Torino, MI (June 2014)

Over the past four years, dining in Michigan has often proved to be a trying ordeal, boasting all of the appeal of an hour-long Al Sharpton show. And so it was with modest expectations that a friend and I made reservations to the Detroit Free Press’s restaurant of the year, Torino.  

As is the case with most Michigan restaurants, our server was unpolished, but in an impishly charming way. I would liken our interaction to parents watching their child’s recital: it’s objectively awful yet one remains encouraging throughout.  

Service notwithstanding, amid the nine courses we were served, there were some genuinely delicious preparations, but all too often they were compromised by head-scratchingly out-of-place items. It was tantamount to trying to take a class photo yet the class clown keeps sticking up his middle finger, ruining the picture. The penultimate savory course, for example, featured tender Mangalista pork belly, but also pickled mustard seeds and tamarind-laced pork shoulder so astringent I was forced to leave almost all of it on the plate. And a revelatory violet sorbet with moist chocolate cake and flexible chocolate ganache for some reason also included a scoop of inedible jalapeno sorbet. 

Ultimately, though, despite the aforementioned quibbles—and I’m probably culpable for moving the goal post on this one (it is Michigan, after all)—the food showed promise, and I wouldn’t be opposed to returning when their tasting menu changes.

Here are all the photos from the meal: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157644823041909/

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The Restaurant at Meadowood, St. Helena (June 2014)

Our most recent 20-course parade of spring was without question our best meal at Meadowood yet. The property remains paradisal, and one cannot say enough good things about service.

On this visit, the food proved to be positively spellbinding. In clear defiance of the laws of probability, every offering was an overmastering delight. The subtlety that featured so prominently in previous meals was supplanted by flavors that erupted like little bottles of champagne: a sweet mound of mollusks encased in lardo, a paroxysm of pickled mustard seeds atop tender ravioli and an umami-bomb of beef and roasted porcini mushrooms.

As each plate was cleared what invariably followed was an unresolved confab as to whether it bested its predecessor.

Whether it’s academia or gastronomy, there are few things as enrapturing as watching someone at the top of their craft. Overseeing the pass, Chef Kostow grants his imprimatur to faultless plates, seemingly certain diners will be overcome with satisfaction. While still maintaining the humble disposition we first encountered back in 2012, there is an unmistakable confidence with which he ambles around the kitchen. It’s tantamount to a rapper dropping the mic after a freestyle.

And yet, even in this clime of excellence, there is a modesty that pervades the kitchen. In delivering a one inch by one inch abalone preparation, sous chef John rattled off a vertiginous number of elements—I lost count at six—before returning to his post; Dave described the elision that occurs by letting roasted guinea hen sit in a loaf of sourdough overnight; and finally there was pastry chef Matt Tinder who dropped off wedges of panettone to accompany a cocoa and date amalgam before casually noting the four-day process that went into preparing the loaf.

It’s that kind of effort that helps sustain excitation for close to three hours, and I thank the Meadowood team for a memorable birthday dinner.

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Here are all the photos from the meal: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157645037083552

Photos from our 2013 counter menu: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157634994414555/

Photos from our 2012 counter menu: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157634772189797/

Atelier Crenn, San Francisco (June 2014)

I have neither the time nor the interest in reliving our 3.5-hour debacle of a dinner at Atelier Crenn. What I will say is that I’ve eaten in two-star Michelin restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Atelier Crenn is no two-star restaurant.

From the meal’s outset through to dessert, we were caught in a cobweb of lunacy. The sommelier declined to provide a partial wine pairing but had no problem serving a $55 bottle of warm Prosecco minutes later; servers exuded a level of enthusiasm one might expect to find from prison guards (is staff meal laced with beta blockers?); the prison parallels extended to our crammed four-top, where service staff punted the legs of my chair so many times I thought they were struggling to contain their excitement for the impending World Cup.

And then there’s the food, which would make for a great Saturday Night Live sketch or an episode of Portlandia, or even a riff on Swift’s land of Lilliput, but not a $250+ meal. It was as if food was being seasoned blind-folded. Half of Chef Crenn’s signature mushroom dish was graced with salt, while the opposite side of the plate seemed as if it had been prepared by a Chopped contestant. Our final meat course, a tranch of guinea hen, experienced the same fate with one lemony burst followed by insipidity. Dessert—with, inter alia, its diaphanous piece of Matcha green tea-topped nori followed shortly thereafter by a “chocolate course” that would constitute petite fours in any other restaurant—has to have been a parody. I genuinely wonder if the restaurant conducted randomized trials to determine what would leave patrons most unsatisfied.

In short, dear reader, spare yourself the overflowing disappointment and visit Benu, Coi, Quince or any number of other restaurants in San Francisco instead.

Here are photos from the meal: https://www.flickr.com/photos/82765022@N03/sets/72157645064983142/