Review: Red Egg

New York City,
11 April 2013

Since moving back to NYC I had to re-orient myself when it comes to purchasing ingredients for my cooking exploits. Frankly, it was pretty easy in the suburbs — just jump in the car and go to the Polish market, the Hungarian market, the Asian market, the Italian market. But now, car-less, I have to also figure out where to find things. And this brings me to a rare trek to one of the places that annoys me the most in this city — Chinatown.

In order to find things like garlic chives and yellow chives I have little choice but to go to Chinatown. Knowing that, I decided to have lunch in the area too. However, there’s only so much of Chinatown I can handle, so I found one of the more “western-packaged” places to have lunch — Red Egg.

Now Red Egg is still very much a Chinatown restaurant, but designed with a bar and more “western” style service. For those of us that don’t read Chinese, it’s just much easier than to argue and get the “I don’t bring you that dish because you don’t know what it is” attitude. It adopted the “order-by-paper” system for ordering dimsum that is used by hapless sushi diners and earlier innovative dimsum places like Ping Pong.

I know some people like the carts, but I didn’t need that today as I was by myself. The meal worried me at first as the restaurant had a big “B” grade from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene…a “B” in Chinatown? I’ve seen rather disgusting places with “A” grades…hmmm…

It’s a pleasant enough place and people were already dining there before noon. I sat down and ordered a few different dimsum as well as a glass of white. At least there is wine (and they knew what wine is — and didn’t bring me a maotai by mistake…)

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The first to arrive were the humble shumai. Very typical, nothing too special. Steaming hot, a little hard to eat, but very nice. I quickly consumed them and the next set arrived.

 

The pork and chive dumplings were very good, done very well. I was impressed. The chicken and scallops bao was also very good, but a quick reminder that I was in Chinatown (and not Ping Pong) when I found something hard and inedible in the bun…I didn’t want to figure out what it was…

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Then finally, the last of the original order came, the steamed beef balls. I’ve never been a big fan of these in the past, and these were pretty typical. Not bad, but I just never liked the texture of these…not sure why I ordered them. And I did have to remove a few bits of bone that got through the mincer…

I was still a little hungry so instead of a dessert I ordered the only cold item on the list. The server was trying to talk me out of it, but that just made me want it more.

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The cold octopus in sweet bean sauce was pretty good. I really liked the texture, and it had a fishy taste about it via the sauce. Interesting, a nice touch to end the meal.

I needed to fortify myself before hitting the Chinese market so had another glass of wine before heading out. This has been a pretty good dimsum place. The execution has been more genuine than Ping Pong for sure, and is a good place for those who feel proper Chinatown dimsum places are either annoying or intimidating. I can see myself coming back before future market treks…it’s like a tiny oasis…

Red Egg
202 Centre Street
New York, NY

Midnight Catharsis…Or Not?

I had a very strange experience the other night. After a wonderful dinner at one of my favourite NYC restaurants, the excellent old-school Villa Berulia, with two prominent political commentators, I wandered into a random bar in Midtown for a nightcap before heading home. Little did I know how this random stop would shake my foundation in such an unexpected way.

It was a good evening, but by no means excessive. A few glasses of wine, a few home-made rakija, but was looking for a nice end to the fun evening. I sat in an empty bar in an unnamed Asian restaurant as the two Irish pubs on same block were blasting music with DJs (very annoying). Just wanted a quiet nightcap.

As I was drinking and just sitting there, a very young guy walks in to order some food. He obviously knew the bartender, and was voicing some discontent about his situation. But at the same time, he was pretty vocal about how much money he was raking in as he was basically living the life of a NYC golden boy. And suddenly I don’t know why, but I just started injecting myself into the conversation…

And it went from a conversation to one where it became a cathartic moment for me… He was talking about life in NYC and so forth, then the topic swerved to fulfillment, happiness and inner peace. We discussed things from where we donate our money (and why), and how to enjoy life. He seems to have the world in his hands — making a crapload of money at a young age (he was not yet 25 and raking in a significant 6-figure income) and suggested he has little problem in the way of meeting women. I can see that. But the tone of the talk soon changed…

It soon turned into a situation where I was becoming my own therapist. I know I have blogged about my midlife crisis, but I have never vocalised it like that in person to someone else — and I did it to a complete stranger who I’ve never met and who I’ll never talk to again. It’s like I wanted to sway him from all the mistakes I’ve made but also to convince him that there are more important things in life — and how that foundation needs to be forged at this juncture of his life.

I was basically voicing all of my frustrations now at 40. I emphasised that amassing money and power without someone to share it with makes little sense, and the further you go, the less it means — which turns you into a power-mongering money-worshipping asshole or it turns you very jaded and lonely. I tried to convince him happiness is not about flash, and that you need to prepare — because one day you’ll realise that you’re too far along the way on the path of life and the facade doesn’t work because the inside is rotting. I told him to look at me.

He argued with me about some aspects, such as what to do after losing someone you consider a soulmate. I kept telling him that for those people who have never loved someone so deeply that they break when they lose that person, it’s hard to really understand. He seemed puzzled by how long it’s taken me to move on, and since I don’t go clubbing and so forth (as he seems to enjoy), a simple question — “how do you meet women?” I had no answer for him. I really don’t. It wasn’t a one-way talk — this made me think too, that I am self-perpetuating my loneliness.

We continued on and by now it was more one-sided. I told him that happiness is about being happy with yourself. It’s not about material possessions and the façade of your individual, but it’s about the core. If you are not happy inside, you do things to create a false sense of temporary happiness — which is the essence of Wall Street life. A bottle of Petrus, pulling a model, sitting on a giant yacht, driving down the street in a Bugatti, they are all providers of temporary happiness…very good for masking an inner emptiness.

I then went on about how I lost interest in making money, and this is when he basically just sat and listened. For a bright spark in his 20s running on adrenaline and fumes it’s odd to hear this POV… Who knows, maybe he was worried he was looking into a mirror of a future he would want to avoid.

It was frightening to me to express all of this as I was looking into a mirror of someone that could have been me when I was younger, even though I had chosen a slightly different path. But what I didn’t understand back then was that if you choose your career, even if it afforded you all this fun, explicitly over a deeper happiness you will pay for it one day. And if that’s the message I got across to this person, then I feel better.

By the time his food came and he paid up, he said something. Not “fuck off” or “you’re fucking nuts”…but he said “thank you so much for the advice” — which threw me a little. I was really having a cathartic vent, but he seemed to have heard some of it.

As I headed out myself, I was a little zonked…not from the drink, but from what had happened. I had just finally explained to myself why I am in this midlife crisis. Sure, my ex-gf helped pushed me into the vortex. But it’s too simple to think that way. It’s basically a point of my life that everything in the past 40 years has come to a head.

Imagine if every part of your life was a car in a race, and all of them ended up running into each other simultaneously at a traffic circus/junction. They were all divergent, but now they are all lost at the same point, with no direction evident. That is where I am really today, and after this midnight catharsis, I have now heard it from the horse’s mouth — my own.

The cars have no idea where to go, but they are running out of gas whilst idling…

Review: Bocca di Lupo

London,
28 March 2013

Ever since I walked in that first week it opened, I’ve rarely had less-than-awesome food at Bocca di Lupo in busy SoHo. And it says something that I’ve never had a table in this restaurant; each of the 9 times I’ve been here has been at the counter.

I needed a solid meal after having so many mediocre (and some just awful) meals in the past few days in Hamburg and London, including the previous night’s wanting meal at Newman Street Tavern, and Bocca di Lupo is one of the places in London I am certain of good food.

So as I walked in at its 1230pm opening time, they told me I can have the counter seat for about an hour fifteen, which is just fine for me — as long as the staff can keep up! I quickly ordered some wine and went through their menu. I love restaurants that change menu items so much like they do, it’s like a little lab.

As I enjoyed the wine, my first course arrived — a nice pasta dish with sea snails.

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Mmm, perfectly cooked pasta and the shellfish was also delicious. This is what I like about this restaurant, they mix things up. I usually enjoy some ‘nduja here (they do that so well), but again, the joy of Bocca di Lupo is that so many excellent choices are possible.

I relaxed and enjoyed more wine, waiting in anticipation for my second course — the grilled John Dory.

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Now after my disastrous John Dory at Hamburg’s mis-Michelin’ed Se7en Oceans — this was a total treat. The fish was perfectly grilled, unadulterated and delicious. John Dory is one of those fish that I can eat all the time, one I will always order off a menu, and this one was delicious. I even enjoyed the eyes. In addition, there was a fabulous side plate of agretti — or monk’s beard. It’s been awhile since I had these beautiful salt-water-happy vegetables. Little did I know later in the evening I will be enjoying samphire as well… Two totally under-utilised green treats.

Now I was running out of time and I remembered being disappointed at the lack of roughness in the sanguinaccio (a sweet chocolate and pig’s blood pudding) here in the past, so I chose to still go bloody but savoury — with a nice plate of buristo (black pudding) to end the feast…

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Yeah, that’s me…the savoury dessert course as always… And to boot, washed down with a very generous pour of grappa… I left very, very happy…

Now this has been a fabulous lunch, and at the end of the day, the best meal I had this entire trip. All the Michelin stars and excellent posh service and aeons of training means little without the final product executed perfectly, and all I’m happy with is simple and rustic Italian cooking that’s executed to near perfection. Now this is the way to eat.

Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer Street
London, England

The Last Lap…and I am Exhausted (in every way, including culinarily)

This lengthy trip is finally rolling to an end, and thank goodness. Not often you’ll hear me wanting to get back to North America from the heart of Europe, but this trip has been a near disaster…

Frankly, none of the meetings panned out for anything project-wise, so it was kind of a wasted trip. There were very few highlights on this trip (the Costes evening in Budapest being one of them), and many real downers (like the horrific John Dory at Se7en Oceans). Despite the 4 Michelin-starred restaurants I dined at (2 were 2-star), most of them left me wanting and disappointed. But nothing was as bad as the horrible food poisoning in Hungary…ugh…that all but ruined key days of the trip.

So in a way I was happy to get back “home” to the UK en route back to the US. But Sod’s Law dictates a last minute nasty surprise as British Airways cancelled my flight back from Hamburg. Nice… They made it so ridiculous at first, trying to push me on the next day’s (!!) flight. I checked, and plenty of seats on the flight that left 1.5 hours after my cancelled flight. Idiots! I have flown BA with reluctancy the past decade, but now…

So with some extra time to kill in Hamburg but not enough to do something planned, I went to a nearby restaurant for a quick lunch. Gasthaus an der Alster was a little pub that was popular with the lunchtime crowd, so I was glad I was early. I bypassed many of the items I had missed on this short trip (including the famous Labskaus — of which the Liverpool version led to the ‘scouse’ nomer). But was in a fishy mood and my stomach still churning, so went for “comfort” — and that meant herring. So ordered what I thought was the best of the lot, the cold herring.

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This was a very large serving, and it took me ages to eat it. It tastes as you would expect, though on second thought my stomach should have had something warm instead. I always wondered why herring is not more often served more unadulterated and hot, because when it is cold the much-loved oiliness of the fish is obscured. Oh well, it was filling (with a few beers) before heading to the airport…

Not much drama at first though I do dislike the “non-Schengen exile” gates at many German airports…the utter lack of services in those areas… Flight was uneventful but the UK Immigration officer in Terminal 5 (which I utterly hate) just seemed unable to realise one can pay for hotels with credit card these days. Not had such stupid questioning upon entering the UK in a decade…

Got to central London and checked into hotel…finally things moving well. I had planned to meet with very good mate for dinner, a belated birthday celebration. He suggested we try Newman Street Tavern, a well-regarded gastropub on…you guessed it, Newman Street. I didn’t want to write a full review here because I was really enjoying the company and was not paying as much attention to really warrant a full review.

The place was rather busy on the Wednesday night on Easter week — when those who are lucky finish the week to created a very long Bank Holiday weekend. So lots of people having a drink before popping off somewhere. We had a drink downstairs before being moved to the dining room upstairs.

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The first course was a nice roe dish. Generous portions, unadulterated. Just what I needed after all the over-chef’ing I’ve seen on this Michelin-laden trip. Nice. However the main of Middlewhite pork was a little bland…maybe a little under-chef’ing here?

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Really rather ordinary, seemed more like a product of a pub lunch rather than a serious gastropub. But the whole point is of company, and despite us having a rather tame session (for our standards), it was a good night catching up with one of my closest friends, who has become my partner in crime in fine dining in London for over a decade. Not many people you can chat with can converse at length and detail about history, drink, film and food — all in one sentence. Much needed.

The next day I had a busy afternoon so rushed somewhere for lunch (a full review is coming), and met with with another old friend (and former boss) for dinner in The City at the Jugged Hare. The place was slammed as it was the Thursday night on eve of Easter Bank Holiday weekend… But it cleared and after a few pints and catching up, we shifted to a table inside.

It’s a typical gastropub and at first I didn’t expect much, especially after last night’s rather meh’ish meal at a better-regarded gastropub. But tonight began with a very strong surprise.

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The starter was just fantastic, some excellent scallops. The samphire was a great addition, and why don’t more kitchens use this is beyond me. I still remember an awesome mixed grill with samphire at Warsaw’s fantastic seafood paradise Osteria…mmm… It works so, so well with grilled seafood… This was a pleasant surprise. Sorry about the photo, none of them came out too well… The main was a bit of a mess tho…

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This pastry ball they call the “mutton bomb”…and well, it bombed. It was just meat in some pretty dodgy pastry. I snacked at this after defusing it, emptying out the meaty centre. But this evening was mostly about the company, and it was a very liquid evening too, catching up with one of my favourite people on the planet — someone I can talk geopolitics and food with with ease. I’m lucky to have such friends!

The next day, with wee headache, I headed across the Thames to meet with a respected journalist and expert on Russian affairs at the Blueprint Café. I had forgotten it was tourism hell it being Good Friday…and stupid me I gotten off the Tube at Tower Hill and walked across the bridge. I almost threw a bunch of people off the bridge…ugh…

But we had a good meal at this nice restaurant with a brilliant view of the Thames (the selling point of so many places on the south side), talking politics and other events that has been in the media lately. After a so-so cauliflower soup, the pork chop was rather nice. Frankly it was done better than the Middlewhite from the other night, so I was content. Sorry, no pix — too busy chatting! And after dessert, we chatted on — but unfortunately I was running very late to get back to catch up with a friend in the centre.

So walking extremely fast (and sweaty now) I fought through the tourists near London Bridge and entered the packed Jubilee Line to get to Oxford and Bond streets…tourism hell, if there was a definition… If it wasn’t to catch up with a good friend for a quick drink I would not have gone there… But that’s London for you…

Later that evening met up with the same friend from Wednesday and a few others for a Korean BBQ at Myung Ga in SoHo. I won’t say much but I was rather unhappy with this meal (despite having some good ones here in the past). The service was shaky and rude at times (especially condescending to one member of our party). Having to pay for a rather lacking banchan presentation when were were 4 and spending a lot is also very un-Korean and rip-offish. Some of the meats, like the galbi, was very bland, poorly marinated. Some of the kitchen-prepped items like the spicy squid was good, however. But it was very lacking, a big miss. But I did cleverly hide my coat under everyone else’s, so I don’t smell of BBQ meats at Heathrow the next day…

And finally, my trip was at an end. I had a spare 45 minutes before running to Heathrow so I stopped at one of my favourite places, Hereford Road. I’ve been coming to Tom Pemberton’s excellent eatery since the month it opened, and it’s been a magnet for me since. Tom manages some excellent items each time I come here, and rarely has it missed.

I didn’t want to write a full review because it wasn’t fair — I chose items that I wanted but also because I was in such a rush. I will write a review of this awesome place when I have a chance to eat like a normal person. But it was a good start with one of my all-time faves, the cuttlefish…

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Delicious, though I miss my gigantic ones back in the US. Tasty, doesn’t need much work. Excellent, usual Tom-style cooking, simple but solid. The main was the grilled mackerel, a dish I’ve had a few times here.

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Always solid, and easy and quick to eat. Sadly I had to run off like a madman to get my bag and head to Deathrow, but at least I got my Hereford Road fix in…it is good enough to be called an addiction! Heavily recommended!

So after all this, I was homeward bound… This has been such a knackering trip overall and culinarily I am exhausted…completely. I don’t want to be in a Michelin-starred restaurant for a long time. I want plain, ordinary food for awhile, unpretentious but good. It’s experiences like this that sour me on “fine dining” and over-planning such meals during short city stays. Maybe I’m just getting jaded…who knows…

Yeah, it’s the price of Midlife Crisis…you get jaded and become the old man you once mocked for being jaded…

Gasthaus an der Alster
Ferdinandstraße 65-67
Hamburg, Deutschland

Newman Street Tavern
48 Newman Street
London, England

Jugged Hare
49 Chiswell Street
London, England

Blueprint Café
Design Museum
28 Shad Thames
London, England

Myung Ga
1 Kingly Street
London, England

Hereford Road
3 Hereford Road
London, England

Review: Haerlin

Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg,
26 March 2013

In the matter of the past few days I have dined at three different Michelin-starred restaurants — Steirereck im Stadtpark** in Vienna, Costes* in Budapest, and Se7en Oceans* here in Hamburg — and frankly I’ve had about enough of “haute” cuisine. Steiereck was surprisingly inconsistent, Costes was the best of the group, and Se7en Oceans was rather disastrous. So in some ways I was happy to say tonight’s visit to 2-star Haerlin** was to be the last Michelin experience of this trip…

It was a breezy and cool evening, and I walked along the Binnealster towards the Fairmont Hotel — the location of this evening’s experience. My last meal before heading back “home” to London, I was frankly rather tired. Fruitless meetings all day have made this entire trip question whether it’s even worthwhile for me to pursue new projects. I clearly have to give my own business model some re-think.

As I walked into the elegant dining room, I was given a very nice seat — one that viewed the fountain in the Binnealster from a different angle. Also, it was in a prime place to take advantage of the very large full moon from this evening. And with a sparkling wine to start, things were moving in the right direction.

You can tell they put an extreme amount of attention to the service, which is typical of a German 2-star experience. Maybe a little too stiff, but it’s good once in awhile. Though it is a little depressing when many couples were dining together on this beautiful full-moon night…sigh…

After choosing the “palate” menu over the so-called “flavour treatment” menu, I relaxed. The service was very quick and polished, though perhaps — as was in Steirereck it was simply due to the early hour and the restaurant not very busy yet. I was told that it was the norm, as the restaurant has 1 seating per table per evening anyway.

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My first amuse-bouche arrived soon, and it was a trio of tasty morsels — from the char to the “puff” foie gras to the goat cheese and herring. All three were quite nice and distinct in their own way. This place has last night’s Se7en Oceans meal beat already.

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In the meantime my second amuse-bouche arrived, the so-called “Hamburg’s favourite dish” — the beef tartar. Not bad, with some smoked mashed potatoes. Maybe a little too much with the purple, but tasty. Good start so far.

I did opt for wine pairings all night, so let’s hope that goes better than the short pourings at fellow 2-star Steirereck… In a short time, the first course arrived — which centred around the langostine.

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I have to say the langostine was one of the most delicious I’ve ever had, cooked just perfectly and without too much over-preparation. The other nibbles on the side, including horseradish creme, iced sorrel, and beets, were nice and helped the palate on, but the langostine was the star. The nice white wine was also refreshing. Fabulous start so far!

Soon after I finished it did not take long before the second course arrived — based on Norway’s prized skrei cod.

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I’m usually not someone that jumps up-and-down for cod (which I always found wee boring), but this skrei was utterly fantastic. Perhaps the foam wasn’t necessary and the bacon on bottom for a bit soggy, but the skrei was the star here. I’m not a fan of the sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) but they worked nicely with the rich broth. A fabulous start so far, shows off some real excellent work with seafood!

After last night’s poor attempt at seafood execution, I’m happy again…thank goodness, it’s hard to contemplate questioning the seafood cooking pedigree of one of the world’s great port cities… And once again rather quickly (this is moving very quick, less than 10 minutes between every course), the third course arrives: the red mullet.

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Again, the red mullet is not one of my favourite fishes, but this kitchen was done a bang-up job with this fish. The cauliflower essence throughout also adds a nice flavour to this excellent dish. The fried mini prawns were interesting but didn’t add much to it…in fact, it may have been more distracting than anything (because the waited placed such an emphasis on it when talking about eating the tail). A little over-chef’ing here? But a darn good piece of fish.

I was very happy by now and was happily waiting for my fourth course — a sad departure from the very successful run of seafood. But I waited and waited and waited… It was over half an hour before the next dish arrived…which was almost as long as all the other dishes. I understand kitchens get busier, but this is so crazy inconsistent and I had to ask them what happened a few times. I just got the “they dropped it on the floor” feeling here, since the wine service was now going out of synch…

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By the time the dish arrived, I was starting to be put off a bit. And although it was highly rated by the service staff (who has been extremely helpful and friendly to this point), it was a disappointment. As a lover of vegetables (I am a carnivore true and true, but it’s hard for me to eat just meat without veg on the side), I was curious and happy to see a dish based on so-called “rare breeds” of veg in this “pot” of winter vegetables.

Now this looks cute and so forth, but it misses badly in the middle of this service after three solid and rich seafood dishes. The foam doesn’t mesh with the vegetables, and the truffles did not help but kill the flavours of the veg I wanted to taste. It was clearly one of “over-Michelising” a simple dish and it really did not go well at all. One of the poorest dishes I’ve had in awhile.

I was starting to stew now as it ran nearly half hour again for my next course. They had to re-pour my wine twice and even they were turning their head looking into the kitchen, very annoyed. And also, the aforementioned sunchokes has had its most undesirable effect…I was feeling extremely bloated by this point. A half hour or so later my last savoury course came — the lamb.

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I was earlier very excited about the special Eiderländer lamb they had. They insisted on doing it medium, and frankly it was not good. After the amazing lamb at Steirereck and the awesome lamb at Costes, it was a sad ending to my lamb experience on this trip. It was low in flavour and just seemed rather boring compared to the start of this meal. I could not even fish it…I’ve had better lamb at a takeaway frankly…

By now I was livid with the pace of service. The last 2 courses took *more* time than the entire time from walking in to finishing the 3rd course of red mullet. Sure, the restaurant was busy, but this drastic change just disrupts the experience. I was now so unhappy I barely touched the two dessert courses — and I didn’t bother to photo them.

The poppy soufflé was rather boring, but utterly ruined by a disastrous pairing of sweet sake. The odour (sorry, it was not aroma) of this particular sake was like a 50-ton boulder smashing into the soufflé. Just terrible. I couldn’t touch it, I pushed it away. Yech…who came up with this?

It took so long for the last dessert course to come out I actually asked for the bill beforehand. The wait for the pralines and friandises wasn’t worth it, and I was sick of this place now. The dining experience started so brilliantly it has turned into a major trial now, going on over 3 hours…remember the walk-in to finishing course 3 was *less* than 1 hour…

I left very unhappily and the staff just didn’t get it. They even told me to go get my own coat. I was livid. But then the manager chased after me and bought me a drink at the hotel bar and wanted to hear my complaints, and I voiced them all. I told him that the first 3 courses were some of the best food I’ve eaten in years, but everything went Niagara Falls from that point on — from the poor food to the ridiculous wait time.

I don’t mind if there’s a long gap between every course, but when it goes suddenly from a consistent 10-15 minutes to easily over 30 minutes, it shows the type of inconsistency that should not be gifted 2 Michelin stars.

Again, I leave a Michelin dining experience very disappointed. I thought the whole point of Michelin, especially 2-star places, is to offer diners a solid experience without massive hiccups and inconsistencies? This trip just shows Michelin is a biased, useless ratings system that’s rife with corruption and incompetence.

The only of the 4 meals at Michelin restaurants this trip that went totally smoothly and, frankly, Michelin-worthy, was Costes in Budapest. No massive fail dish (like the salt with a side of rice and John Dory rolled in sickly honey), no massive fall-off in quality like tonight, and no skimping and over-selling like at Steirereck. Again, the discrimination against Central/East European places. If Michelin knew what it was doing, there would be more stars east and less stars at failing venues — if they can get those corks out of their collective arses and noses.

I walked back to my hotel in the cold and windy night just holding my coat, as I needed the icy wind to feel like myself again. How can a fabulous evening go so pear-shaped so quickly? I recommend Haerlin fully — just leave after the 3rd course.

Haerlin
Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten
Neuer Jungfernstieg 9-14
Hamburg, Deutschland