A culinary odyssey

Comments Off March 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm by John Placko

From the January/February 2012 issue of Food in Canada

In spring 2011 S. Pellegrino announced the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. I’ve been fortunate enough to dine in seven of the restaurants on this top 10 list and wanted to share my experiences and favourite dishes, as well as review the other three restaurants in the top 10. I’m also excited by how some of the chefs on the list are collaborating with large multi-national food companies and retailers to bring their style of cooking or ideas on food to consumers.

1. Noma, Denmark www.noma.dk
Chef Rene Redzepi cut his teeth working at some of the top restaurants in the world – Spain’s elBulli, The French Laundry in California, and Kong Hans Kaelder in Copenhagen – and is known around the world as an innovator. I had the opportunity to interview Rene on the houseboat/R&D centre whilst at Noma last year. His team forages for ingredients from spring to fall, and finds ways to preserve the food to be used in the harsh winter months.

Most memorable dish: Langoustine with oyster and parsley emulsion, rye crumbs and seaweed powder served on a cold natural rock.

2. El Celler de Can Roca, Spain www.cellercanroca.com
This is one of the most beautiful restaurants – and kitchens – in the world. I was fortunate enough to get a tour of the kitchen when I was there in August 2009 and there’s not much missing in terms of kitchen gadgets. The restaurant is operated by the three Roca brothers: Joan, Jordi and Josep.

Most memorable dish: Caramelized eggplant with eggplant ice cream on a smoke filled bowl. The bowl is covered in plastic wrap with a hole for the smoke to escape gradually.

3. Mugaritz, Spain www.mugaritz.com
Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz also worked at elBulli and has developed his own signature style of cooking. The creativity, techniques, textures as well as the garden right by the kitchen made this a very special dining experience.

Most memorable dish: Small potatoes that looked like stones but were actually coated in an edible clay and served with a garlic mayonnaise for dipping.

4. Osteria Francescana, Italy www.osteriafrancescana.it

Chef Massimo Bottura has the highest-ranked Italian restaurant on the top 50 list.  Two of his iconic dishes are  “memories of a bologna sandwich” and “five ages of Parmigiano Reggiano with diverse textures and temperatures.”

5. The Fat Duck, England www.thefatduck.co.uk
Self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal has had a massive impact on the U.K. and world food scene with numerous TV shows, including “In search of perfection,” which all started with his small 40 seat restaurant in Bray. Blumenthal has also partnered with well-known cookbook author Delia Smith to develop a line of signature products for U.K. grocer Waitrose. The products have been a massive success and have brought Blumenthal’s fare to the masses.

Most memorable dish: Sound of the Sea – fried eel powder, seaweed, ice lettuce, razor clams, cockles and seaweed stock foam served on glass suspended over a sand box with the sound of the sea via ear phones from an iPod inserted in a conch shell. What an experience!

6. Alinea, U.S. www.alinea-restaurant.com
Grant Achatz recently published a book entitled Life on the Line about having survived tongue cancer without missing a beat at Alinea whilst preparing for the opening of Next and Aviary (an avant-garde cocktail place) in Chicago. I had the chance to chat with Achatz after dinner there last year and tour his kitchen.

Most memorable dish: A dessert created “on the table” and on a latex tablecloth, complete with liquid nitrogen-aerated chocolate mousse. Outstanding creativity and taste!

7. D.O.M., Brazil www.domrestaurante.com.br
Alex Atala is known for researching and exploring the gastronomic possibilities of Brazilian ingredients to create a unique menu. I haven’t dined at D.O.M. but it is on my wish list.

8. Arzak, Spain www.arzak.es
In 1966, Juan Mari Arzak started working in his family restaurant. In 1989 he received the third star of the famous Michelin Guide.  He describes his cooking as “signature cuisine, Basque cuisine that’s evolutionary, investigatory and avant-garde.” Juan’s daughter, Elena, also works at the restaurant and is already completely involved in its day-by-day management.

Most memorable dish: Warm liquid chocolate spheres in strawberry soup with basil sorbet.

9. Le Chateaubriand, France
Rock star chef Inaki Aizpitarte is a native of the Basque region of Spain. His affordable restaurant with a take-it-or-leave-it five-course fixed price tasting menu has made waves in Paris, as has its dark 1930s decor that he calls “neo bistro.”

10. Per Se, U.S. www.perseny.com
The kitchen tour of New York’s Per Se is something to marvel at – the cleanliness, organization and preciseness is outstanding. Chef Thomas Keller has amazing chefs at the helm of his key restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se, enabling him to expand his restaurant empire, which includes Bouchon, Ad Hoc and Bouchon Bakery.

Most memorable dish: A classic for Keller – sabayon with pearl tapioca, Island Creek oysters and Sterling White sturgeon caviar.

So you must be asking yourself, where do Canadian restaurants place on the top 50 or top 100 list? There aren’t any! In 2010, two restaurants made it the list, Rouge and Langdon Hall, which ranked number 60 and 77 respectively. Steve Dolinsky, the U.S. Mid-Canada judge and regional chair was also stunned to see that there were no Canadian restaurants on the list. To ensure that our “gems” make it on the list next year, he has recruited more judges in his region, and with a little luck, there will a Canadian restaurant or two on the list again in 2012.

It’s worth noting that Spain’s elBulli has held the number-1 place on this list five times, with no lower than a third spot from 2002 to 2010. So you may be wondering where the restaurant is now on the list. The Spanish restaurant was not listed this year as Ferran Adria has decided to close it at the end of July and re-open in 2014 as the elBulli Foundation, a space for creation and innovation, linking research on cuisine and visual arts, and not as a working restaurant.  So how do these restaurants relate to the world of food production? A good example was the announcement last June of Adria’s innovation partnership with PepsiCo. The chef will work with PepsiCo to help develop new methods and concepts for creative food innovation, and help create new snackable foods, breakfast options and convenience alternatives. Adria has worked with PepsiCo before to develop Spain’s Alvalle brand of chilled vegetable soups, as well as Lay’s Artesanas 100% olive oil. Watch for more such collaborations as chefs get closer to the science side of food in their restaurants, and companies look to selected chefs for innovative new products.

The announcement of this year’s World’s 50 best restaurants list will take place on April 30 at the Guildhall in London, England.

John Placko is director of culinary excellence-ThinkFOOD!, at Maple Leaf Foods. Contact him at john.placko@mapleleaf.com

Top Photo: Sabayon with pearl tapioca, Island Creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar from Per Se.