Sunday 28 June 2015

Charming Beyond Words at Restaurant LaStage

Geldersekade 29, 1011 EJ 
Amsterdam, Netherlands
+31 20 737 0811

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved? YES- Restaurant LaStage's constantly evolving tasting menu is built around local and seasonal ingredients. On our visit in late spring, we were treated to radishes, mushrooms, spring peas, strawberries and even a taste of asparagus which we were told was late this year due to the unseasonably cold temperatures.  What a treat!

Don't you love when you stumble on an unexpected diamond in the rough?

I sure do, and this was just the case with Restaurant LaStage.

Restaurant LaStage was a later addition to our Edinburgh-Amsterdam restaurant list, somewhat of an afterthought when I was looking for somewhere a little more low-key and casual on our travel day between cities.  On paper, this place seemed to fit the bill- small, casual and right on the edge of the Red Light District which I thought would be cool to walk through on our first night in Amsterdam.  And hey, it was a 1 Michelin Star so the food had to be decent too.  Little did I know that Restaurant LaStage would end up serving some of my favourite food of the whole trip.

You may walk right by the inconspicuous entrance to this little gem if you are not looking for it.  Although it is near the Red Light District, it is off on a quiet side street shielded from all the hustle and bustle.  The front of the restaurant reminded me of Paris, with its smart black awning and flowering plants near the door, which is quite appropriate considering Chef Rogier Van Dam's classic French training. When I entered the doorway and pushed aside the curtain that shields the downstairs diners from the cool night breeze,  I had even stronger flashbacks of Paris. The tiny interior, seating about 25 guests, is divided into two levels. Its cream walls are adorned with some charming artwork, including a wall-long picture of a vintage butter knife upstairs adjacent to our table. Hung between the upper and lower level is an eclectic light fixture and the back wall is covered by a tall book shelf that contains wine bottles, wine glasses and, of course, books.  The small kitchen, that I got a peak at on a trip to the bathroom, is a floor below the main level.  The quaint space, with its very simple and loveable decor, made for a very pleasant and intimate experience.

Restaurant LaStage has an exclusively all-female waitstaff who are all extremely gracious and warm hostesses.  The service is very professional (the ladies wear white gloves when replacing table settings so as not to smudge the silverware) but at the same time, it exudes friendliness and approachability.  I asked different servers a variety of questions throughout the meal (origin of ingredients, Amsterdam highlights, recommendations for other travel, etc.) that were all genuinely answered with a smile.  I felt right at home from the second I walked in.

In addition, I feel it is necessary to separately acknowledge the phenomenal sommelier.  She  suggested a beautiful bottle of Spanish wine (a unique white wine made from red grapes) that paired well with all of our courses and was relatively inexpensive. I also overheard her serving wine pairings for other tables, giving detailed descriptions of each wine and chatting at length about her choices with the wine connoisseurs in the room.

LaStage gives diners the choice of a 3-6 course dinner.  The menu is conveniently divided into 6 sections with a choice of two dishes/section (starters, soups, entrements, mains, cheeses and desserts) so making your own multi course menu is simple.  Alternatively, guests can choose the "flight through our menu" where the chef chooses his favourite dishes and surprises you.  This was a great option for us as first-timers as we really got to see what the chef was all about, and they were more than happy to tweak the menu slightly to accommodate my pescatarian request.  We ended up receiving about 10 courses, including the "snacks" to start.  

Of all those courses, there were no dishes that I didn't enjoy, with one or two dishes that were good and the rest that were fabulous/outstanding. The pescatarian menu they created for me was very well thought out, and I appreciated how they served me completely different dishes just substituting fish for the meat on the exact same plate like I have experienced at other restaurants.   While the food is certainly french-influenced, it is certainly not traditional french cuisine, which likely reflects Chef Van Dam's Dutch roots which find their way into his cuisine.  I felt that the menu was a perfect mix of simplicity, showing off all the phenomenal fresh ingredients, and innovation with a few "out of the box" surprises (pickle caviar, quail-sweetbread roulade, kafir-leek rolls) thrown in for added excitement.  Previous reviews have commented on the meal being too long, and yes, the time between courses did vary between 10 to 25 minutes, but who cares?  The lovely evening flew by and frankly I could have sat there forever! Plan to spend the whole evening- sit back and soak it all in!

Here is a glimpse into our outstanding evening.  Without a menu, I cannot do the dishes justice by giving them descriptions from memory, so I will let the food pics speak for themselves:)

Overall verdict?
Without a doubt, the food was absolutely incredible, and I am not sure how they stay so humble about it (our server said they were "surprised to have received a Michelin Star).  For those who have been to other Michelin star restaurants, this one offers something a bit different, with its unique take on producing a perfect meal, with grace and simplicity, in a relaxed atmosphere where you can really put your feet up/let your hair down and enjoy.  Charming beyond words!

Thursday 25 June 2015

A Locavore's Paradise at The Kitchin in Edinburgh

78 Commercial Quay, 
Edinburgh EH6 6LX, United Kingdom
+44 131 555 1755

Tastiness Factor: 9.5/10

Atmosphere: 5/5

Service: 4.5/5

Locavore Approved?  Resoundingly YES- The Kitchin literally has "from nature to plate" written all over it (it is plastered across their front window)!  Not only that, but they even give you a map at the beginning of your meal showing you where all of the different ingredients in your meal come from.   If this is not locavore dedication, I do not know what is!

"Our philosophy is simple, we are fanatical about seasonal cooking from nature to plate".

It is this line, in big print on The Kitchin's website, that was the immediate tip-off that I could not be in Edinburgh and not check this place out.  What kind of locavore would I be if I didn't?

This one-Michelin Star restaurant, with Tom Kitchin and his wife Micheala, is located in Leith, a district north of Edinburgh which served as the city's port for hundreds of years.  It is now transformed into an eclectic area with a mix of vintage shops, delis and high-end restaurants.  The Kitchin is found on Commercial St. in a row of old converted warehouses, giving it an authentically historical feel.  The street-facing side of the restaurant still has its original brick facade, while the entrance side has been given a makeover, with a lovely fountain, sculptures and a flame wall.

The inside was refurbished in January 2015 a few short months before our dinner, and I loved everything about it.   For me, it had the perfect balance of formal and rustic, in keeping with its "nature to plate" theme.  I especially liked the line of tree trunks along the wall of the front hall, the fur-accented stools by each table for handbags, and the branches at the entrance that were adorned with coat check keys.  It was a larger space than I expected, with a front room for drinks, an expansive dining room and a huge open kitchen.  The decor retained some of its warehouse elements, including brick walls and large ceiling beams.  The space was an ideal blend of old and new.

As a compliment to the beautiful space, the servers wore smart scottish kilts that were a perfect match the colour scheme of the room.  We had a number of different servers throughout our meal, all of whom were very gracious and attentive despite a packed house.  They seemed very genuine in asking how we were enjoying our meal, what our favourite dishes were and if there was anything else that could be done to make our night more enjoyable.  Each dish was explained well, questions entertained if asked and the small details were not overlooked (water glass being refilled, seats being pushed in and out when we left/came back to the table.  All in all, a very well-orchestrated production!  My only criticism was that there were a few long intervals between some of the courses, making the meal drag on a bit longer than desired.  All in all though, a very well-orchestrated production!

The "conductor" of this orchestra, Tom Kitchin, has a long history of culinary excellence behind him, having trained with some of the greats including Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse.  His impressive resume really comes through in the food that he prepares at Kitchin, where he has taken the French influence from his mentors and blended it with glimpses of his Scottish heritage.  As mentioned previously, Tom is a use proponent of the locavore movement, getting the great majority of his ingredients delivered from local suppliers on a daily basis.  I was super excited to see Kitchin in his kitchen when we first arrived and was hoping he might pop out to the dining room, but he was nowhere to be seen by the end of our meal.  Guess there is always next time!

There are a variety of menus available at The Kitchin including both a la carte and tasting menu options.  I had been initially planning on the vegetarian tasting menu, but since it was our first visit, our server strongly recommended the Classic Kitchin Surprise Tasting Menu as he felt that this was by far the best way to experience Kitchin's craft.  Based on previous reviews, it seems as though this menu in a blend of the chef's tried-and-true signature dishes as well as some new seasonal creations.   I was very glad to have listened to his advice, as we both enjoyed each and every dish immensely.  The Kitchin also offers a very complete bar menu, with an impressive wine list and a nice collection of original cocktails.

I regret not asking for a copy of the menu before leaving and therefore not being able to properly describe all of the elements on each plate, but here is a sneak peek at what I remember of our amazing meal:

Blooming Flower- Bloom gin, cucumber, elderflower, cracked black pepper and a pinch of salt

Sweet Smoke Peat- Lagavulin 16yr, Pedro Ximenez, lemon and ginger bitter

Selection of flatbreads (honey, rosemary, caraway, blue corn) with blue cheese dip

Sourdough bread with Scottish butter

Ginger carrot consomme with apples

Shellfish broth with oyster, clams, squid, lobster, seaweed

Scallops baked in the shell with puff pastry and cream (arrived with a covering of puff pastry that was  removed tableside)

Pig's head and langoustine

Artichoke and carrot with lemon

Smoked lamb shoulder with asparagus 

Monkfish with shellfish, potato, peas and sea asparagus

Rhubarb sorbet

Apple crumble souffle with vanilla ice cream

Overall Verdict? 
The Kitchin truly is a locavore's paradise, showcasing the best of Scotland in each and every dish.  Tom Kitchin is truly a genius and, if the prediction I made as I was leaving the restaurant after our dinner comes true, he will have two Michelin Stars next year.  Based on our amazing experience at The Kitchin, he totally deserves it!

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Sunday 14 June 2015

A Lot of Heart at Edinburgh's One Star "21212"

3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh 
Midlothian EH7 5AB, United Kingdom
+44 845 222 1212

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Service: 5/5

Locavore Approved?  YES- weekly changing menu.  List of local suppliers on their website.  States that he buys locally whenever possible, but goes afield when needed to get the best of ingredients.  Cannot argue with that!

Edinburgh is an amazing city in so many ways.  The history, the beauty, the friendly people and, more recently, the food scene.  Many may not consider Edinburgh to be high up there on the foodie radar, but in the last few years, it has really started to make its mark with 5 Michelin Star restaurants.

21212 proudly holds one of these stars which it acquired shortly after its opening in 2009.  Prior to that, its owner, Paul Kitching, owned a Michelin Star restaurant in Manchester, helping him grow his profile quickly in Edinburgh and earning 21212 the title of "Best New Restaurant in the UK".  As per the website, Kitching and his partner Katie, who is also extensively involved in the restaurant, have over 45 years of Michelin Star experience.

21212 is located very close to city centre, right off the start of the Leith walk heading to the district of Leith.  It is in an old Georgian townhouse and looks very stately, much like the majority of the buildings in Edinburgh.  It is quite an impressive set-up, including not only a 38-seat dining room with a very impressive open kitchen, but also a drawing room, 2 private dining rooms and, in case your food coma overwhelms you, 4 luxury hotel rooms.  Although some features have been modernized and updated, many unique elements of the historic building have been preserved, making you feel as though you were transported back in time.  The best place to experience this is in the drawing room, where you must take the time to either enjoy a pre-dinner aperitif and /or an after dinner coffee.

Although the setting may have be some degree of pomp and circumstance, the service is everything but pretentious.  The dining room, which was quite intimate with only about 20-30 well-spaced tables, was serviced by very approachable and warm men and women, including the chef's wife Katie who greeted us when we arrived and then visited our table on several occasions throughout our dinner.  The servers worked seamlessly to deliver all of our dishes simultaneously and ensure that all of our needs were met.  We ended up being the last table of the evening, but were never rushed and told that we were "welcome to stay until 5am" if we wished.  The whole experience made me feel as though I was a dinner guest at Paul and Katie's home.

The menu at 21212 is short and sweet.  Guests are offered up to 5 courses.  There is a standard soup and cheese course, and then 3 choices offered for the appetizer, main and dessert courses.  The dishes rotate quite often, with a least a few of the choices being switched up each week.  There are a few favourites, such as the delicious lemon dessert that I had, that have kept popping up on the menu since it opened.  At both lunch and dinner, guests are welcome to indulge in all 5 courses, or any combination of 2, 3 or 4 courses (note that only 5 courses are offered for the Saturday dinner service).     Prices at 21212 are quite reasonable for a Michelin Star restaurant, with a 2-course lunch priced at only 22 pounds, making it accessible to a wider audience.

There is an obvious French influence to Kitching's cooking style, but this is anything but straightforward, simple classic french fare.  Although I only technically had 4 courses (which ended up as 6 courses with the mouse and the pre-dessert), it felt as though there were many more since many dishes came with a side of this and/or a shotglass full of that.  Although I quite enjoyed this at first, I found it to get a bit repetitive as  the meal progresses, both in terms of plating and flavour profiles.  Perhaps a little less would have been more.  Having said that, all of the dishes that I had were thoughtfully conceived, expertly executed and seasoned perfectly.  The meal ended on a real high note, with arguably my favourite dessert of the trip (the signature lemon tart had remained on the menu for so long for good reason!).  And don't worry about going home hungry with "only" 5 courses.  I was more stuffed after this meal than I remember being at some of the 10-15 course dinners I have had at other restaurants.

As you can tell by the pictures below of the dishes that we enjoyed, the plating at 21212 is exquisite.  I loved the dishes and serving trays they used (loved the colourful locally-made water jugs) and the food presentation was refreshingly whimsical (the pre-dessert was quite a conversation piece!).

Amouse Bouche

Summer Truffle Blanquette (abalone, fregola, duxelles, gigli, coriander with coleslaw side)

10 C.C (cornfed chicken, chickpeas, cashews, carrots, chives, courgettes, cumberland and ships, curry, cherry tomato)

Vegetable Soup

Halibut, Egg Shells (prawn, cauliflower, walnuts, crab, rice salad, soy)


Ginger-Nuts (chestnut, cinder toffee, glazed meringue, black berry brûlée)

Dill, Chocolate, Caramel (marzipan, riz au lait, sesame snaps)

Lemon Tart 23rd (strawberry and rhubarb "delight", "milkshake" cottage cheese, goji berries)

Overall Verdict?
I would recommend including a visit to 21212 into your Edinburgh plans.  The setting is truly unique to the city which is filled with so much rich history and the dishes presented are packed full of heart creativity.  There is no way that one can leave here without a broad smile on their face:)

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Saturday 6 June 2015

A Night in DC, complete with Mike Isabella's Graffiato

707 6th St NW, Washington, DC 
1 202-289-3600

Tastiness Factor: 9/10

Atmosphere: 4/5

Service: 3/5

Locavore Approved? YES- The two concepts behind Graffiato are  “Italian” and “Local”.  If you couldn’t guess that these guys are serious about using only the best local ingredients by looking at their very season-appropriate produce, the huge “local partners” sign directly above their kitchen upstairs gives it away. 

I decided at the last minute to attend a conference in National Harbour, Maryland, about 20-30 minutes outside of Washington, DC.  It was to be quite a whirlwind trip, with just 2 full days away and many conference activities to attend, so I really doubted that I would make it into the US capital.

But who was I kidding?  How could I be so close to such an iconic city and a renowned food scene and not check it out?   And so began my strategic google mapping to plan a route through as many of DC’s landmarks as I could in one evening, with Graffiato as my final destination. 

Fortunately, my spontaneity did not backfire and the whole evening worked out perfectly.  Instead of cabbing, I decided to take advantage of the fabulous Potomac Riverboat Company's "Washington By Monument" sightseeing tour from National Harbour to Georgetown, which takes passengers along the Potomac River past important DC landmarks such as the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, just to name a few.  With not enough time to explore all of this territory on foot, this was the ideal way to get into the city. 

Getting off the boat in the hip Georgetown neighbourhood was a great starting point for my little jaunt through the city, especially because I got to check out Baked and Wired, a neat coffee shop and bakery that is known far and wide for its 20 odd flavours of cupcakes (check out their website here).  Just steps from both the water and the infamous "M St.", a shopper’s haven, stopping at Baked and Wired to pick up some treats to bring home was a no-brainer.   As expected, the little shop was packed to the rafters, with a line-up right out the door.  I was handed a menu to quickly glance over and, believe me, it was a real challenge to pick out my cupcake choices in a hurry, especially when my eyes were also being drawn to all of the other non-cupcake baked goods on the counter.  I settled on 2 cupcakes, the Vanilla Satin (vanilla cake with chocolate frosting) and the Texas Sheetcake (chocolate cake with cinnamon and chocolate pecan frosting), and on the Dazed and Confused square, which  (are you ready for this?) is a slather of peanut butter and peanut butter chips over a brownie over chocolate chip cookie.  There was no way that was not coming out of the store with me!

After my adventure at Baked and Wired, I headed down M St. toward downtown, for a 30 minute stroll past many DC landmarks, including the one that I felt I could not miss, the White House, where I stood among gaggles of others for a White House selfie before carrying on towards Chinatown where I was to find Graffiato just passed the entrance.

Being the huge Top Chef fan that I am, Mike Isabella (one of my favourite-ever contestants) immediately came to mind when I thought about where to check out in Washinton.  Isabella has created quite a mecca in DC, now with 4 restaurants to his name, including Graffiato which opened in 2011, a year before he claimed the title of Food and Wine's "The People's Best New Chef Mid-Atlantic". 

I am not really sure what I was thinking, but for some reason, I had not thought it to be a problem to just stroll up to Graffiato and be granted entry and a table.  When I rolled up at 8:15, the first clue that this would not be the case was when I reached the doorway and saw the front bar absolutely packed with people, practically on top of one another.  When I asked the front-of-house how long the waitlist was, she looked at me rather skeptically and said “you know the kitchen closes at 11pm?”.  Before I could ask what she meant by that, she abuptly said, “I can put you down for our last reservation at 10:30pm.  While I was getting pretty hungry and worried what my 2 dinner companions would say when they arrived, I took the reservation over 2 hours later without hesitation.  I had come this far and was going to find out what Mike Isabella had up his sleeve no matter what!

Fortunately, my dinner companions were also willing to stay the course without too much begging on my part and since we could not even get close to the Graffiato bar,  we walked a few doors down to the Flight Wine Bar which the front-of-house had suggested when I asked where we could kill a few hours.  I feel the need to say a few words about this place, which ended up being one of the best wine bars I have been to for a number of reasons.  First of all, the space itself is super cool, with both ample seating at the bar, and a number of well-spaced booths and hightop tables scattered around the room.   Secondly, and most impressively, our server was amazingly knowledgeable about wine (he knew every wine on that menu inside out) and, although he spoke with great conviction, there was not a hint of pretention from him or anyone else we met there.  He described to us the very interesting menu set-up, in which trios of wine were arranged in flights, all with cool names and all for 18 dollars.  You could either choose one of the recommended options, or create your own by mix-and-matching.  I chose the “Hipster and Proud Of It”, while my colleagues chose the “Not Your Grandma’s Chardonnay” and the “Sailing On the Meditarranean”.  I found mine to be especially cool, starting off with a sparkling, moving to a very nice white and ending with an organic red that was very unique, in a good way!  When our trios were delivered, we were given a little paper with the names of each wine to bring for the road.  With our wine, we also chose a cheese plate to tie us over until our 10:30 dinner, which ended up quite exceptional, with carefully-selected cheeses (both local and imported), a tomato jelly, a lavender-infused jam, and house-made pumpkin seed brittle.  Before we knew it, it was 10pm, at which time all wines were half price!  We resisted the temptation, knowing that our dinner at Graffiato was almost upon us, but we were mighty happy to have stumbled upon such an unexpectedly great spot!

After saying out goodbyes to the fine folks at Flight Wine Bar, we returned to Graffiato which, much to our surprise, had unexpectedly cleared out at some point while we had gone and now had lots of empty seats and a vacant bar.  We were ushered upstairs, which, just like downstairs also had an open kitchen, but had more tables and no bar, so was a much quieter.  The décor is very rustic, with white brick walls, wood tables and beamed ceilings.  I quite liked the wall at the top of the stairwell, with playful cartoon vegetables painted on it:)

Since we were down to crunch time with the kitchen closing in under 30 minutes, we quickly perused the menu, which is divided into a number of categories including vegetables, salad, pasta, wood-oven pizzas and, on the back, “Graffiato Classics” and "Chef's Favourites". Our server informed us that dishes were meant to share (3/person, or 2/person with pizzas), and would come out of the kitchen as they were ready.  Between the 3 of us, we decided on 6 dishes that, unlike some small plates restaurants, left our bellies full and even left us with extra pizza to bring home for breakfast.  Throughout the meal, service was much like I had experienced at the front of the house- uber-efficient (there was never a moment with an unfilled water glass!) and abrupt, not unfriendly per se, but not really friendly either.  I guess that is just the way they roll to keep the place moving at such a hectic pace. 

Nevertheless, our dishes came out of the kitchen in record time, first the vegetables/salad dishes and then the pizzas, and we eagerly dug in.  Here is a sneak peak at our meal:

Caesar- This was my colleagues choice who, in his words, is “very picky” about his Caesar salads and is an expert in good vs. bad preparation (he hates bottled sauce!).  Lucky for him, there was nothing but homemade goodness in this salad, with a few surprises including a uniquely sweet dressing and cheese-filled warm croutons (yummmm).

Brocollini- I am a sucker for anything green, especially when he comes all jazzed up like this version with a delicious red pepper relish (my favourite part of the dish), feta and walnuts. 

Charred Octopus- My vote for best dish of the night, this dish made my new-found love for octopus grow even stronger.  I have no idea how they prepared this octopus to be so incredibly tender, and the smoky charred exterior was just marvelous.  Add one of my other favourite ingredients, beets, in the form of a caponata, and I am in heaven. 

Shrimp Tortellini- The old bay scampi on top of this dish were amazingly fresh and the tortellini was also stuffed full of shrimp (one of each for all of us!). But it was really the to-die-for sauce that made this dish for me.  I could taste lemon and thyme, but have no idea what other secrets were behind it.  We made sure every last drop was out of that bowl!

Casper the Friendly Ghost- I actually thought this dish was a salad when I ordered it so was pretty surprised when I  saw the cauliflower and the endive come out as a pizza!  Fortunately, I was not disappointed, and understand why it is under the “chef’s favourite’s” section.  The flavours of this white pizza were quite simple, so you could really taste the garlic and the nice char on the cauliflower.  Refreshingly unique!

Jersey Shore- There are many pizza choices here, all of which I'm sure are great, but this one is just so creative and so yummy that, in my opinion, you would be remiss if you left Graffiato without ordering it.  Everything from the tomato sauce base, to the deep fried calamari to the cherry pepper aioli was so incredibly great, and all the elements together were nothing short of perfection.  You gotta try it for yourself.

Overall Verdict?
Although this was a super quick trip, I am pleased at what I was able to accomplish in the short time that I had.   It had all of the elements that I look for when seeing a new city- a bit of walking, a bit of sightseeing, and, of course, some good eats!  Baked and Wired, Flight Wine Bar and Graffiato when all well worth the visit and come highly recommended!  I cannot wait to go back to see what else this great city has to offer!

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