Hashimoto in Edogawabashi (はし本、江戸川橋)

If there’s one thing I learned from last month’s meal at Ryo, it’s that eel. is. good.  I needed more and decided to check out Hashimoto.  Located in a very quiet neighborhood somewhere between Nagatacho and Ikebukuro, Hashimoto was established in 1835 and is run by a sixth-generation owner and chef.

The scent of grilled unagi wafts outside and upon sliding the front door open, it feels like you are entering a traditional Japanese home somewhere far away from Tokyo’s bright lights.  It’s a very casual restaurant and only offers about 10 items on an a la carte menu.  Unlike most Michelin-starred restaurants, there is no course menu, no service charge, a concise, if not limited, selection of libations, and zero sense of pretentiousness or stuffiness.  Rather, the service is attentive and the eel is given its proper space to shine.  From the fact that almost every item contains eel in some form, to the “Unagi Washoku” posters on the walls, there is no doubt that this is a dining destination for the eel purist (do those exist?).

And it’s one of Japan’s cheapest Michelin restaurants, too.  The most expensive item, the unagi-ju jou, is only 3300 yen and most drinks are 700 or 800 yen.  With sake and all the food below, our bill came out to under 13,000 yen.  Not bad at all for expertly prepared eel with a nearly 200 year-old history.

Let’s eat Hashimoto!

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Regalo レガロ(代々木公園)

The 2017 Tokyo Michelin guide was published just two weeks ago with relatively minimal fanfare, few, if any, surprises, and no new 3-starred restaurants.  There were, however, several new one-star establishments, and Regalo, just outside of Sangubashi Station in the always-fashionable Yoyogi Koen area, is one of them.  Actually, Regalo was featured in last year’s Bib Gourmand section, a collection of restaurants of both quality and affordability, but not quite warranting the coveted star.  In the new red guide, Regalo has been promoted to one-star status, and it’s with good reason.  Regalo offers top-notch Italian cuisine that relies heavily on seasonal Japanese ingredients.  The result is a fusion cuisine that works well for a reasonable price.

It’s a fairly casual affair with pop music on the speakers, a counter/bar area facing the open kitchen, and enough seats set spaciously apart to fit around 30 people.  The staff is personable, the atmosphere is welcoming, and nothing feels stuffy or pretentious.

It’s also very affordable.  There is an a la carte menu, but I recommend putting yourself in the chef’s hands with any of the 3 course menus.  Even the most expensive menu only costs a mere 8000 yen, inclusive of tax and service charge.  One interesting point is that even in the course menu, you are given an a la carte choice for both dessert and after-dinner drink.  If you don’t have a sweet tooth, you can choose to drink your dessert as we did (see below).  Wine pairings are available as well for 3000, 4000, or 5000 yen (essentially 1000 yen per glass). Indeed Regalo is friendly on the wallet, and very delicious.

Let’s eat Regalo!

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Amuse Bouche- fried fugu served over a yurine (lily bulb) puree. The fugu (poisonous pufferfish) is prepared two ways- the regular meat and the minced skin.

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Hokkaido codfish shirako (smelt) wrapped in kadaif over an Italian herb sauce.  The best fish sperm I’ve ever tasted!

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The breadbasket- parmesan focaccia, onion focaccia, ciabatta, and milk bread.

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Spaghetti with handmade karasumi (bottarga).

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Orechiette over a whole oyster in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Higedara (armored cusk fish) meuniere served over a spinach puree with spinach.

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Charcoal-grilled Hokkaido beef with grilled radicchio and a salsa verde.  Divine!

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While the desserts sounded delicious, we opted for dessert cocktails.  On the right is kaki (apricot) amaretto and on the left is one of the best drinks ever- gorgonzola-infused Okuhida vodka.  Had never heard of cheese in a drink, but this was creamy, refreshing, and absolutely amazing.

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After-dinner drink- who needs coffee when you have herb and berry-infused grappa? Ok, I was drunk by this point.  Midori opted for the herb tea.

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Petit fours to finish.  Buono!

Ostu in Yoyogi (オストゥ 代々木公園)

Ostu, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant located just across from Yoyogi Park on the Hachiman side, knows a thing or two about customer relationship management.  We had thoroughly enjoyed their very reasonably priced course menu two years ago, but for one reason or another (chalk it up to being spoiled for dining options in Tokyo), hadn’t been back since.  However, after receiving an email from Ostu outlining a campaign including 10% off the price of the meal AND a free glass of Franciacorta sparkling wine, we made a reservation right away.  Nice CRM indeed.

It was a great strategy on Ostu’s part, as they have seriously stepped up their game in the past two years.  Not that our first experience was negative (it was anything but), but this evening’s offerings seemed to tell us, “Look what you’ve been missing since you’ve been gone.”  To sweeten the deal even more, they were offering a supplement of white truffles at 2000 yen per 3 grams.  White truffles are only available for a month or two, so we obliged for 9 grams shaved over two dishes.

Hearty portions, simple, yet expertly prepared dishes that let the ingredients shine, delicious wines, perfectly attentive service, and extremely reasonable prices all make Ostu one of Tokyo’s best Italian options.  Given the deal mentioned above, we were able to fully enjoy everything Ostu has to offer and get out of there for well under 30,000 yen for the two of us.  It felt like we had found a real bargain.

Let’s eat Ostu!

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The first of two dishes featuring the prized white truffles- a simple scrambled egg with plenty of butter.

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Insalata di Autunno (Autumn salad) – Rabbit meat slowly cooked at 140 degrees C, autumn “grey” truffle, endive, fig, raising, and balsamic vinegar.

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Porcini pie with brown butter sauce.  The crust was so light and flaky, the dish like a luxurious lasagna.  Delightful.

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Bavettine pasta with crab and spicy tomato sauce.  It was so easy to pull all the crab meat out from the leg in one juicy piece.  I loved it.

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Pumpkin and potato gnocchi with prosciutto ham crumbs in a cream and Italian cheese sauce.  The gnocchi were so soft.  Hearty and delicious.

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The second white truffle dish- a very simple butter sauce pasta.  This came covered, and when the waiter lifted the lid, a deep, rich scent of the truffle wafted over the table.  So nice.

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Rack of Icelandic lamb flavored with thyme, vinegar, the meat’s natural juices, and the charcoal grill.

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Usually one must pick between dessert and cheese.  For 1000 yen extra, we got both.  L to R – garganzola, a hard sheep’s milk cheese, and a soft cow cheese, served with a fig crostini and a loquat flower jam.

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A crepe made of chestnut powder with a vanilla gelato, hazelnut and chocolate creme, and candied figs.  DIVINE!

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Petit fours with coffee/tea.  A corn cookie, a hozuki cherry dipped in chocolate, and fresh cream meringue.  A sweet, fantastic finish.

Casa Vinitalia in Azabu Juban (カーザ ヴィニタリア)

As an early birthday celebration to me, we wanted to go somewhere nice to eat.  We love Tokyo’s selection of fine Italian restaurants because they are delicious, fairly simply, usually do not rely on heavy butter or cream, and are some of the most affordable Michelin-starred options in the city.

On this occasion, we chose Casa Vinitalia, an establishment in Azabu Juban (or 15 minute walk from Hiro Station) that’s fairly easy to find thanks to its location near a major intersection.  Upon entering this elegantly simple restaurant, it is immediately apparent that they focus a great deal of attention on their wine selection.  Wine bottles adorn the staircase used to access the main dining room, are used as decoration all around the restaurant, and the wine bottle is a thick, binded book of sorts.  We are by no means wine experts, so the staff were very accommodating in serving us wine by the glass based on our amateurish preferences (“Not too dry,” “Something fruity,” etc.).

Casa Vinitalia’s interior is beautiful in it’s white and sea green simplicity.  Every table in the main dining room centers around an open patio with lots of greenery.  Though we visited on a sweltering summer day, there is plenty of air conditioning in the open room to feel comfortable, while still enjoying the view.  It feels as if you’ve stepped out of Tokyo and into a coastal Italian restaurant for a couple hours.

The food offers some of the best cost performance I’ve experienced in Tokyo’s fine dining options.  For 8100 yen INCLUDING tax and service charge, the course menu is long and very generously portioned.  The course menu is, however, not a set menu.  Every customer is given plenty of options to design the course that best suits their preferences.  Indeed, from a choice of sauces for the starting bagna cauda to the number of grams for the final,”simple” pasta before dessert (30, 60, or 100 grams), there are so many options that it actually gets kind of confusing.  Sometimes it’s nicer to just sit back and let the chef make these kinds of decisions.  Still, the warm staff is more than willing to help in choices.

After plenty of drinks, a supplement of bagna cauda sauce, and with very stuffed bellies, we walked out having paid far less than 25,000 yen.  Highly recommended.

Let’s eat Casa Vinitalia!

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I really loved the interior of the restaurant.  Here, you can see the open patio.

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Olives provided for munching while musing over the menu food and drink options.

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Various breads.  Enjoy them on their own or dip them in the amazing bagna cauda.

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All the course menus start with the specialty bagna cauda.  We chose the gorgonzola cheese sauce.  Accompanied with a bouquet of fresh, seasonal vegetables.

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Doing the dip.

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The first starter – tachiuo (scabbard fish) carpaccio with a caper olive oil and herb sauce.

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Starter 2 (before plating) – sumibiyaki iwashi, or sardine cooked over coal.

 

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The plated sardine. Perfectly cooked and so juicy.  Squeeze the sudachi over the fish for a nice citrus kick.

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We opted for a supplementary refill of bagna cauda sauce- here is the standard anchovy-based dip with olive oil and butter.

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Ayu risotto (sweetfish) featured a generous helping of dill, zucchini, and string beans.

 

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Kinka pork.  Rare, juicy, and delicious.  Served with its own fat and a mustard-based salsa verde.

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Potatoes served with the pork.  We loved how much this restaurant uses Staub cookware.

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The final savory dish is a “simple pasta.”  We chose 60 grams of spaghetti and the spicy tomato sauce.  It had a nice zing and the homemade noodles were cooked perfectly.

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My dessert was white peach with a white wine sorbet.

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Cassata- an Italian ice-cream cake with various fruits and a passion fruit sauce.  I preferred this dessert.

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Petit fours featured a lemon caramel with apricot, a whipped cream meringue, and a brandy-infused ganache.

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Shakerato- an espresso shaken with ice with grappa liquor.  I absolutely loved this both in terms of taste and the presentation.  Excuse the dirty table in this photo.  I spilled a bit of bagna cauda!

 

 

Zuisetsu (瑞雪、梅ヶ丘)

In Japan, Valentine’s Day is for women to give a present to men.  I told my wife I don’t want a present, but would rather a delicious, Michelin-starred meal somewhere.  She was kind enough to take me to Zuisetsu, marking the first time we would indulge in Michelin grade Chinese food.  It was a fantastic choice. (Oh, and for the romantics/purists out there, men reciprocate in March during White Day.)

Zuisetsu is essentially a Chinese restaurant showcasing seafood dishes.  Located in a very quiet neighborhood a couple stops from the more lively Shimokitazawa, the restaurant is a bit off the beaten track.  However, it’s well worth the effort, and the location may be one reason the restaurant is able to provide an astoundingly large amount of food at a very reasonable price.  The course is a mere 7000 yen, and glass wine only 750, making Zuisetsu quite possibly the best Michelin bang-for-your-buck in Tokyo.

The restaurant is very small, meaning reservations are essential.  We were able to quickly and easily secure a table with one phone call a couple of weeks ahead.  There are around 12 seats in this unpretentious and comfortable restaurant (you take your shoes off before entering), and the restaurant is run entirely by the chef and his wife.  They are friendly, accommodating, and the chef comes to each table to greet each customer at the end of their meals.

Zuisetsu quickly became one of our favorite restaurants and we will definitely be back.  The course changes monthly and the amazing food makes the journey all the more worth the effort.

Let’s eat Zuisetsu!

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The amuse bouche was two cooked oysters. A subtle taste of star anise.

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Tai (red snapper) sashimi salad garnished with coriander, crushed peanuts, and fried wonton chips.

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Crab and shark fin soup served with black vinegar.

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The next dish was presented as above.

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Unwrapped, we were presented with fried honmoroko fish with a yuzu sauce. That fish is translated to, er, Gnathopogon.

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“Mocchiri Tofu.” A tofu with a thick, almost bread-like texture topped with a juicy piece of crab.

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Tenshi no Ebi (angel shrimp) served with a dipping sauce and a bowl to wash your fingers. This shrimp was absolutely amazing. We sucked the hell out of those heads and it wasn’t bitter at all. Creamy, sweet, delicious.

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Butter-soft pork belly in “douchi” sauce with vegetables. That’s a Chinese black-bean sauce. So so good as the pork belly and fat mixed together to form an almost cream-like texture.

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The same fish used in for the sashimi salad above, the red snapper is cooked and served in a decidedly salty sauce for the table to share.

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We plated the fish to make it look pretty.

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Later, we were given a bowl of rice in which to mix the soup and have a kind of porridge.

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Fish dashi and seaweed Chinese noodles. Like a ramen to finish the meal.

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Dessert was a coconut “Oshiruko” (coconut milk with kodaimai “ancient rice”) and annindofu, a very traditional Chinese tofu-based dessert. Served with complementary jasmine tea to round off an absolutely amazing meal.

Disfrutar – Barcelona, Spain

The second of two Michelin restaurants we visited in Spain was definitely the stronger of the two, and I would say this was my favorite meal of 2015.

Disfrutar was opened in 2015 by three head chefs of El Bulli, and unsurprisingly, gained a Michelin star in the guide’s next publication.  This was a truly epic dining experience, clocking in at just shy of 4 hours, and a highlight of our trip.

Again, I have to apologize because my descriptions of the food may be somewhat lacking. I chalk this up to three factors: 1) Sometimes it’s hard to completely understand the staff’s accents, 2) Sometimes it’s difficult to “get” all the descriptions of the food that is closely linked to Spanish culture, 3) We did the wine pairing, it was something like 12 wines, and by the end of this meal I was absolutely smashed.  Seriously, I’ve never been so hungover after a night of fine dining.  This just goes to show how truly FUN it is to eat at Disfrutar. There is no pretentiousness, and though the cuisine is arguably some of the best in the world, the restaurant is quite casual in the best way possible.  The vibe is jovial and the staff is very friendly.

There were three menus- a standard menu (~70 euros), a festival menu (100 euros), and the holiday menu (130 euros).  When eating at these kinds of restaurants, my theory is to always go big and really see what the restaurant has to offer.  However, the holiday menu featured a lot of game meat (primarily rabbit), of which I’m not a huge fan, so we took the festival menu.  The amount of food served for this price is outstanding, and the wine pairing is well worth the 55 euros.  It’s obvious the chefs and sommeliers put in great effort and meticulous detail to make sure the wines matched each and every dish or movement of dishes.

I can’t say enough about Disfrutar.  It may only have 1 Michelin star (perhaps it’s too casual to be considered for more), but it should be on every gourmet’s bucket list.  This is some of the most exciting food I’ve ever had, and in my opinion follows just behind Sagrada Familia on the list of Barcelona’s must-dos.

Let’s eat Disfrutar!

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“Welcoming cocktail” – Frozen passionfruit, rum, and shaved coffee that the waiter adds in front of you.

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“The beet that comes out of the land.” The waitress shook the dish and out of the soil came these two delicious bites of dehydrated “beets” flavored with yogurt.

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Texture detail of the “beet.”

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“Gin rose petal” – You just eat the little drops of gin. Like gin ikura.

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“Salty candy with walnuts” and mango on the right.

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A tomato “polvaron” – a play on a Spainsh Christmas sweet. The little drops are made from a rare olive oil.

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“Transparent pesto ravioli” served with a parmesan water. You dip the ravioli and put the whole thing in your mouth.

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Disfruta olives- brought over from El Bulli. These both look like normal olives but actually burst in your mouth. The left one is concentrated olive juice and the right tasted like citrus.

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The olives were served with this little spoon of citrus juice to accompany the second olive.

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Idiazabal smoked cheese on a biscuit…

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…Served with a glass of fancy apple juice.

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Amazing dish right here- “Crispy egg yolk over mushroom gelatin.”

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The inside of this perfectly cooked egg.

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The truffle gelatin underneath the egg.

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“Recuit de drap,” this was unwrapped and topped with the sauce and pine nuts in front of us. A kind of Spanish cheese made from almond milk and topped with a truffle sauce and fir tree honey.

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Detail of the anchovy served with the cheese.

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Langoustine cocktail sandwich. The toast dissolves away as soon as you touch it. Reminiscent of Gaggan and absolutely delicious.

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Salmon and mackerel sushi- the rice is actually cauliflower. Tasty, but a little random.

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Continuing the short Asian theme- delightful mushroom dumplings.

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Macaroni carbonara. The pasta is actually made from gelatin.

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Liquid salad- hiding at the bottom was another little explosion of juice for the mouth.

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Eel gelatin, soy milk, cream, and Ossietra caviar- you fold it up into a thin little empanada and eat in one bite. This was so good.

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Razor clam with two types of peas- the ones on the right were normal peas, while those on the left were concentrated drops of pea juice.

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Disfrutar’s take on ajillo- An entire langoustine with black garlic and parsley foam.

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Red mullet with pork jowls and aubergine “gnocci.”

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The final savory dish was “Thin sheets of veal” – served with a chunk of bone marrow and truffle sauce. Delicious, but a bit heavy after all the previous food.  We actually had to leave a few slices.

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Pineapple sorbet with coconut and licorice.

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“Cheesecake cornet” topped with strawberry gelato.

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The “tarta al whiskey” starts with them pouring nice whiskey on your hands…

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…Then you eat these with your hands- the deconstructed tart….

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…Served with a vanilla cream.

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Chocolate peppers with salt and oil. The inside of the peppers is actually chocolate.

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“Coffee profiterole” – The final dessert. By the time this was served, I was totally wasted, so the picture alone will have to do.