All the hype about Cyrus had prepared me to expect great things. It has two Michelin stars, the San Francisco Chronicle awarded it four stars, and it has been talked about as one of the best restaurants in the country, upping the bar on fine dining to Healdsburg.
Jay had done a lot of research before our trip to find a table for our last night, in Madrid. He settled on Gastro for two reasons: one, the chef, Sergi Arola, had trained at El Bulli and apparently was one of his most promising disciples, and two, he was also a rocker.
The restaurant was also set up in a slightly strange way with visible and large prep stations for every few tables. Our table ended up being directly next to a busy station where the servers kept coming and going (though as we reminded ourselves, we probably deserved the worst seat in the house considering our late arrival!).
Just after we were seated and started to calm down, our server asked if we’d like to see the kitchen. Not really knowing what was going on, we were led back into the kitchen where the 40-something chef himself, Andoni Luis Aduriz, shook our hands and started chattering away in Spanish or Basque (we couldn’t be sure), translated into English by his sous-chef. He explained that his philosophy was to use pure, simple, and local ingredients, with nothing fancy like “foams.” (Interesting because Aduriz used to cook with Feran Adria at El Bulli, which pioneered the entire foam movement.)
Another change from any of the restaurants we’d visited so far: The server actually walked us through the menu (in English, also unlike any of the places in France where it was pretty much French or nothing), and gave us choices for several dishes (lobster vs. squid, as well as choices for the fish and the meat), and even asked us how we would like everything prepared – how progressive! And Jay and I didn’t even have to choose the same things, imagine! Our server also steered us toward a bottle of the house red, a 2001 Arzak Rios Alta Rioja, which actually turned out to be really good with most of the dishes – light with red cherry flavors.
Though you don’t hear a lot about Michel Bras in the U.S. (or, at least, I hadn’t), he’s really one of the founding fathers of the movement to eat only what you can grow and/or gather from the land around you. While Jay and I were driving the four hours it took us along steep, windy country roads to reach his restaurant, Bras, in Laguiole (pronounced “lah-yol”) in the Aubrac region of France (really, the middle of nowhere, east of the Dordogne and west of the Northern Rhone), I remarked that we were really making a foodie pilgrimage, and that the trip had better be worth the effort it took to tear ourselves away from Provence, where we could have been lounging all day by the pool.
Valence, France / July 14, 2009 / dinner Winederlust Rating (details below): 6.75 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: No We were looking forward to eating here because Anne-Sophie Pic was the only female chef in France to crack the male-dominated French chef culture and be awarded three Michelin stars. (Plus she’s young – 39 – and petite, like me.) But we were also scared because when we looked up her tasting menu online the night before we visited, it said it was 395 euros.Per person.
Since it was lunch and we'd need to drive back to Lyon afterward (plus we were hoping to hit some wineries in Beaujolais and were still pretty jet-lagged and not feeling 100 percent), we opted for a half bottle of the 2005 Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage, a red from an up-and-coming producer in the Northern Rhone, to go along with our tasting menu of 147 euros each, not very creatively titled “Impressions d’été” (impressions of summer). As we would come to realize was commonplace at these types of restaurants in France, Jay was given the menu with prices while I, the innocent female, received the one without. (Jay also thought that the waiters, all men, didn’t look me in the eye while describing or presenting the dishes, but I honestly didn’t notice. If so, it was more subtle than when we went to India last year!)
Getting into Fat Duck – thought by many to be the “second best restaurant in the world,” narrowly trailing El Bulli, outside of Barcelona – was a huge surprise, to say the least. Eating here was really the only reason we had decided to go to England at the beginning of our culinary trip instead of straight to France. We called two months earlier to try to get in, in the middle of the night U.S. time, at first getting nothing but a busy signal for 45 minutes and then being put on hold for half an hour, forced to listen to a reading of “Alice in Wonderland” (more on that theme later). Finally, after Jay was able to speak to a real, live person, we were put on the waiting list; however, they could not tell us WHERE we were on the list. Jay was optimistic that we would get in and still wanted to go to London, but I thought that our chances were slim to none. Jay even called Fat Duck the day before we left for our trip to see if there were any cancelations, but no luck.
We weren’t sure what to expect when Jay reserved this (one-star Michelin) London restaurant as the first meal after our trans-Atlantic flight from New York. We talked about getting traditional British tea, but the menu here – creative takes on the old-fashioned tea service with dim sum with or without sandwiches, green tea scones, and Asian-influenced French desserts – sounded intriguing, and the atmosphere looked like it would be hipper than a stodgy old tearoom.