If Chef César had the smallest inkling of what hospitality truly means, then this restaurant could certainly be on my all-time favourites list. I don’t think many would disagree that a $250/head dinner has to be about the overall experience, not just the food.
Brooklyn Fare, a gourmet groceries store located in downtown Brooklyn. A few doors down the road is their little restaurant which happens to be the latest addition to the city’s list of three Michelin star establishments, hitting in the same league as Daniel and Jean Georges. There is no question that this kitchen churns out some of the best food in the country and my three hour experience confirms this. It is the exclusive quality of ingredients that distinguish Chef César’s cuisine from the rest of the industry and this also explains why he can only serve five evenings a week to two rounds of eighteen lucky guests given the limited supplies.
The exclusivity didn’t stop with the ingredients and produce but extended to the reservation process as well. Six weeks prior to the dining date, despite me calling from overseas to make the reservation, I was advised that I had called one minute too early from their line opening; “sorry, my clock is now 10.29am. Please call us back later, goodbye.” Even though the unbelievably frustrating 40 minutes I spent afterwards on redial, my patience finally paid off.
Chef César runs his shop in a militaristic fashion where he executes his rigorous routine every night without any deviation! My dining partner on this occasion was Michael Talalaev, a long time FDE reader, who was referred to me through my fellow foodie friend John Sconzo. He was fortunately on time and messaged me a couple of times while I was stuck in a mad Saturday evening traffic in Manhattan. I wasn’t really that late after all and arrived at this “modern omakase” restaurant 10 minutes past my booking time. There was no distinction between the dining room and the kitchen. All that laid there was simply a stainless steel counter with a cooking area on one side and guests sitting on three sides, enclosing the restaurant’s only waitress in the centre of the stage.
I immediately identified Michael, who was giving me a big wave, and standing in the background was César Ramirez, an expressionless commander-in-chief, with his arms crossed, monitoring every movement of his team ensuring every detail was in accordance with his routine! And more importantly, he had to make sure no customer was taking photo or typing notes which were strictly forbidden as clearly written in his reservation terms and conditions. Trust me, you don’t want to mess with this guy since he will not hesitate to give you a brutal lecturing if you violate any of his rules. For all fellow food bloggers out there who can’t eat without a photo of the food, don’t bother bringing your camera! (I managed to capture only two quick snaps using my phone risking humiliation by the chef and being kicked out!)
Anyways, back to the meal and instead of a warm welcome from the team, I was welcomed with a rather abrupt comment of “you are late, you missed the first course”. I first thought they were kidding so I laughed and slowly took my seat but Michael, shouted: “you better be quick, second course is on the table!” Yes, hard to believe! For the first time in my dining career, I experienced a chef who cooks according to his clock and not to his customers! It didn’t matter whether you arrived or not, he would commence service and there was no waiting! All he cared was to execute his routine according to his clock, offering no flexibility whatsoever. And why should he care? My meal was already prepaid two weeks before!
Although I was still in disbelief that he served my first course without me, I quickly popped the second course into my mouth before the waitress took it away. My mind immediately got distracted by the pure freshness and rich fattiness of kinmedai, Golden Eye snapper, with a beautiful balance of fruity-spicy Yuzukoshō. I quickly looked at the Chef, “wow, the freshness!” He responded in confidence, “of course, Ikejime technique was applied to paralyze this fish at Tsukiji market and this box just arrived from Tokyo this afternoon.” I wasn’t complaining now, that’s for sure!
The next item arrived within minutes and it was a simple combination of my favourite ingredients – sea urchin and black truffle! God, the creamy sea urchin reminded me of my Hokkaido trip where none of the sea urchin I tasted had any trace of bitterness from myoban preservative. I again immediately made eye contact with Chef César while enjoying this heavenly treat and he commented “I receive a package of sea urchin from Hokkaido every other day.” Impressive, very impressive, indeed!
After only two bite-size courses, I had already forgotten about my woes and anger, and my attention immediately shifted to the next course with my eyes fixated on the generous quenelle of Osetra caviar that was bestowed in front of me. Unlikely others places where the caviar acted as a garnish, he used it as the main component by simply serving it on a very light mousseline of cauliflower allowing my palate to fully appreciate this exclusive caviar. Deep flavour of the sea without being overly salty at all; just perfect to be savoured on its own. Everyone was quiet, concentrating on every bite of this extravagant dish. The Chef made another statement “go ask any chef in town: who buys the most caviar every year in New York City? My cuisine is all about using the best ingredients, and best ingredients are expensive.“
- Lobster, celery root, blood orange
- Spiced Chocolate Foam, Yuzu Marmalade, Sugar Globe
For the next two hours, I was pampered by the exclusive ingredients that Chef César sourced from all around the world – Scottish blue lobster, Gillardeau oyster, and Alaskan king crab, just to name a few, followed by a piece of A5 Miyazaki Wagyu ribeye, which many would consider as a slightly premier breed to Kobe Wagyu! The whole menu was heavily Japanese influenced. I was convinced his minimalistic cooking style was the best way to handle delicate ingredients. And finally, the extraordinary meal concluded with two creative desserts: a refreshing shiso sorbet with yuzu and coconut and a soba ice cream with salt and seaweed!
The experience was on par with Waku Ghin in Singapore but the service was obviously on the opposite end of the spectrum. I mean, if his definition of dining experience is just 100% on food so that his responsibilities were to source and cook the best ingredients without valuing service and ambience, then why bother to have a dress code in order to eat at his kitchen counter?! Yes, no entrance for men without a jacket! And interestingly, to me, there was a major design flaw to this kitchen ring. There is no escape route for the waitress who was stuck in the centre except to climb over the diners which she wouldn‘t dare to attempt! She must get inside before the first customer arrives and could only come out after the last customer leaves; a stretch of 8 hours without a toilet break! Brutal!
Overall, as much as I hated how Chef César ran his show and his arrogance to keep bragging on about his ingredients, one cannot help but find little fault in his food. To be honest, though the whole experience was robotic and everyone had to obey his laws, every item was a clear winner and there was no doubt this place served the finest food by far that I experienced in the country.
Hmmm… Decision time… OK. Contrary to what I said in the beginning that I will not put this under “My Favourite” category…. I think I may just have to!