Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Europe 2013: Spring versus Volta

It seems a little odd to mention these two restaurants (and pit them against each other) in one post but the comparisons were inevitable.  For our Europe trip, I wanted to play things by ear for the most part, but I did want to try to plan two nice dinners - one in Paris (obviously) and one in Belgium.  I left Alex to make the plans for Belgium (picking the restaurant, making the reservations, etc.) and I took care of Paris.  I had the choice narrowed down to a few different restaurants in Paris (Spring and Septime were the frontrunners) and Alex found a trio of restaurants in Ghent that looked interesting (Volta, De Vitrine and Jef).  I ended up picking Spring and Alex went with Volta.  Both restaurants do a tasting menu and both are comparable in terms of price, so it was natural to compare the two, even if they serve very different food.  Both of these meals were incredibly memorable.  Both were delicious.  But the experiences couldn't have been more different for a number of reasons that I will go into in more detail below.  

If you held a gun to my head and made me choose which restaurant I had to go back to, I think I would pick Spring.  But if you made me pick which overall experience I preferred, I would pick Volta.  In a head-to-head taste off I thought the rankings were as follows:
  • Spring won the amuse-bouches.
  • Spring and Volta tied for the red mullet versus the eel - the eel at Volta was more interesting, but I would be more likely to order the red mullet from Spring again.  I might give a slight edge to Volta because it really was tasty and memorable (as well as interesting).
  • Volta won for the ham (and we can include the fish since there were an uneven number of courses, but it would have won on the ham alone) over the lobster and asparagus dish from Spring.
  • Spring won on the lamb versus the turkey leg.
  • Spring won on the desserts for me, although I much preferred the little cake at Volta to the chocolate tart at Spring.  In the spirit of full disclosure, Alex preferred his cheese plate and the cake at Volta to anything we had at Spring.
More details and pictures after the jump!


Volta is located in an old converted power plant outside of downtown Ghent.  The space was really cool and I liked the atmosphere.  I'm not going to bother posting the photos I took of the space because the slideshow of photos on their website is way better than anything I took.  Prior to sitting down to dinner we were encouraged to head up to the bar to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.  When I looked around I realized that Volta is that trendy local restaurant where you get a mix of locals of all ages out for a nice evening.  The group next to us at the bar area was in their 40's, but the group on the other side of them was in their mid-20's.  There were couples out on dates, big groups that seemed to be celebrating special events, and other groups who just seemed to be out having a good time and a great meal.  All things considered, it was a really nice mix.  The most striking thing was that Alex and I seemed to be among the only tourists there.  

After we finished our drinks the hostess came up and got us and we sat down to our amuse-bouches, which included the only thing we ate that evening that I didn't like - a shooter of asparagus-grape juice.  That combination might sound appealing to some, but I was not a fan.  If I had been thinking (and I fully admit that I wasn't), I would have taken a picture of the menu so I could describe in minute detail everything we ate that weekend.  Alex was embarrassed enough that I took pictures at all so it's probably best that I didn't.  Our first course was smoked eel with cucumber, some sort of greens, braised leeks and frozen milk powder.  It was interesting and very tasty, but I'm not certain that I would ever order it a la carte.  I had no idea that Volta skewed slightly into molecular gastronomy territory and it made me really curious about the dishes to follow.  The second course was ham with sunchokes and shaved chestnuts.  I loved this dish.  It couldn't have been more perfect - all of the flavors and textures worked together to make it a flawless dish (if a little less inventive than the first).  The third dish was fish with thinly sliced carrots on top in a hazelnut milk/butter sauce.  The fish was perfectly cooked, but it was the hazelnut sauce that really carried the plate for me.  It was lovely.  The next course was a turkey leg (I know, it doesn't look much like a leg, does it?  I guess that's more molecular gastronomy for you) with asparagus, a charred spring onion and some sort of sauce that I cannot recall for the life of me.  I want to say that it was another nut-based sauce, but I could be wrong.  The turkey leg was good, but I didn't think it was nearly as good as the previous two courses.  For dessert Alex and I decided to try a little bit of everything - he ordered the cheese plate instead of the sweet desserts and I went for the dessert.  He claimed that in large part his decision to go with the cheese plate was made the second two waiters brought out a huge wooden cutting board with cheese on top at the end of the meal.  This might have been the first and only time in my life that I was jealous of his cheese plate.  The first dessert was a flan with a coffee granita.  It was good, but I wasn't blown away.  The second dessert (and the one that I had been really excited for) was a rhubarb and hay concoction.  It was ok, but I found it to be a little too heavy on the hay and a little too tart.  Oh well.  And then, when we thought we were done and couldn't possibly eat anything else, they brought out a lovely little cake with an orangey-vanillay sauce that made me do a little happy dance because it was that delicious.  All-in-all, it was a really nice meal and a fun way to kick off our trip.  Everything we ate, with the exception of the amuse-bouches and the rhubarb and hay dessert is pictured below.

Several days later Alex and I visited Spring in Paris, where the atmosphere couldn't have been more different than at Volta.  First, Spring is located in the 1st Arrondissement and it looks like any other classy Parisian restaurant.  Second, Paris doesn't go the hipster route so the feel of place was just very different.  Third, Spring was packed full of American tourists.  It was the only restaurant we ate at during our entire trip where I felt like we were surrounded by tourists in a restaurant aimed specifically at tourists.  That made me a little nervous.  

That nervousness ended the second the waitress put down the series of amuse-bouches.  I'm not sure if I have mentioned my love of oysters (both raw and fried) on the blog before, but I have loved oysters since I was a little girl.  I actually loved raw oysters long before I ever tried a cooked oyster but I love them all.  The fried oysters that Spring served us were gorgeous - plump, perfectly cooked and not at all greasy.  If I could eat them every day I would.  The oysters were served alongside a nice dipping sauce, some cured ham and smoked tiny potatoes.  As far as amuse-bouches go, these were among the best I have ever had.  And then we moved on to the first course - a nicely seared red mullet fillet with peas and foie gras in a rich, chicken broth (pictured above).  I'm not sure that the dish needed the foie gras, but that broth was amazing.  I pretty much licked my bowl.  The second course was lobster with fresh green asparagus, dill and scallions, some rye crisps (the texture was interesting) and two different lobster sauces (also pictured above).  The third course (and this was probably my favorite of the evening) was lamb - both loin and neck (but only the loin is pictured below) with an almond sauce, a sprig of watercress and roast garlic.  It was the lambiest (in a great way) lamb I have ever had.  The difference in flavor and texture between the loin and the neck was incredible.  Both were tender and delicious, but the lamb neck blew me away.  Yum.  Now on to dessert.  Spring served us a little trio of desserts - strawberries with a thyme granite and mint, a lemon sorbet and a praline mousse of sorts.  They also surprised us with a miniature chocolate tart to share.  Strangely enough I found the exact tasting menu for Spring posted on their website, which I have copied below the pictures...

Looking back on everything, both meals were fantastic.  I am really happy that we picked those two particular restaurants to visit.  Paris in particular had a billion other restaurants that we could have chosen, but I had heard and read so much about Spring that I couldn't resist.  And while I would pick Spring to return to (if I had to pick just one), I can't help feeling like the experience at Volta was just that much more memorable for a number of reasons.  First, I loved the design and atmosphere of the restaurant itself, including the vast open kitchen with big glass windows into the dining room.  I love to gawk and this restaurant prevented the opportunity for me to gawk to my heart's content.  Second, I liked that we were surrounded by locals and not tourists.  Being surrounded by Americans at Spring really threw me.  It might be that we picked a particularly American night to visit Spring, but every single table that I could see was full of Americans out for a night in Paris.  It was a little disconcerting.  Third, Volta was just more our kind of place - slightly trendy, but not aggressively so with a more informal feel and great food.  This is a bit of an over-generalization, but there were more sport coats at Spring than I tend to prefer.  And Alex points out (and rightly so) that if nothing else, the amount I wrote about Volta compared to the amount I wrote about Spring says a lot.  Spring reminded me of meals we had a few years ago at Le Bernadin and A Voce - while everything was perfectly cooked and delicious, they weren't all that memorable and we haven't returned to either restaurant.  It was all a little too perfect and a little less us.  So maybe I should revise my earlier statement.  If I had to bring my parents somewhere, I would to go Spring.  If I was bringing friends, I would go to Volta.  And if you could combine the food at Spring with the atmosphere/vibe at Volta (plus a little more of their pizzazz, for lack of a better word), it might very well be the perfect restaurant.

Smoked eel at Volta

Ham with sunchokes at Volta

Fish with carrots and hazelnut sauce at Volta

Turkey leg at Volta

Flan at Volta

Alex's cheese plate at Volta (as I recall, it had a few Dutch cheeses I was not familiar with and a really nice Epoisses on the spoon in the middle of the plate)

The random little cake they brought out at the end of our meal at Volta.  It doesn't look like much but it was amazing.

Amuse-bouches at Spring

Lamb at Spring

Desserts at Spring

Little chocolate tart at Spring

Menu de la semaine - 15/05
Pour commencer                              
Huitre panée, frite, sauce gribiche
Jambon de Porc Noir de Bigorre
Pommes de terre fumées
1° entrée                                           
Rouget  de St Jean de Luz, petits pois, foie gras de canard cru, radis,
Bouillon de poule épicé (curry, curcuma, piment d’oiseau), estragon.
2° entrée
Asperges vertes, homard, sauce au homard, marmelade oignon, citron et cerfeuil, sauce paloise (béarnaise à la menthe)
Filet d’agneau de Lozère, purée d’amandes, olives de Kalamata, abricot sec, cresson
Collier d’agneau braisé, cresson
Sorbet Citron, fèves de cacao.
Fraises gariguettes, sorbet au thym, cacao et menthe.
Tartelette légère au cacao
Crème pralinée, purée raisin sec, noisettes caramélisées
Apetizer :
Fried oyster, gribiche sauce
Ham from black pig from Bigorre
Smoked potatoes
1st starter:
Red mullet, peas, spiced chicken broth (curry, turmeric), tarragon
2nd starter :
Green asparagus, lobster & lobster sauce, onions marmelade, chervil & lemon, mint sauce
Main course:
Lamb from Lozère, almond purée, kalamata’s olives, apricot, watercress
Lamb neck & cresson
Lemon sorbet, cacao beans
Strawberries, thym granite, mint
Chocolate tart

Praline cream, raisins, caramelized hazelnuts

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