I have never been to America before and, having followed Thomas Keller's food for so many years, it made sense to do 'all things Keller' - The French Laundry, AD HOC, Bouchon Bakery and Bouchon Bistro in the Napa Valley, and Per Se in New York were all on the list. So were State Bird and modern Vietnamese spot Slanted Door in San Francisco, Le Bernardin and Jean Georges in New York, and lots of casual little spots.
ADHOC was our first meal and we dined on seriously remarkable food served in a buzzing restaurant with a small, set menu that oozed quality. I expected it to be more home-styled cooking because it is marketed as food Thomas grew up with, but I guess it has evolved into a chef's view of home-styled cuisine. It was creative and inspiring! My best dish was key lime pie in a jar with a pretzel-graham crust and meringue.
The food at Per Se has Thomas Keller's signature touch - finesse, quality and love, which brings out the flavour of every dish. The team too is worth mentioning. There was an underlying sense of emotion which I didn't find in other the restaurants. My best dish was the Green Market gazpacho with cilantro custard, cerignola olive relish and pimentón crisps.
State Bird, Stuart Brioza's San Francisco, restaurant was also incredible. Anyone going to San Francisco should visit him; he went out of his way to share must-try restaurants and foodie experiences with me. Here the must-try dish is the birdseed bittersweet chocolate crunch with caramel cloud cream and blueberries.
The stand-out dishes
Other stand out dishes included the Boudin blanc at Bouchon Bistro - sauteed white sausage with potato puree and French prunes. For something so simple this was so yummy. I just loved the savoury and sweet combination. At Coi the whipped coconut had a really memorable texture, and I loved trying all the signature dishes at the French Laundry. At Le Bernadin the crispy black bass with roasted shishitos, acorn squash ceviche and Peruvian chichi sauce was memorable, as were the daikon rice cakes at The Slanted Door.
Must-try ingredients I bought many different types of beans home. I really enjoyed them in a lot of the dishes I tasted - I even bought a book on growing heirloom beans! I also added to my already large collection of salt. There were so many new and interesting types, one being hibiscus salt. I can't wait to use it at Hartford House.
SA vs USA
The world is very small in some senses... In America, they are emphasizing the same things we are here: fresh, seasonal, carefully sourced products.
I came home so inspired, rejuvenated and proudly South African. We have so much heart and love in our South African restaurants. Here at home, to serve a guest and bring an experience of warmth to the table is still seen as a privilege, not a duty. Restaurants aren't only about plates of food but an event much greater than that. The ambience and the encounter, together with the food and wine, make a combined memorable experience. This is what sets us apart.
We were in New York over NYC Restaurant Week. Everyone seemed extremely excited about this and I am delighted to hear it is happening in South Africa this year - we are looking forward to being involved.