The final category.
Category 3: “Wow, this is amazing; wow, this is really really amazing.” (which is usually followed by weeks of thinking about the dish on a daily basis and neurotically telling everyone I know about it)
Kouign Amann: This “wow food” has a back story or two leading up to the “wow” moment. Back story 1: A few years ago I was watching the Food Network, I don’t remember what show, and there was a segment on a bakery somewhere in the Northwest, I don’t remember exactly where, that made an obscure French pastry from the Bretagne region of France called kouign amann (pronounced almost like queen iman). It is the Breton words for cake (“kouign”) and butter (“amann”). The segment left me salivating and adding another thing to my ever-growing culinary bucket list.
Back story 2: Fast-forward to this past March and my third day in Paris, my friend Jenna, who happened to be in town, insisted on being the one to introduce me to the renowned patisserie, Pierre Hermé (to be clear she introduced me to the eponymous pastry shop, not Pierre himself – gosh I wish!). In my opinion, Pierre Hermé has not only the best macarons in town, but also the best croissants; it also on some days sells kouign amann. Jenna suggested we get one since they were available and I squealed like a schoolgirl when I realized what it was. Not being able to wait until we found somewhere to sit, we ate our croissants and kouign amann à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as we strolled down the street in our oversized black sunglasses and window-shopped. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed, the kouign amann was tasty, but didn’t have the wow factor I was anticipating (and the croissant really stole the show). Luckily Jenna had tasted an authentic Briton kouign amann the week before and she reassured me that Pierre Hermé’s kouign amann (surprisingly) wasn’t as good as the real thing. Thus, kouign amann went back on my culinary bucket list, waiting until I could find a more authentic version.
A few months later during a patisserie demo one of our chefs, Chef Cotte, was teaching us how to make croissants and in true Cotte style he had to throw in a “surprise,” so he also made a kouign amann. Chef Cotte, like all the chefs at LCB, is not a modest man. While making the kouign amann he shared with us that he learned to make it while working in Bretagne and created his own recipe that he then brought Paris and subsequently single handily “introduced kouign amann to Parisians.” It’s hard to believe that this is true since kouign amann has been around for over a hundred years, but I can say that his kouign amann is quite delicious. I could not stop saying wow. My friend and fellow kouign amann groupie, Marisol, and I talk about kouign amann on an almost daily basis. I don’t know how we do it, but it always manages to pop into conversation. We are actually planning a trip to Bretagne for the sole purpose of eating as much kouign amann as possible. I’m sorry, I just realized that I haven’t even described what a kouign amann is, how rude of me to leave you wondering, well… it’s made with a dough similar to croissants, but rather than dry butter it’s made with gorgeous Breton salted butter, which has delicate shards of sea salt in it, and then the layers are rolled out on sugar instead of flour, embedding sugar into each layer and resulting in layer, upon layer of sugary, salty, crunchy caramel and flaky buttery pastry!
Cantaloupe Soup with Chorizo Foam: A few weeks back, I had one of the most memorable meals of my life at Le Chateaubriand. I had added Le Chateaubriand to my restaurant black book* a few months ago after reading about it in a handful of articles and blogs. But once I heard that it was named number 11 on this year’s SP World’s 50 Best Restaurants, it quickly jumped to the top of my list; especially considering it’s a relative steal at 45€ for a 6-course-prix fixe, most restaurants on the list are well beyond my student budget, averaging $200+ per person (as a reference point for Bay Area-ites The French Laundry was number 32 this year). Reservations can be hard to come by, but they have a no-reservation, first-come-first-served 10 pm seating. Benjamin was in town and told me he was in the mood for a really good dinner, I took one look in my trusty black book and knew exactly where to go. I didn’t know how the 10 pm seating worked, but we showed up around 9:30 and luckily made the list. After a leisurely wait at the bar where we enjoyed a delicious effervescent white wine, I unfortunately cannot remember the name, we were shown to our table. Unlike the Michelin Guide, SP considers restaurants in and outside of the white-table-cloth circle of the restaurant venn diagram. Le Chateaubriand definitely is nowhere inside the white-table-cloth circle. The restaurant is simple almost Spartan, with warm, rustic, dark wood, table cloth free, tables and not much else. The menu changes daily and there are no options, you eat what they bring you. I should start by saying that the entire meal qualifies as a “wow food” moment, however there was a star of the night, but in respect for the rest of the delicious meal, I’ll describe it all.
For the amuse bouche we had a gougere (aka cheese puff) topped with poppy seeds, it was straightforward, but with something as deliciously simple as a gougere, there is no need for innovation. Next we had a raw shrimp in olive oil and lemon juice, topped with sea salt, mache, samphire and an untoasted blanched almond. If I had to pick a least favorite dish it would be this one. It tasted fresh and somewhat oceany from the samphire and sea salt, but it lacked any definite flavor. However, the soft crunch of the almond added a nice contrast to the supple shrimp that I think was supposed to be somewhat “cooked” ceviche style by the lemon juice and olive oil, but it was really just completely raw. Next came the star, the cold melon soup with chorizo foam. It’s one of those wonderful food paradoxes; it sounds so wrong, but it tastes oh so right. It was served unassumingly in a simple metal bowl, no garnishes, no extras, just melon soup and chorizo foam. The melon soup wasn’t super cold, really just a few degrees below room temp. It tasted of pure melon, but somehow the savory qualities of the melon were highlighted rather than the sweetness. I know that foams are somewhat controversial; chefs seem to love them, but many diners don’t really see the point as it’s often completely superfluous and flavorless. But this foam delivered what it promised; it tasted like chorizo. They encouraged you to drink it directly from the bowl, as one would do with miso, which was smart, because it guaranteed that you got the spice from the foam and the mellowness of the melon with each sip. The combination was really spectacular. I can’t remember what they called the next dish, but I’ll call it a Moroccan spiced sardine taquito with shaved raw fennel. Sardines have a bum rap in the US, but when used fresh as they are in many countries in Europe, they can be delicious. And particularly delicious when doused in Moroccan spices and deep fried in a crisp pastry. Next was the main fish dish: quickly seared sea bass, topped with (what I think was) baby chard, pickled pearl onions, red currants and drizzled with a frothy raspberry butter sauce. This dish came in at a very close second to the melon soup. The sea bass was seared in butter and was crispy on the outside, but still rare inside (exactly how I like my fish prepared). The pickled onions and red currants were tangy and tart, which perfectly balanced the luxurious, salty, sweet raspberry butter sauce. I was so enamored by the sauce that I had to ask the waiter how they made it, he thought it was just dehydrated raspberries cooked in butter, strained and whipped to add some lightness. Next was the meat course, filet-mignon barely cooked in butter, served sliced and almost completely raw, drizzled with warm butter, topped with a perfect rectangular sheet of daikon radish, which was topped with a mixture of thinly sliced root vegetables that got their crunch from either being raw or fried, and because everything is better with truffles, it was all topped off with a generous shavings of white truffles. Oh there was some seaweed on top too, but since I’m not a big seaweed fan (unless it’s holding together my maki roll) I put it to the side and didn’t touch it. It was umami overload, extremely savory and earthy, with great textures. Then came the only choice of the night, cheese course or dessert. It took only one quick reassuring glance at Benjamin to know that the answer was obviously the cheese course. After an amazing cheese course at Gary Danko’s a few years ago, I don’t think either of us can pass up the option of cheese over dessert. The plethora of cheeses available in France still remain a mystery to me, so I won’t try to guess what they were, all I can say is that they were delicious and a wonderful ending to an amazing meal.