be reading this.

I floated away with a grin on my face.

I’m not sure that all of my dining companions “got it”, but I’m grateful that they tolerated one of the most joyous moments of my life.

There’ll be another burger run soon!

Stay hungry my friends!