Friday, September 6, 2013

NYC: Mixed Emotions at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Food vs Service

UPDATE (12/3/2014): Looks like there's new accusations about César Ramirez by his sous chefs that he's a racist pig who calls asians 'shit people' and has openly told his sous to give the worst cut of the meat to them. Maybe that explains why he didn't really give a shit when I openly told him there was sand in my langoustine - something that would not be tolerated at any other three michelin star establishment (Explained below in "The Dealbreaker for Shelly").

Normally I would think, "innocent until proven guilty", but after reading all about him after eating at Chef's Table, I am not surprised and take his sous' word over his for sure.

Looks like my gut was right about him - even though amazing food lies here, I would not recommend this as an establishment to spend your hard earned cash because there are just much better chefs and restaurants out there who deserve your money more (Eleven Madison ParkPer SeMomofuku KoAteraMarea, just to name a few).

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Food versus Service. Which do you prefer? Should that even be a choice you need to make when you're going to dine at a 3 Michelin Star Restaurant?

Apparently at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, you just might.

I'm having a difficult time figuring out how to write my review of Chef's Table because my interactions with the chef himself has left me with such a mixed opinion of my experience there. Many guests in the past have complained about the fact that while Chef César Ramirez is a culinary genius, he's not necessarily the best people's person. I actually had zero knowledge of all this prior to making my reservation.

While I'll start off by saying that even though I really enjoyed almost every dish during our 19-course tasting menu last night at Chef's Table, the whole service aspect was just so off to me. Now I can see what others mean when they speak of the chef's somewhat, let's just say, eccentric behavior.

At the risk of sounding like a bratty food blogger, I'll let you read the rest of my post to let you decide for yourself whether or not if the risk of questionable service at Chef's Table is worth it for you to experience the meal. Also, since J and I are such big nerds, we played a game of "memorize the entire meal" so we can have a play by play of the meal on the blog for you. So if nothing else, I hope you get an awesome diary of their most recent tasting menu since their newest price increase (now $255 from $225) in July 2013.
J and I were super excited for our 10 pm reservation at Chef's Table last night, hungry and ready to eat!

Getting a reservation at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare

I didn't know too much about about Chef's Table until we decided go just a month ago. Upon research, I read that getting a reservation is a bit difficult. They open reservations every Monday morning for meals 6 weeks ahead. That means for our reservation last night, we would have had to book the reservation all the way back during the week of July 29th. Come Monday morning, the phones are always busy and it takes a bit of dedication to land a reservation.

Luckily, I didn't actually have to call tirelessly for a reservation. Somehow by a weird twist of fate (or just poor planning on my end), J and I end slacked on making reservations for our anniversary and I ended up calling on a random Friday morning just to see if they had ANY openings available soon, and they happened to have one for Thursday September 5th at 10pm. Just right before our anniversary. Score!!!

The 3 Rules 

There are 3 simple rules over at Chef's Table, you can't take pictures, take notes about the dishes or use your cell phone. I'll say the last one is a tad more relaxed since I noticed the couple next to us using their phone the whole night and no one really even said a thing about it. However, once they tried to take a picture, the waitress quickly told her that there's no photos allowed.

As a food blogger, of course I have mixed feelings about the whole "no taking pics" policy, taking pictures of my food is just my jam. That said, I also appreciate the fact that the experience at Chef's Table is extremely intimate - Chef César Ramirez is essentially inviting you and 17 other guests to dine with him every evening as he cooks only a few feet away from you. With such care, attention and obvious obsessiveness over his menu, he really just wants you to pay attention to the food he spent hours and hours concepting and preparing for you damn it!

I was actually really looking forward to the experience of just enjoying the meal for what it was without the distractions of technology. Obviously, now that the meal's over, I do wish I could have continued the memory of some of my favorite dishes via pictures, but my mental notes will have to do.

Initial Thoughts and Ambiance

Every night, there are two dinner services and when I was about 15 minutes early for my 10pm reservation, we were asked to wait outside since there were guests inside still finishing up their meal. Through the window, we saw that Chef Ramirez was chatting with the guests and looked quite friendly, despite all the hype about how he's a bit hot-headed and unfriendly. Slowly, we saw the chef sending off each group as he personally held the door for them. 

As people left, we were called in to be seated around the U shaped counter around the entire kitchen. The seats on the far left was closest to where the chefs prepped their food - these are the seats you want if you want to be right in the action. J and I were seated right next to the couple who took those seats. As I was seated, I couldn't help but admire the clean lines of the stainless steel kitchen with an entire ceiling rack of copper pots contrasting against the silver. I admired how the entire kitchen was completely clean, even though they just prepared the meal for guests less than an hour earlier.

Since there are only 18 seats at the counter, it does get a little cramp unless you're sitting at the corner of the counter, which I later realized were the most roomy and comfortable seats in the house, which leads me to my next section...

Special Guests & Wine Pairings

I've read before that it's very important to show up on time for your reservation, otherwise Chef Ramirez will just begin the meal without you. So I couldn't help but notice that as I was seated next to the corner seats that were purposely left empty for 2 missing guests, clearly running tardy to the party.

As we were waiting for the last 2 people to arrive, J and I were given the wine list. Since we had such a great experience with our first ever wine pairing experience at Commis, we decided to splurge and order the wine pairing for the evening. At Chef's Table, there are two options for wine parings available, either four or six glasses, averaging about $25 per glass for either option. The sommelier nicely informed us that the additional 2 glasses for the evening was a champagne to start and a riesling in between the canapés and main courses - two types of wines that I loved, so J and I decided to go for broke and ordered the six glass wine pairing. 

As we were enjoying our champagne, our final guests finally arrived. The two girls came walking in, one holding a huge bottle of champagne to give to Chef Ramirez as a gift, so I knew they must have been friends of the chef's. After a bit of closer observation of interactions and comments made through the night, I realized that the person who sat next to me had clearly worked at Chef's Table in the past. During the meal, I had a short conversation with the girl sitting next to me and she turned out to have worked at Chef's Table for two years. And now through some post-meal research, the girl next to her, who introduced herself as Michele, I now realize she must have been Michele Smith, a former sommelier at Chef's Table. 

It was an interesting experience sitting next to the two of them since Chef Ramirez routinely came to check to see how they enjoyed each dish and the slight changes he's made. Having guests you know in the kitchen must be extremely personal - and no doubt he wanted their feedback. I felt like I saw a softer side of Chef Ramirez as he would sometimes explain a few dishes as being experimental and that he still haven't perfected the flavors of the dish. It was also interesting to learn how often they change their silverware and plates at the restaurant to match with each course. With 19 courses in total - that's a lot of attention to detail - and it really pays off. I loved some of the presentations of the dishes here.

An interview by Serious Eats with Chef Ramirez helps explain his vision for the restaurant very well. In this interview, they ask him about why he likes the format of a chef's table more than a traditional restaurant, to which he says:
"I like it this way because I have total control of what I'm doing. In a bigger restaurant, I knew that my food costs and labor costs would be very high to produce what I'm producing now. I would have to charge a lot more money, there'd be bigger staff and more problems. I didn't want that....I just focus on eighteen people and give them the best food that I can."
It's a great concept to live by, and I believe that this is the reason why the restaurant has done so well so far, with a price hike of over 400% over the past four years, and with people continuing to come back for more.

Pacing and the Service

With the help of 3 sous-chefs on this evening, Chef Ramirez was able to serve dish after dish like clockwork. I can see how people taking pictures of their courses could throw off their service and the rhythm that they set for themselves. There was not a moment's break for the chefs through the two and half hour meal, every second was used to prep the next dish. 

I never once felt rushed to finish my dish, and since it was such a small bite each time, I was able to finish each dish, especially the canapés, in less than a few minutes. Once I was done with my food, the plates were quickly cleared by the other two waiters/waitresses. This was not a meal where I sat around guessing when the next dish would come out. At most there was around 5 minutes in between each bite  before the next dish was served. It was really fun watching the chefs prepare all of our different dishes. As one chef sauced the plate, the other one quickly places the next component on top, and another adds the foam. They worked together like a well oiled machine, seamlessly as one team. Mad props to the amount they must prepare every day to be able to serve us dish after dish of awesomeness. 

Not sure if it's because the chef had friends over, but he spent a good amount of time away from the kitchen, and a lot of time chatting with a few guests, something that I didn't expect to happen.

Canapés

So here's for the exciting part, the entire menu as recounted as me and J, which progressively gets a tad less detailed as we went further along in our wine pairing. By far, the canapés were my favorite part of the meal. It was amazing to see all the different ways that the seafood could be prepped without it feeling repetitive at all.

J and I noted that unlike a sushi omakase, Chef Ramirez spent a lot of thought on figuring out how to elevate each dish, and each of the plates were executed with perfection.

1. Cucumber Sorbet, started off the meal as a great palette cleanser, not too sweet and a great light way to start off the meal with dessert.

2. ** Oyster with Granny Smith Apple w/ Puffed Rice, this dish was outstanding to me. I loved the intense layers of flavor that develops as you slowly enjoy your bite. The oyster was balanced with sweetness from the apple, I loved the crème fraîche on the bottom of bits of shallots and lingering taste of wasabi and finally with the crunchy puffed rice. This got me really excited for my meal to come.

3. Trumpet Fish w/ Cilantro Oil topped w/ a Cilantro Flower,  a very mild in flavor helping lead up to the next (J thinks this had Jicama with it, but I thought it might be with #5)

4. King Salmon w/ Trout Roe, served on top of a crunchy pastry cracker bottom. Had something creamy that held down the salmon, tasted good, but wasn't anything standout, felt like a typical amuse.

5. Butterfish w/ Sake Gelee & Jicama (maybe, either this one or #3) - found the gelee to have a great flavor with a hint of wasabi or some spice.

6. ** Red Sea Perch topped w/ a Sesame Cracker "skin" on top, with a black vinegar sauce. LOVED the dish, the fish was perfectly cooked and the crunch on top made the entire bite awesome. Not to mention how much I loved the savory yet sweetness of the sauce it sat on, like a very complex type of teriyaki sauce. The girl sitting next to me said she wanted to lick her bowl (and might have).

7. **** Japanese Hokkaido Uni, Black Truffle on top of a round brioche, HANDS DOWN the best dish of the night. Everyone deserves to have a taste of this before they die. It's meant to be taken as a complete bite that melts in your mouth. Watching Chef Ramirez prep this dish, I was already getting excited since I saw him scooping copious amounts of uni on top of the toast, meanwhile the next chef gently placed a piece of truffle on top and another chef brushed a light sauce on top to bring it all together.

The mild sweetness and taste of the sea from the uni plus the aroma of truffles just went on and on in your mouth, to the point that even after you finished eating it, the flavors lingers. J said that he didn't even want to take another sip of our wine pairing because he didn't want to wash out the taste. I personally waited for at least 5 minutes before taking a sip. If you've ever had the Ricci (Uni and Lardo) at Marea, this is like the same thing, except on crack. I never thought I liked uni until Marea, but now I know that I can LOVE uni.

Main Courses

8. Oscietre Caviar - decadence on decadence is the first words that popped into my head. The caviar was served on top of a creamy sauce that sat on top of what seemed like a denser texture of an egg white chawanmushi. The entire dish was really rich and I felt like something else could have been added to the mix to balance things out. Luckily, we had a glass of a sweet riesling to pair with this dish, which tasted like the perfect pairing as the sweetness of the wine balanced the creamy richness of the caviar and cream very well.

9. Seared Kenmedai? - after the 3 awesome courses before this one, it was hard for me and J to pay attention to this dish and remember what this fish was called - J believes it was the kenmedai. We found it not as memorable, but still perfectly cooked, and of course, delicious. Perfectly seared fish with a very crispy skin, delicious creamy foam and a pretty edible flower on top. Overheard conversation that this fish is usually never seared and usually eaten raw because it's a very expensive fish flown in from Japan.

The Dealbreaker for Shelly

So let's quickly pause about the food so I can better describe what's been going on through this meal up until this point. If you'd like to skip out on my issues and personal drama with Chef's Table, feel free to skip ahead to the next section where I continue listing the courses.

As I mentioned, during my visit here, Chef Ramirez was often not cooking behind the table, rather chatting with his special guests who were sitting next to me, also occasionally another spanish couple who sat next to the girls on the other side, and then once in a while to the couple next to us since they were closest to him as he was serving the dishes.

Up until this point, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of interactions with him, but since he was seeming very friendly that night, I figured we would at least have a quick chat. The meal thus far has been great for me, and I've never enjoyed so many different dishes from a tasting menu in the same way I had enjoyed my courses at Chef's Table.

Then our 10th course came, it was a Langoustine with Shitake Dashi Broth, Shitake Ravioli, and Line Caught Squid from Japan. I quickly brought my attention to the beautiful langoustine staring at me. I cut it to enjoy my first bite and... crunch. Then... more crunch. I realized I was eating multiple bites of sand, so I asked J .... Umm... is there sand in yours? He said he had a tad in his, but not as bad as my experience. As I continued to chew on sand for what felt like days to me - I flipped over my remaining piece of langoustine and dissected it to find a huge intestinal tract (read: poo & sand) still attached to it.

Great, my langoustine was a huge sand eater, and it never got cleaned out of him before it got served to me. This was really off-putting for obvious reasons and then my magic moment happens. Right as I discovered this, Chef Ramirez decided to make his rounds to us and asked what we thought of the meal. Well, what was I going to do? I had to tell him that I found (a ton of) sand in my langoustine, and even had the huge intestinal tract on my plate to show him. He quickly flipped a switch and told me that he'd "take care of it".

Not sure what that meant, but there's definitely very noticeable movement in the kitchen. I feel like I've watched enough episodes of Hell's Kitchen to know what's going on. As sous-chefs were slowly pulled to the back of the kitchen, hidden from view from the diners, I was sure that Chef Ramirez was going full on Gorden Ramsey on everyone trying to figure out who prepped the langoustine.

Me, being the food lover that I am, I didn't want the rest of the dish to go to waste, so of course I ate the shitake ravioli (forgettable) and the perfectly seared squid (perfectly cooked and great flavors). Thank god I did this, because a few minutes later, Chef came back and took my plate away and then never replaced it with anything. Eventually I saw very defeated looking sous-chef and am guessing he's the one who missed this during prep. Shit happens, I get it. I wasn't going to let the rest of my meal be completely detracted from this one incident, especially because it seems like I was the only one who this happened to. (Though once again, J had some sand in his as well, so maybe others just didn't mention it to anyone)

Moments later, Chef Ramirez came back to me, clearly disgruntled, and told me that they looked at my dish and gave me a half hearted apology. He ensured me that he had tried 4-5 langoustines before serving this to me, and all the rest of them were fine. That this never happens, and quickly left again.

I was taken back by his demeanor, but I tried to understand where the mood came from. I could only imagine all the emotions running through him as he was trying to figure out what happened, but when I heard that he would "take care of it", I figured at the very least I would get another piece of langoustine to replace the one I barely ate.

Instead, all I got during the rest of the night from Chef Ramirez was a complete silent treatment as he continued to make conversation with all the other guests except for us. As the night progressed, I regretted telling him about the sand in my langoustine because I really wanted to chat with him, learn about his visions as a chef, what his thoughts were for the new Chef's Table opening in Manhattan, etc etc. So many questions to ask, but we were just completely ignored for the rest of the night.

I know, now you might be thinking...so your feelings got hurt because the Chef didn't become your best friend, so what? Truth be told, I didn't choose to go to Chef's Table, a restaurant currently serving the second most expensive tasting menu in Manhattan after tax and 20% mandatory tip, to be treated like a second class citizen. I've eaten at enough delicious Chinese restaurants with crappy service to have grown a thick skin from bad service. But a 3 michelin star restaurant should be held to higher standards than this. It NEEDS to be.

In Pete Well's most recent "controversial" review for Daniel, he took off a star from his New York Times rating because of service, he compared his experience as a renowned food critic versus his colleague's on the same night, someone who wasn't given the VIP treatment. If I didn't feel like it before, it was made known now that I was a non-VIP at Chef's Table. The only difference between the service at Daniel and the one at Chef's Table is that you know the chef doesn't care about you at all at Chef's Table because of the small intimate setting.

At Chef's Table for the rest of the night, I continued to just feel like I did something wrong. I didn't realize that experiences from each guest could be so different. This left me with such a poor impression of what otherwise would have been a really perfect meal for me. If I had found sand in my langoustine at say, Marea, or ANY other michelin star rated restaurant, you would bet something would have been done to remedy the situation. I didn't even need my langoustine replaced (yes, I get that you're a well oiled machine so any extra kink could have messed up service), hell, I didn't even need an glass of wine (I already had enough with my six wine pairing). All I really wanted at the end of this mishap was just to be treated the same as everyone else at the dinner.

Don't get me wrong, the server who continued to bring out my next courses still treated me cordially, so thanks for that. However, if I'm going to be invited to your house, please don't make me feel like an unwelcomed guest, especially if I really didn't do anything wrong. It was so unfortunate that things had to unfold in this way on such a special occasion for me and J. I guess this is always going to be his house, his rules right?

Main Courses continued...

11. Black Cod, once again, perfectly cooked, although it a tad more rare than how I've usually had it served to me - I really enjoyed it. We saw the chefs smoking this fish on top of a smoker on the cook top, so that smokey flavor definitely came through. The fish sat on top of a rich creamy sauce that went along great with the fish. I cleaned up the sauce with our bread course (which, by the way wasn't that great, it might have even been just bought from the supermarket next door and reheated).

12. Lobster and Corn, this dish seems like it would be a perfect match: it's corn season, and I love how corn tastes with lobster. While the servings of this dish was actually pretty big, with notable chunks of lobster and the flavors of a creamy corn sauce with sweet kernals of corn that popped, there were some very distracting large pieces of greens on top - a mixture of herbs and greens. They served this without a knife, so I kept finding myself eating the greens and having sauce splash on my cheek, since the leaves were so big. Perhaps I'm a clumsy eater, but were those greens necessary and did he pick them strategically to flavor the dish? (Yes, at this point I'm nitpicking slightly)

13. A fish layered with Australian Black Summer Truffles, I wanted to smell this dish for days. The black summer truffles were noticeably more fragrant - different than the winter truffle we were served earlier as noted by our waitress. The cream sauce had tons of bits of black truffles at the bottom, which I gladly wiped up once again with the "meh" rolls.

14. Japanese Wagyu Beef w/ Farro salad, I knew that we were going to have one meat course with the rest being seafood, but I did not expect to be served Japanese Wagyu Beef. A serving of this at any other restaurant would be upwards of $100, so this was very exciting for me since I've never been spendy enough to order a piece by itself. Right when I looked at the steak, it was perfectly cooked to a medium rare, with visible marbling of fat throughout the entire meat in a way I've just never seen before. You know what they say right, happy cows come from farms in Japan where they are massaged for hours and hours. I really enjoyed each bite of it, thought I did find my last bite was a TAD over-salted. The farro salad worked to off-balance some of the fattiness of the dish.

Cheese & Dessert

15. Cheese Course w/ walnut and balsamic & olive oil drizzle, served w/a cranberry bread. Nothing too exciting here for me.

16. Shiso Sorbet w/ Gold Flakes, I wasn't too impressed with the flavors of the shiso sorbet, and the gold flakes were just for show, obviously.

17. "Strawberry and Basil", a strawberry sorbet with a strawberry (looked like a raspberry to me, but J begs to differe), soaked in basil sauce so you get a bite full of basil taste.

18. Chocolate mousse dessert, the chocolate mousse was seared on the bottom to make it taste like a chocolate cake, in the middle had a raspberry cream filling. Great plating and was satisifed with the dessert. Since it was our anniversary, they gave us each a candle on our desserts to blow out, I thought this was a cute touch.

19. Petite fours, espresso and peanut butter chocolates. Both delicious, great way to end the night.

Final Conclusions

With all that's said and done, I do maintain that the food itself at Chef's Table is worth the price. Simply put, I've never had a tasting menu where I've been served two dishes with two types of truffles, uni (flown in from Japan no less, a rarity), caviar, lobster, langoustine (although it may be sandy), waygu beef, all for me to eat at no hidden costs or extra supplements.

While many have compared the current price of Brooklyn Fare vs Per Se after tax and tip as being very similar, Per Se will not serve you truffle or waygu beef without an extra charge. Because of this, I do stand my faith in Chef Ramirez, that he simply wants to put the best dishes and ingredients out to his guests. Even at the current price of the menu, I think they are barely turning profit given there's only so few people served during dinner every night. Flying in all these special ingredients from Japan is no easy feat, and neither is serving a tasting menu of 19 courses and having all of them cooked to perfection. They've nailed this down like a perfectly run show.

I left feeling perfectly satisfied, not overstuffed like I felt after Per Se or even Atera. I throughly enjoyed watching the chefs work their magic in putting together each dish for us. Now, if I'm asked to rank my overall experiences at Atera, Per Se, and Chef's Table, I would easily choose both Atera and Per Se over Chef's Table. 

Atera vs Chef's Table - both are similar in that they serve a large variety of courses (20+) in their tasting menu in a chef's counter format. The last time I checked, Atera is not only cheaper than Chef's Table with as impressive of dishes that you don't see everyday (loved the piece of thinly sliced fish prepared like proscuitto), but their service was remarkable. I felt like a welcomed guest and the waiters were knowledgable in every dish that was served. Not to mention, their cocktails were awesome, J will never forget the milk punch cocktail there. If you're looking for a more out of the box (non classical French) experience, Atera's a great choice for you. Here's my review for Atera

Per Se vs Chef's Table - I said something pretty bold last year when I wrote my review for Per Se, that I actually wasn't all too impressed and was slightly disappointed with my experience. However, in comparison between the two, Per Se shines like the brightest star in the sky. If you're like me, you're probably not dropping this major cash on tasting menus very often. Dining like this is really a rare treat for me, so given the entire experience, I was treated like a queen at Per Se - during our 4 hour of service, I was able to slowly enjoy my meal. While the dishes didn't blow me away as often as I felt at Brooklyn Fare, I left with a lot more dignity and a million times more full (I've read that some people mention they're still hungry after Chef's Table, but I found myself just perfectly satisfied). If you're looking to celebrate a special occasion, I'd advise you to not leave it up to chance, especially if you're been to neither and are choosing between the two. Here's my review for Per Se

At the end of the day, Eleven Madison Park is still my all time favorite 3 michelin star experience in New York. So do yourself a favor and go visit them first. I'm laughing now comparing my absolutely amazing experience at Eleven Madison Park compared to my mixed emotions of eating at Chef's Table. 




Thanks for the great food Chef Ramirez, I admire your talent as a chef, but I will never subject myself again to unpredictable service at a supposedly fine dining establishment, no matter how much you shower me in luxury.

We'll always have our memories...

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Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare | Yelp

212 Schermerhorn St
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Neighborhoods: Downtown Brooklyn

(718) 243-0050
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