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Next: French: Cuisine Classique

Next, in Chicago, is one of my favorite fine dining restaurants in the world, is part of the Alinea Group.  Foodies the world over know Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea, but I dig the work of chef Jenner Tomaska – trying the new menus at Next is one of my culinary highlights each year.  Historically, we have been pretty lucky when it comes to tickets for dinner at Next.  For the most recent menus, we’ve just gone online and found a Friday or Saturday night reservation (at a reasonable time – 20h00-21h15 usually…we never do the 17h15 reservations) for later that same week.  I’m not confident that our luck will continue to hold out, but so far so good.

We snagged tickets for 20h15 on Friday night.  I ended up working until about 19h30 and then just walked over to the restaurant, which for me took about 30 minutes.  After a couple minutes of chatting with the team at the front door, checking our coats and briefcases, we were escorted to our table, a booth towards the back of the restaurant – actually the same booth we sat in during our first meal experience at Next.  I prefer this seat to any others we’ve had before – you don’t feel crowded and the benches are much more comfortable than the banquette and chairs at the other tables.

Our table was already set with a water glass, napkin and caviar spoon for each of us plus a large sculpted ice sculpture of two fish surrounding a corked cantaloupe.  Our first course was waiting for us – as has been the practice for the past couple of menus we’ve enjoyed.

As we get settled (washing hands, blowing noses – it is winter in Chicago after all), a server provided both still and sparkling water and immediately another server welcomes us – he ended up taking care of us most of the night.  He started off by talking a bit about the menu (which remained a secret throughout the night, until the course was delivered to our table).  This menu focuses on classic French cuisine and techniques – from the 16th-18th Centuries.  The second menu of 2018 will focus on more modern French cooking, can’t wait!

Centerpiece
Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

The ice sculptures were keeping the first proper course well chilled.  The cantaloupe was a wonderfully refreshing aperitif – with cantaloupe and a French wine.  We’ll be stealing this drink idea once the weather warms up.  We loved it.

The next seven courses were perfectly timed.  We’ve had a couple experiences at Next (and other fine dining restaurants) where you can feel rushed or worse, you are sitting around just wondering if the next course is on its way…or if you are done for the evening).  As with my previous posts about Next (and others), I’ll spare you the course by course critique and just share with you the photos and then provide further details after.

Creme de Caviar Moulees
Melon, Vin Jaune, Pine Nut

Brut Sous Bois
Mareuil-sur-Ay, France, NV

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Puree de Marron a la Briarde
Chestnut, Pear Butter

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Homard Bellevue a la Parisienne
Artichoke, Smoked Salmon, Gougere

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Chef Jenner preparing the sole table side.

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Sole Grilee Venitienne aux Pommes Soufflees
Dover Sole, Leeks, Sauce Venitienne

Les Pommes Soufflees

Turbot Normandy
Brioche, Mushroom, Mussels

Supreme de Poussin Albuffera
Tongue, Truffle, Timbale

Timbale

Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Roti de Chevreuil au Foie Gras
Escarole, Winter Spices, Lentils

Tableau de Desserts
Ile Flottante

Tableau de Desserts
Chocolate

Tableau de Desserts
Canele

As I said, we sat down to eat at 20h15 and we were walking about the door at 22h30, while it wasn’t a quick in and out, it was far from the longest meal we’ve eaten at Next.  Most of the courses came with a few descriptive sentences not only about the meal, but a bit about the time period and why this dish was specifically selected to be part of this Classique menu.

There wasn’t a single course that I didn’t care for, but that being said, I would say my least favorite was the first dessert, the Ile Flottante.  The flavor was just fine and the spun sugar reminded me of razor wire atop a fence.

My favorite course was the Turbot, which surprised me.  The crispness on top and the buttery tenderness of the fish paired perfectly with the octopus, mussels and veg that surrounded the delightful fish.  I was so surprised by the Timbale too.  This was a mushroom filled shell of cooked bucatini pasta.  The bucatini was wound tightly making a nearly impermeable shell, which was a little gummy, but since it wasn’t served as a proper pasta, it worked.  The lobster course was the most beautifully plated, with a lovely mirrored platter.  The trout roe with the asparagus was a bite that I needed more of too.

There were two optional courses you could add on to the basic menu, each cost an additional $150.  We chose the sole and absolutely loved it (wasn’t as good as the Turbot though).  Another option was squab en croute. The pan that cooked the bird was topped with a very salty dough designed to seal in all the moisture as it cooks.  Every service we saw during our meal opted for one or both of the add-ons.  The table next to us indicated the sole was the better of the two options.

None of the wines we had really knocked our socks off.  We usually take just the standard wine pairings and while we do truly enjoy wine, we aren’t too keen on adding an additional expense to the dinner.

Have you experienced French: Cuisine Classique at Next?  Do you plan on enjoying the Moderne menu starting this spring?  What has been your favorite menu at Next?  What is your favorite fine dining restaurant in the world?

Dining at Gustu (La Paz)

There were two critical things that were high on my to-do list for Bolivia.  The first was to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road on mountain bikes and the second was to dine at Gustu, arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

Gustu opened in 2012 and is founded on the philosophy that food can help change the world.  It isn’t just a great restaurant but it is also a cooking school with most of the students coming from under privileged areas of Bolivia.  The head chef, Kamilla Seidler, is originally from Copenhagen, and moved to La Paz to work with Claus Meyer on his innovative project to improve the world through food education and training.  She was recently named Best Female Chef by Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Exterior of Gustu – arguably the best restaurant in La Paz.

We hadn’t eaten much by the time we arrived at Gustu.  The high altitude and low oxygen levels were wreaking havoc with our bodies.  The altitude sickness medicine really wasn’t helpful for us – or if it was, I’d hate to see how bad it would be without the meds!  I wasn’t really hungry, but I hadn’t eaten but a few bites for a couple days now.  We forced ourselves up and out – we weren’t going to miss out on this great opportunity.  I really just wanted to sit in bed and count the minutes until we left La Paz and returned to sea-level Lima.

The interior of the restaurant reminded me of many other restaurant spaces we’ve visited.  Not all that avant garde or exciting, but it was indeed a change from where we’d been dining up to this point.

The colorful interior of Gustu.

We were the only ones in the restaurant when we arrived for our 19h00 reservations and by the time we left at 21h00 there were only three tables occupied.  Perhaps it was a slow night, or a people were just choosing to dine really late.

We were given several menus, including the drink list, an appetizer listing and one for the main meal.  We knew that we’d be doing the tasting menu – which would allow us to experience the best the restaurant had to offer.  Unlike most tasting menus we enjoy, we chose not to add on the wine / cocktails pairing.  I wasn’t at all sure that my system could handle all the food and booze.  I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing.

Appetizers

Main Courses

The Dessert Menu

Tasting Menu Pricing

Once we made our high level menu selection, the restaurant kicked into gear.  It sure wasn’t like it was an autopilot, but everything moved so perfect and smooth.  The servers didn’t do a great job of properly explaining each course – mostly a function of a language barrier.  My Spanish skills are limited as was our server’s English.  At a couple points, our main server didn’t deliver the course, and her replacement server seemed very nervous and unsure of himself.  Our server stayed back near the kitchen and watched him deliver and provide service.  It was clear she was observing and coaching his service – it would have been nice if she had ensured all the details were relayed to us.

The menus and napkins were perfectly branded.

The Singani Sour was our only proper alcohol cocktail during our visit. The altitude really wreaked havoc on our stomachs.

Our non-alcoholic cocktails, paired with each course.

Amuse Bouche

Beet baguette and coca bread, with a quinoa tofu spread and coca butter.

Garden Tomatoes with Parmesan Cream and Llajua Granite.

Poached Paiche with Watermelon, Yogurt and Orange Glased Carrots

Grilled Goat Cheese, Plumb Sorbet and Roasted Nuts

Our meal was very good.  We were happy to have flavorful food in our bellies.   The tomatoes were by far my favorite course.  Tomatoes are my favorite fruit, in general, but these were remarkably flavorful and left me wanting much more.

Gustu was a really great experience not only for the food, but to support such an amazing mission.  Helping people pull themselves out of poverty by offering a proper training program and support so they can thrive in the restaurant industry is truly a noble cause.  Several of this program’s alumni have moved on and started their own restaurants in and around La Paz.  Such a great program.

Have you eaten at Gustu?  What was your favorite course? Did you struggle with the lack of oxygen like we did too?

Thoughts on La Paz

La Paz was never on my short list of vacation destinations. For this trip, it made sense. I did a lot less research on this city than I should have. The altitude and pollution impacted me more than I thought they would. I struggled with catching my breath after walking just a few hundred meters. For a good portion of my time in La Paz I just wanted to leave. That being said, I wasn’t a complete sad sack the whole time. For the little bit of time that we weren’t sick, we did enjoy ourselves.

After we checked into our hotel, we wandered around and visited the Iglesia de San Francisco and walked over to the Plaza Murillo which is home to the Presidential Palace. The Plaza was surprisingly busy with so many people playing with and feeding the pigeons.

Plaza Murillo full of families feeding the pigeons and enjoying the sun.

We were hungry but found most places were closed on Sunday. We did stumble across a little cafe just a few blocks from our hotel which was owned and operated by a well traveled Bolivian man. He had even worked in world glass restaurants in the US with chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next fame.

The tile work in the cafe was stunning.

A simple cubano sandwich with chips and a beer was a wonderful way to relax.

This small coffee shop had a great Cuban sandwich and reasonably priced beers, and was housed in a beautiful building. We spent a couple hours chatting with the owner – great conversations about travel, food, politics and corruption (both US and other countries). After our time here, I was very excited to see other parts of La Paz and meet other Bolivians.

The next day Mike was feeling under the weather, so we took it slow and joined a cable car tour. La Paz is built in the bowl, so public transit can be a bit difficult – you can’t really build subways like you would in a flatter city, or even a hilly city, the logistics are reversed. The buses must traverse very steep inclines with limited oxygen too. The city decided to build an aerial cable car system, called Mi Teleférico, that connects La Paz with El Alto and various points in between. We stumbled across this tour company as we were checking out Calle Jaen.

Calle Jaen is worth a visit as it is a beautiful old cobblestone Street surrounded by brightly colored buildings. These buildings are home to museums, art galleries and a tour shop.

Jaen Street (Calle Jaén) in La Paz is a charming little street full of colorful buildings housing small shops, museums and tour offices.

The tour we took was lead by a woman who was of Spanish decent, but her family had been in La Paz for hundreds of years. She studied in the US and her English was perfect. Our tour had four other people on it, all members of the same family.

The tour connected all three cable car lines, but also required us to take the small local mini buses as well. The views were amazing and our guide was quite knowledgeable about current political events as well as the long and storied history of Bolivia.

A view from our Cable Car Tour of La Paz.

The buildings scaling the hills of La Paz leading up to El Alto.

Mountains in the distance over La Paz.

One story that was brought up many times as we wandered through Bolivia was the unfortunate fact that Bolivia is now a land locked country. Bolivia use to have a coastline, but lost it in the late 1800s in a war with both Chile and Peru. The Bolivian government was pushing international courts to return the captured land back to them. The Bolivians that we talked to were all confident that their request filed in International Court would be successful. The Peruvians we spoke with were equally confident that Bolivia would NOT be successful.

You will see we didn’t do a lot while in La Paz, we were sidelined by the altitude. We knew we needed to be out and active when we were feeling up to it, so we tried to hit it hard when we could. Our stomachs were in awful shape. We spent so much time just in our hotel.

Is La Paz on your short list? What would you recommend to others who plan on visiting? Biking the World’s Deadliest Road is high on my recommendation list, plus dining at Gustu (read about that soon). What did we miss out on?

Pratic Hotel, Le Marais 

You can read all about my first visit to Paris here, basically, I fell in love with this city the moment we touched down at Charles de Gaulle in 2011. The past couple of visits, our time has been short in the City of Lights – often just a day or two. We would use points and stay in a beautiful Starwood property on Avenue George V, just off the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. For this trip, we wanted to be more frugal and wanted to get back into the neighborhoods.

Our first thought was to revisit our first Paris hotel, the Jeanne d’Arc, unfortunately, this specific weekend, that hotel was going for more than  €200 a night, which is nuts. In general, I say Paris is like New York or Las Vegas (huh? I know, bare with me). I’m not spending much time at all in the room, so I don’t need anything fancy. I need hot water in a private bathroom (I’m not walking down the hall and waiting in line to use the bathroom, fuck that), a door that locks and a bed that is comfortable enough.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do love the 180 square meter suite with two bathrooms and a fire place, but I’m here to see the city. I’m up early to get a pain au chocolat and I’m out late drinking wine in a cafe, watching the people. I just need a few good hours of sleep and a hot shower…and of course, I don’t want to get murdered as I sleep.

We chose the Pratic Hotel, which for four nights cost just €580 in total.  The hotel is just three minutes from the St. Paul Metro Station (Line 1) and surrounded by a young, vibrant neighborhood. This formerly Jewish neighborhood of Le Marais, is more of the gayborhood now, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. Yes, there are same sex couple walking around holding hands, but you aren’t being kept awake by any loud clubs. It is a perfect little neighborhood with great restaurants, fun bars and it is so centrally located, you can literally get anywhere in the city in minutes.

The Pratic Hotel is small. There are six floors, each floor with four rooms. The rooms have private baths. The hotel has been renovated recently and is very clean – it has a sleek, modern feel.  The rooms are tiny. Our room was about four meters by three meters (likely less, you had to walk sideways to get by the foot of your bed (there was probably 10 centimeters (6 inches) of clearance.

The beds were firm yet, quite comfortable. The bathroom was new as well and had a small sink, a toilet and a shower. The shower reminded me of the room in Bolivia. The shower itself was so small, I dropped the shampoo once and had to get out of the shower to pick it up. I’m not a small guy by any means, but that is ridiculous (I’m 5’11 and 185 pounds). I even got the shock of my life as I turned around in the shower and I accidentally bumped into the faucet, turning the warm water icy. Now that’ll wake you up, and make you a little more mindful of your surroundings.

Our room – fourth floor – quite a tight space, but worked well for us.

The hotel has no elevator, so walking to our room on the forth floor (room 418) was tiring at the end of a long day. Paris was blazing hot when we were there.  The high temperatures were consistently around 30C-32C each day. Our hotel didn’t have air conditioning. We felt like we were cooking at night. We slept with our window open, which faced Place Saint-Catherine. The Place was busy until 02h00 each morning and was really loud. Interestingly enough the noise  didn’t bother us, despite the wide open window drawing in all of that party sound.

The beautiful and vibrant Place Saint-Catherine in the 4th.

We chose not to take breakfast at the hotel. This decision was made based on two factors 1) The hotel was going to charge €7/person and 2) There were dozens of great boulongeries in walking distance, where we could get a stellar meal for much less.

The breakfast room – we didn’t eat here, nor did we see anyone else during our stay.

The Pratic Hotel was nothing to write home about, but it met all of our needs, including 1) Reasonably Priced 2) Perfect Location 3) Safe and 4) Comfortable. I would consider staying at this property again, but it all comes down to price. If it is cheaper than the other options, book it.

Where do you stay in Le Marais? Do you have a go-to hotel, or do you reach for the best prices property? What other hotels do you recommend?

The Westin Galleria Dallas

I had to be in Dallas for some meetings and there was a bit of a screw up on my hotel, so I had to move from my original hotel for the final of the three nights. I ended up staying at the Westin Galleria Dallas. Dallas hotel rates were outrageous. The Sheraton near the Galleria was sold out, but as a Platinum member I could get a room…for $595/Night. Plus, the Sheraton is currently under construction. I couldn’t imagine paying that rate in general, let alone during a hotel construction project. The Westin, on the other hand was going for under $300/night. I booked it and cashed in a Platinum Suite Night Upgrade for my one night stay. If you remember, I didn’t use all my upgrades last year – two actually expired. While I sure didn’t NEED a Suite, I might as well try for it.

I wouldn’t be spending much time at the hotel. I’d arrive after 17h00 and leave the next morning before 09h00. I arrived as planned and was met by a woman working the check in desk. It was very clear I was disturbing her afternoon. She asked my name and for my Photo ID. She struggled with finding my photo page on my passport, then eventually gave up. She didn’t really welcome me or even interact with me. She asked her colleague if he’d already issued by keys, which he had. Then She handed me my keys. She didn’t tell me what room I was in, didn’t point me to the elevators, didn’t ask if I needed anything else.  She wanted me to hurry away.

I mentioned recently that I don’t really need the long drawn out welcome process when checking in, but I would at least like to be greeted.

I made my way to the room, which was a lovely corner suite on the 16th floor. As I walked down the hall to my room, I came across a couple of Westin employees chatting in the hall – one was sitting in a folding chair. The hotel was swapping out old swipe locked doors for the RF keys. They were actually taking the door off and replacing the whole door. An interesting approach. One of the guys, who appeared and acted like he was on the leadership team chatted me up about the door upgrades and how he isn’t a big fan of the ability for a guest to get access to their room via their mobile device – it cuts down on the number guest interactions, which I get. You’d think it guest interactions were important they coach the front desk staff to actually interact with guest and not just stare off into space.

The room was really large. When you walk in you see a full bathroom to your right and directly in front of you is the oversized living area.

A fully stocked bathroom in the front of the suite. I was fully expecting a simple half bath, but was pleasantly surprised.

The large shower in the front bathroom of the suite.

The living room had an enormous sectional couch and a really big (read useful) desk. The one part I found really strange was that the TV was perpendicular to the couch along the wall of windows. For one person, sitting on the far end of the couch, this arrangement was fine, but with more people, you would be able to see the TV.

Now this is a large couch. Interestingly enough, the TV is on the wall to the left side of this shot, between the windows.

The large couch with the wet bar/mini bar looming in the background.

The large desk was perfect for me to get a ton of work done during my stay. The chair didn’t swivel, which I found odd.

There was a wet bar / mini bar in the back corner of the living room. The standard two complimentary bottles of water were stop the wet bar.

Passing through the doors that flanked the desk you enter the bedroom. Other than an entertainment center wall akin to the one in the living room, the only furniture in the bedroom was the king bed and a small bench at its foot.

The large entertainment wall and closets were quite bare/empty.

The king bed – with no feather pillows, thank you very much Westin!

The main bathroom had the same color scheme as the smaller front bathroom, but was substantially larger and was divided into three areas. The first you entered housed the single sink vanity and an enormous soaking tub. Yes, I even decided to take a long soak while staying here. I did clean the tub myself before using it…we all know I’m a little nuts, and this just proves it.

The single sink vanity in the main bathroom. With two separate bathrooms, the need for a double sink isn’t there.

A huge and inviting tub. I did take the time to clean it myself and soak while watching some TV.

To the left is the WC and to the right is the walk in shower. The shower was deep and had several small wire shelves, which is such a little thing, but means something to me. I hate having to shower with no where to put my shower stuff (like my wash cloth, shampoo, face scrub and depending on the trip, my loofah – wait, you don’t bring your own puff or loofah??). This shower was well appointed. That being said, I didn’t really dig the shower head, it just sort of dribbled water on you. The water temperature was great – you could nearly scald yourself. I loved it.

The WC in the main bathroom.

The main shower was large and beautiful – the picture doesn’t due the tile work justice.

After my evening meetings, I popped down to the second floor bar and grabbed a quick pizza, it was…well….a cheese pizza. It’s hard to really screw that up. The server at the restaurant was great. He delivered menus and took my order very quickly and spent the perfect amount of time chitchatting with me.

The hotel is connected to the Galleria – a large shopping mall in Dallas. This higher end mall has everything an out of town guest could want….if you could traditionally find it in a traditional suburban mall, that is.

I will say, I’m not a big fan of the city of Dallas, but I’ve never really had much opportunity to explore. This trip, I spent even less time out and about. My meetings were in the Sheraton and I stayed one night at the Westin 2,000 feet away. If I needed to be in this area again, I would definitely stay at the Westin Galleria again, it was clean, felt safe and really met my Dallas needs.

Where do you stay when you visit the Big D? What restaurants should I have visited on my trip? Do you find the signature scent of the Westin Hotels a welcoming smell? I sure do!