As delighted as The Astronomer and I were with our dinner at Eleven Madison Park on a previous trip to New York, a repeat visit wasn’t in the cards this time around because much to our dismay, the restaurant had changed its winning formula.
In place of the elegant and beloved grid menu filled with whimsical and seasonal bites is a $195 tasting menu paying tribute to the history and spirit of New York City. While the idea of a “Hudson Valley carrot tartar” and a “Central Park picnic” sounded neat, the changes reeked of pandering to “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, which made me feel inexplicably sad and not the least bit hungry.
To get our fill of Chef Daniel Humm’s cooking and General Manager Will Guidara’s hospitality, we headed instead to their latest venture inside The NoMad Hotel. The NoMad Restaurant is slightly less formal than Eleven Madison Park, with dark and moody dining rooms furnished with banquettes so plush that I had to sit on a pillow to see over the table.
The a la carte menu here was “inspired by Chef Daniel’s time spent throughout Switzerland, California, and New York City,” according to the restaurant’s website.
To start was a fantastic loaf of charred onion focaccia with sweet potato, rosemary, and sage served warm from the oven. The bread’s intriguingly dark tone was accomplished using bamboo ash.
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Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire is a Parisian institution famous for its jarring juxtaposition of flavors and textures, as well as its dizzying presentation of small dishes. Chef Pierre Gagnaire opened his eponymous restaurant in 1996 on the ground floor of the Hotel Balzac, a short walk from the Champs-Élysées. It is the recipient of three Michelin stars and other prestigious accolades.
Prior to dining at Pierre Gagnaire, I had read that one either loves or loathes the dining experience here because of its unorthodox flow and composition. I was pretty sure that I’d fall into the former camp because I appreciate modern, unexpected, and inventive flourishes when it comes to fine dining.
While I was curious to try Pierre Gagnaire’s unique style of cooking, the 265€ price tag for dinner seemed like too much to gamble. We came in for lunch instead, which was priced at a more palatable 105€.
To start, we were treated to lots of little bites whimsically scattered around the table.
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The medieval city of Bayeux is crawling with Americans due to its proximity to Normandy’s historic D-Day sites, which meant that the restaurants within walking distance of our hotel catered to Yankee tastes. Rather than endure anything less than a stellar meal, we hailed a cab to Château d’Audrieu. I counted far more cows than people on the 14 kilometer countryside ride. The grounds leading up to the château were immaculate.
Château d’Audrieu, which boasts a Michelin star and is tucked inside a swanky Relais & Châteaux property, was quite a departure from the homey, family-run establishments that we visited in Burgundy and outside Normandy. We hadn’t been served by suited gents since we departed from Paris.
Chef Olivier Barbarin, who has been leading the brigade here since 2009, combines local ingredients with modern flare. It was interesting to compare his fine dining point of view with our more rustic dinner from the night before at Manoir de l’Acherie in Sainte-Cécile.
Our table was set with fresh flowers and a single candle. The large windows opening into the courtyard made for an idyllic view.
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The Astronomer turned 28 years young while in Paris, so we celebrated in high style at L’Astrance. Pascal Barbot and Christophe Rohat opened the restaurant in 2000 after leaving their posts as sous chef and front-of-the-house manager, respectively, at Alain Passard’s l’Arpège. L’Astrance earned its first Michelin star within five months of opening; the second star was awarded a year later and the third in 2007.
Three-star establishments are something of a mixed bag for me. While the food is generally memorable, service can be stiff to the point of unpleasantness. Fortunately, our experience at L’Astrance was not marred by suited gents too serious for their own good. Our amiable British waiter had a way about him that put us at ease and allowed us to focus squarely on the food. After all, that’s what we in came for.
Traditional menus do not exist at L’Astrance. Instead, diners choose the number of courses desired, and Chef whips up whimsical dishes using the season’s best. The three-course menu déjeuner is priced at €70, the five-course menu été is priced at €120, and the seven-course menu Astrance is €210. We chose the five-course option. By the way, only the seven-course menu Astrance is available during the dinner seating.
Champagne was in order since we were celebrating The Astronomer’s birthday and our first truly fancy Parisian feast.
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For the grand finale of our whirlwind stopover in London, we dined at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Opened in early 2011, the restaurant has already earned a Michelin star and is currently ranked 9th on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Stars and rankings are all good and fun, but what really drew me in to Dinner was its unique menu of historically inspired British dishes. Every plate served here has been thoroughly researched and can be traced back as far as the 14th century. Dinner is Heston Blumenthal’s love letter to Britain’s proud culinary past, one that continues to influence and inform this modern kitchen at every turn.
Upon being seated, each member of our party was presented with a neatly folded menu containing the night’s offerings. One side of the menu listed the starters, mains, and desserts, while the other contained the dishes’ “sources of origin” (i.e. the name of the cookbook in which the dish was found). The nerd in me loved how the menu read like an academic paper.
Food historians, as well as the British Library, assisted chefs Heston Blumenthal and Ashley Palmer-Watts with researching Dinner’s menus.
To further set the mood, the clasps holding the menus together contained anecdotes about British gastronomy. I particularly loved the one about the origin of afternoon tea. To think, the tradition began with a duchess and the “sinking feeling” she endured between lunch and dinner!
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