April 10, 2014

Local Color: Katz Orange Restaurant, Berlin

On a short visit to Berlin last summer, I fell in love with the darling of that city’s booming dining scene: Katz Orange.

“The Orange Cat” is a small bistro-like eatery with a big personality and a commitment to local organic ingredients and an eclectic style of cooking. Occupying two floors of a handsome brick 19th-century brewery, Katz Orange has a rustic charm and inviting ambiance that won me over the instant I stepped inside. (Actually, as soon as I stepped into the front courtyard which is dramatically illuminated at night.) (Photo from HollywoodReporter.com.)

                            
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Inside, the lighting – mostly by huge candles -- is low and artistic; the furniture, an appealing blend of hipster modern and vintage. There’s an eye-popping red lighting installation on the ceiling, a cascading chandelier by the door, and a small “art gallery” in back. Servers are a friendly, accommodating group that includes an American sommelier in love with Pinot Noirs. (Photo by Scoop.it.)

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Katz Orange’s clientele, a mix of hip young people, important-looking older people, and everything in between, is eminently watchable. The vibe is comfortable, cool, and playful.

The food, too, is cool and playful, a deft blend of classic German, contemporary German and tried-and-true American favorites, such as Philadelphia  Cheesecake with fresh rhubarb. The focus is seasonal and locally sourced. The menu changes often and usually includes two Tasting Menus, along with a la carte options.

We started dinner with an elegant little salad of wild herbs, leafy, flavorful, and laced with raw marinated fennel, pear chutney, “sweet-and-salty” sunflower seeds, and a misting of carrot and fennel cream. Equally exciting was the soup of young spring garlic speckled with small ground lamb meatballs.

It’s not often that I opt for an all-American hamburger when I’m in Europe, but I couldn’t resist the handsome specimens being trotted past our table. It was a great choice: top-notch juicy beef, loosely formed into a massive burger, perfectly cooked and topped with homemade condiments. I loved every bite. Ditto every bite of the crisp French fries, cooked in organic goose fat, and served with lip-smacking homemade ketchup and curried mayonnaise.

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Asparagus Risotto was also impressive, its al dente rice studded with local green and white asparagus and roasted romaine lettuce, and crowned with a poached “farmer’s” egg (no store-bought eggs for this chef) and a drizzle of chervil-laced cream.

In addition to the Philly Cheesecake, seasonal mousses and a cheese selection, the Orange Cat offers a lovely little plate of petits fours that sends guests off satisfied but not stuffed.

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Since we didn’t get to taste the dish Katz Orange is most famous for ---12-hour-cooked specialty pork, with champagne cabbage, braised onion and potato puree, we have a good excuse to go back to Berlin again sometime soon.

The restaurant, in Berlin's trendy Mitte neighborhood, is open daily. Prices range from 7 to 26 Euros ($8 to $36).

April 08, 2014

POUTINE: Delicious Dish or "Dog's Dinner?"

You could call this an “Out of the mouths of babes” story. Or, more accurately, an “Into the mouths of babes” story.

You see, it was my 20-something sons who got me to try poutine. They had discovered this Canadian creation at Whistler Mountain, B.C., then at Salt House in San Francisco. They both raved about the glories of the mishmash of French fries, fresh cheese curds and brown gravy. They marveled at how it was always served in an enormous portion.

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For years, I've listened and wondered where the hell I went wrong in raising these kids. I mean, really. What could possibly be appealing about a huge load of soggy French fries trapped in (barely)edible sludge.

But last fall, I decided to give poutine a chance when I was in Montreal, said to be its birthplace. (Technically the dish is thought to have been invented in either Warwick or Drummondville, small Quebec towns not far from Montreal.)

I was lucky enough to be guided in my exploration by Julian Armstrong, the former food editor of the Montreal Gazette and a close friend of mine for decades.

Julian was quick to defend the dish, saying that it was pretty darn delicious when it first became popular sometime in the 1960s.

It came in an individual small soup bowl type of styrofoam container. This allowed the freshly fried fries to stand up in the bowl, with very fresh cheese curds dropped into the bottom where they could start to melt. Over this went a little chicken gravy. You raised a fry and it would have a slight amount of melted cheese dripping from it, as if you had dipped it in a good cheese fondue. The gravy was only a garnish,” she explained.

However, more recently, when she and a photographer were looking for poutine to photograph for her book on Montreal street food, she had a rude awakening.

I found the arrival of a low, wide Styrofoam container and a super-abundance of gravy. The look? Dog’s dinner. What hath the popularity of this simple dish done to it?”

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I opted to taste my first poutine at a popular food truck parked by Montreal's Convention Center. There were about 20 people clustered around the truck, waiting to order or pick up. Everybody was very jovial. This was clearly not just lunch but a cherished ritual. I was excited.

I stuck with the basic poutine, made at this truck with braised beef cheeks, which were very tasty. The cheese curds were OK; a little chewy and with minimal cheese flavor (cheese curds don’t normally have a lot of flavor anyway). But, oh, my, the poor French fries. When I finally rescued one from the gooey gravy sea, it was long past resuscitation.

My first poutine was likely to be my last.

But, for those of you who think you can, indeed, polish a meatball, there are poutine variations including Greek, with feta cheese and gyro meat; Italian, with spaghetti and tomato sauce; and New Jersey poutine with mozzarella.

Armstrong also tells me that Montreal's hot-shot chefs pride themselves on their “designer” versions:  Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon adds duck foie gras (below). David McMillan of Joe Beef fries his potatoes in duck fat and adds Stilton cheese. Chuck Hughes of Garde Manger adds lobster.

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Moreover, each winter during Poutine Week, the chefs at some 30 Montreal restaurants try to outdo each other with the likes of poutine with lamb shanks, flower petals, fried eggs, Hollandaise sauce, roasted root vegetables and wild mushrooms.

Not a bottle of ketchup in sight.

 

April 02, 2014

The Great Gastro-Adventure of 2013

The only thing better than a mind-blowing meal in a magical setting is a mind-blowing meal in a magical setting when you know you’ve already burned off all the calories!

              Wine growing country Leutschach in spring

That’s pretty much my definition of a GastroAdventure. I had lots of them in 2013 but one stands out: A foray into the Austrian wine country called Steiermark (Styria in English) where we ate fabulous food at Restaurant Kreuzwirt and hiked during the day in the enchanting Altenbachklamm.

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Home base for the two-day adventure was Pössnitzberg (above), a family-run winery with about 20 elegant hotel rooms and a Gault-Milau-celebrated restaurant, Kreuzwirt.

On the day we arrived, we walked the serpentine country road called the Panorama/Weinstrasse (wine road), taking in the vast expanses of manicured vineyards, meadows full of flowers and cows eating them, and picturesque clusters of old homes and barns. That night we dined at Kreuzwirt (below), a sleek modern restaurant that appears to be floating in open space, thanks to two sides of floor-to-ceiling windows that were completely open on the warm June night we visited.

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Dinner was a thrilling procession:  A “martini” of homemade vermouth sorbet flecked with olive bits and herbs to mimic the “juniper” flavor of gin; a single raviolo (below) holding a poached egg, sautéed spinach, browned butter and shaved white truffle; local venison with summer mushrooms and tiny dice of speck (bacon); raw milk mousse and rhubarb sorbet, and more, much more. (Click here to read about the whole dinner.) Every course was accompanied by award-winning Gut Pössnitzberg wines.

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The next day, after a terrific breakfast served on the sunny terrace, we drove 20 minutes to the trailhead at Altenbachklamm. (Klamm means gorge or ravine; this Website is not available in English but you can use Google to translate it.)

South Styria is well known for its hikes, especially the panoramic walks on country roads and through vineyards and farms. But we were looking for something more challenging and, given the fact it was 95 degrees, something in the shade.

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After a short hike thru some vineyards, we found ourselves in heavy woods and climbing steadily. A billboard at the beginning of the trail described how the Klammsteige (“ravine climb”) was created in 2009 by local climbers and engineers. This masterpiece of bridges, steps, ladders, and one unattended hut, turns a terrifyingly steep and dark ravine into a pleasurable day hike.  Miles of railings, ropes and iron cables allow hikers to traverse the challenging terrain, and crisscross the deep ravine over and over again. Bridges are numbered -- I lost count at 25 – with the most impressive being a 100-foot long suspension bridge.

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A bit of dappled sunlight peeked in now and then but mostly we were in a cool, dark wonderland that we had all to ourselves. Ninety minutes later we emerged onto a vast, grassy plateau, and gazed out over the vineyards and valley floor from the terrace of Gasthaus Tertinek, a family-owned inn where we stopped for cold drinks and a donut.

You heard that right. A donut. Known as Krapfen in Austria, these beloved jelly donuts are almost always homemade and always scrumptious. The way I figure it, you can enjoy one completely without guilt if you have just clawed your way up 1,200 feet in a veritable jungle. (Photo by EuropeanBusinessJournal.)

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That evening, we enjoyed a quiet dinner on a tiny outdoor terrace overlooking the Pössnitzberg vineyards.  We drank Sekt (sparkling wine) during sunset, then enjoyed iced cucumber soup, garnished with minced salmon tartar, that hit the spot on an 85-degree evening.  Next came a lightly creamed ragout of local mushrooms, studded with diced speck, topped with a fried egg from the neighboring farm, and accompanied by a small green salad. Apple-rhubarb strudel, drizzled with raspberry sauce, was a colorful conclusion to the GastroAdventure of 2013.

Like most of the wineries in the region, Gut Pössnitzberg offers appealing package deals. We opted for the “Culinary Time-Out” package that included two nights’ accommodations with buffet breakfasts, one dinner in the garden from the hotel’s menu, and the four-course dinner, with wines, at Kreuzwirt. The cost was 199 Euros (about $250) per person. For more details, check out Gut Pössnitzberg.

 

 

March 06, 2014

Belly Up: Bottled Cocktails are the Rage

Bet you never thought of tossing a little tincture of chicken bone into your evening martini, did you?

Well, Ryan Chetiyawardana thought about it. Did it. And ended up with a wildly popular bar in London and a loud shout-out in a recent Wall Street Journal article. All after just a few months in business.(Photo by Hg2 Magazine.)

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The story of Chetiyawardana’s White Lyan is as much about what’s not in the bar as what is there. There is no back bar with recognizable labels, no lemons or limes, no perishable cream or eggs, no olives, no ice. What’s there is an array of bottled cocktails, lots of them, hi-balls, classics, shots, and esoteric “signature” drinks, all precisely mixed earlier in the day, decanted into branded White Lyan bottles, and stored at the optimal chill in large glass refrigerators that glow futuristically behind the bar. 

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Bottled cocktails have been “catching on steadily in recent years across the bartending universe,” says WSJ reporter Jay Cheshes. In addition to the obvious advantages for customers --- no waiting while the bartender shakes the drinks of the group that arrived before you --- there’s also the issue of quality control for the owners and the tantalizing possibilities of mass-marketing quality drinks for home use.

On a recent visit to London I got to see Chetiyawardana –-- let’s call him Ryan, shall we --- in action behind the bar at White Lyan in London’s Hoxton neighborhood. (“When I was young, some of my friends called me Lyan instead of Ryan,” he explained with a laugh.)

When the evening’s first guest ordered a Moby Dick Sazerac, Ryan spritzed a sliver of rice paper with absinthe, then set it afloat in the cocktail he poured from a one-serving bottle. Next-up: an Old-Fashioned that he poured into the “right” glass, then floated a soupcon of honey poured from a bottle lined with organic beeswax. Ryan's sister (and business partner), Natasha, came next, opting for an East End Rickey of gin and "bitter English soda."

The handsome, well-spoken Ryan, a two-time “UK Bartender of the Year," brings an artist’s flair and a scientist’s discipline to crafting cocktails. He buys spirits directly from distillers and makes his own base alcohols (gin, rye, whisky, rum, etc.), cordials and bitters; filters the bar’s water, adding just the right mineral mix; freezes some glasses, refrigerates others; all with perfection in mind. 

His Bone Dry Martini features a tincture made from chicken bones that are roasted and dissolved in phosphoric acid; the Sazerac (below, in photo by AnotherMag.com) contains a splash of ambergris, the whale secretion that’s used in perfume manufacture. The Monkey Ball involves scotch, chocolate, a tincture of black truffle, banana distillate and banana liqueur.

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Even the minimalist martini is a production: “There’s a textural aspect,” says Ryan. “A gin martini is about aromatics, channeling aromas, soft on the palate; while the vodka martini is about being clean, flinty, a crystallized moment.”

So, the big question. Why?

It’s all about control --- “Total control, about taking the time beforehand to make the best drink we can, something we’re 100 percent happy with.”

It’s about timing –-- “We can serve a lot of people in perfect synchronization…and our bartenders get more time to chat with guests.”

It’s about changing the customer experience --- “We try to fit the cocktail to the need, to get (customers) out of their comfort zones and understand their own palates better.”

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I wasn’t sure what my “need” was on the frigid, rainy night I arrived at White Lyan (Photo from Xing blog.) Did I want something “restorative,” something to “pick me up?” Ryan coached. When I offered that my ideal cocktail wakes up my palate and makes me hungry for dinner, Ryan immediately suggested a Negroni, my favorite cocktail. Out came the chilled glass, which he spritzed with orange distillate. He then lit a match and dropped it into the glass, covering it with another glass until the flame went out. With the match removed, he poured in the bottled mix of White Lyan gin, sweet vermouth, bitters, and layered zests. The concoction was aromatic, rich, spicy, with a bright citrus note on top. As we chatted, the flavors warmed and intensified.

White Lyan is not the place for folks with a Burger King mentality. Ryan is proud of the fact that his is the only bar in London with a “House-Drinks-Only” policy. Teeter in here after a tough day dreaming about a Jack and Coke and you might as well teeter right out again.

The menu offers about two-dozen drinks, plus a white, red and rose wine, all from France, all without labels. There’s also a Czech Craft Lager beer. The menu suggests asking for “hop atomization” if you prefer a pale ale, meaning a spritz of a distillate that will tweak the beer’s flavor profile. Wines can also be tweaked. The red wine is descibed as “Rich and fruity; Ask for spice distillate if you prefer a little extra depth.”

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Though the pop-and-pour idea seems to have first percolated in London, it’s now a force in U.S. bars including Empellon Taqueria in New York City (photo, above, by Wall Street Journal) and Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon where many cocktails are first aged in whisky barrels to imbue them with the character of the wood, then bottled for convenience and consistent carbonation, and served the same week they are made.

One last word. Ice. Americans love ice in their drinks. Lots of ice. We tsk-tsk when European bartenders drop one measly cube in our vodka-tonics. We get exasperated when our request for “more ice” brings another measly cube.

But much of what Chetiyawardana said made sense to me. #1 Ice is not always consistent in terms of water source, shape, or condition. #2 Ice machines are not always as clean as they should be. #3 Ice dilutes the flavor of a drink.

That said, old habits die hard. Though I'm already longing for my next White Lyan negroni, for now,  Bartender, one Tanqueray and tonic, please. With lime. On the rocks.

February 27, 2014

When "Yuck" Turns To "Yum"

Yesterday’s New York Times article, “A Taste You Hate? Just Wait” by Frank Bruni is a must-read, full of humor, insight, and a welcome prodding of our personal food memory banks.

"Are there really foods that we don’t like, or just foods that we haven’t liked yet?" Bruni asks, suggesting that it’s never too late to develop a taste for foods we think we abhor. He concedes that most people are convinced that they hate broccoli, parnips or calf brain. 

“All of them assume that their predilections are as rooted as redwoods, as fixed as eye color. And all of them are wrong, because appetite isn’t just or even mainly physiological. It’s psychological. Emotional. It’s a function of expectation, emulation, adaptation.”

Over my bowl of oatmeal this morning (a food I disliked as a kid, preferring “Markie-wants-his-Maypo), I got to thinking about the foods I once shunned that became my “can’t-live-withouts.” 

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Growing up in Boston, I hated the rhubarb pies my Nana routinely trotted out at Sunday family noon-time dinners. Slimy. Stringy. Yuck. I didn’t give a hoot that the rhubarb was picked from the backyard garden hours before. That the crust was handmade with lots of Crisco. All I wanted was an ordinary hot fudge sundae. (Photo above from FineCooking.)

But when she died in 1981 – she was 86, I was 33 – my cousin Wendy baked fresh strawberry-rhubarb pies for the reception after the funeral. Somehow, during an afternoon of comforting our Grandpa, crying about our loss, laughing about the good ol’ days, and, yes, eating pie, rhubarb became one of my favorite flavors.  Just ask my friends, who know that if the rosy stalks are in season, they will be on the table -- in crisp, crumble or pie -- every time they come for dinner.

I experienced another Age of Enlightenment when I lived in Austria for a year. There was sauerkraut, sauerkraut everywhere.  In open wooden barrels in stores, on restaurant menus, on our friends’ tables, where feasts were built around a steaming mountain of the stuff with sausages and meats poking out.

The smell alone nauseated me, bringing back disagreeable memories of one Christmas Eve, when my sister Marcia and I refused to eat the sauerkraut on the dinner table --- what kind of stinky foreign stuff was this anyway? –-- and got sent to bed without the traditional singing of Christmas Carols. I hated sauerkraut before that night and hated it even more after.

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However, as a 30–year-old in Innsbruck, experiencing a new culture, speaking a new language, and making new friends, I allowed sauerkraut to slither its way into the whole exhilarating experience.

Today I love it. And my family loves our traditional Christmas Eve dinner.  Bauernschmaus, which I discovered in Austria’s many farmhouse restaurants, is a heap of sauerkraut, cooked with apples and onions, then baked with sausages, smoked pork chops and dumplings called Knödeln, and served with a half-dozen types of mustard.

In his article, Bruni regales us with yuck-turned-to-yum tales from his friends and colleagues. Please dig into the food memory bank and share your stories with us too.

 

February 25, 2014

Meringue Glacé Goes Modern

Dessert stole the show at my recent dinner at Les Bouquinistes in Paris.

The classic meringue glacé, a meringue shell with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, has been a French menu staple forever. Though it's one of my favorite dessers, I'm the first to admit that It can seem downright dowdy these days.

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But it's not dowdy at this popular “baby bistro” (offspring of wunderchef Guy Savoy) where the Lady Gaga of meringue glacé arrived looking like a snow-white sculpture: Brancusi meets the Smurfs. One enthusiastic smack of the shiny meringue shell revealed a voluptuous mélange of meringue bits, a semifreddo-like vanilla mousse and sweetened whipped cream.

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Les Bouquinistes is named for the picturesque bookseller stands that line the quais along the Seine. The bistro is part of the Guy Savoy empire of restaurants which includes Guy Savoy and Le Chiberta in Paris and Restaurant Guy Savoy Las Vegas. It’s a stylish, comfortable place with very good service, great people-watching, and a terrific wine list. When I dined there 15 years ago it also had terrific food.

 

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However, on this recent occasion, the rest of our dinner wasn’t as memorable as the splashy dessert. A pretty good scampi in spicy Thai stock; a pretty good sautéed bar (cod); a ho-hum presentation of foie gras. With prices that hover around 37 Euros ($50) for entrees and 14 Euros ($19) for desserts, it’s not a place I’ll rush back to.

February 16, 2014

Rah Rah Rah for RASAM

Bet you’re going to tell me you know all about rasam, right?  Know what an intoxicatingly fragrant, flavorful, satisfying soup it is. Been guzzling it forever. Right?

Well, rasam is a new one on me. I was bowled over when I discovered it recently at Quilon, the Michelin-starred South West Coastal Indian restaurant in the 51 Buckingham Gate hotel in London. A discovery akin to the Holy Grail, I might add. I mean, this stuff is fabulous. Or at least it is as prepared by Quilon chef Sriram Aylur.

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My husband and I found many things to like about Quilon.   A warm welcome. Friendly, knowledgeable, accommodating service. Traditional elegance with contemporary touches in terms of décor, lighting and art. And, after one bite of our first appetizer – Cauliflower Chilli Fry tossed with green chilies, curry leaves and yogurt -- we knew we’d really like the food, too.

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But it was the surprise intermezzo course, the tiny, complimentary glass of hot rasam that excited me most. Along with its tamarind water base, chef Aylur uses fresh tomato puree, dry roasted peppercorns, cumin and mustard seeds, dried red chilies, garlic, curry leaves and lentils to create a fine and feisty potage.

It’s better than the best Bloody Mary you’ve ever tasted. Better than the best tomato soup your grandmother made when you came in from ice skating on a frigid afternoon.

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The rest of our dinner was also impressive. Lighter-than-air poppadums with two savory spreads.

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Perfectly baked black cod -- sweet, satiny and subtly seasoned. Kothu Lamb, a snappy dish of marinated lamb mixed with onion, chilies and ginger and cooked on a very hot griddle. Mango curry, a new experience for me with its green chilies, curry leaves and yogurt. The heavenly layered bread called paratha.  And, for dessert, yet another epiphany: “Lentil Cappuccino,” a frothy, exotic creation akin to rice pudding, with a scrumptious cardamom shortbread and fig-honey ice cream on the side. (Photo by ThoughtsFromAJoy.)

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Now that I’ve done the research on my new love, I understand that tomato rasam can be served as a sauce over rice, a soup, or a beverage. Since our server graciously provided me (unbidden) with the recipe, I plan to do it all three ways in the very near future. 

February 13, 2014

Praising the Potato --- In Paris

Parmentier has been one of my favorite dishes since I discovered it at Le Grand Vefour in Paris about 20 years ago. I mean, really, what’s not to love about a heap of tender, savory stew topped with creamy mashed potatoes that are swirled with butter and run under a broiler ‘til golden brown? (The dish is named for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, an 18th century gent who trumpeted the potato as valuable human food at a time when they were only fed to animals.)  

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At Grand Vefour, Paris’ oldest restaurant, I flipped over chef Guy Martin’s parmentier (above), made with a rich oxtail stew and smothered in fresh black truffles.  Last week I fell in love all over again with the Gallic classic, this time made with confit de canard, at Chez Savy in Paris. The confit ---- succulent duck meat, slow-cooked in its own fat –-- was under the mashed potatoes; a small slab of foie gras, appropriately unctuous, was on top. On the side, a simple, well-dressed green salad offered a cool contrast to the dish’s opulence. 

After just a few bites…and a few sips of a delicious 2006 Malbec from Cahors…. I wanted to shout “Savy, where have you been all my life?” 

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In fact, it’s been right there, just off the Champs Élysées in the 8th arrondissement, since 1923.  Dishing out whopping steaks and mountains of pommes frites, trumpeting seasonal ingredients and local purveyors before it became fashionable to do so, and knocking the socks off its fans with dishes like my starter: Oeufs Brouillés a la Truffe Fraiche. At the risk of you drooling over your laptop keyboard, I’ll translate that: Soft, cream-infused scrambled eggs covered with six or seven paper-thin slices of fresh black truffle from the market in Lalbenque in the Lot Valley.

The food of southwest France is celebrated at Savy with duck and foie gras done every which way, a robust cassoulet, and the region’s famed dessert, prunes stewed in Armagnac. Steaks, too, are a highpoint; waiters careen through the tables balancing Brobdingnagian hunks of beef and haystacks of pommes frites.

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Chez Savy isn’t cheap.  Steaks start at 20 Euros (about $27); appetizers average 10 Euros. The Southwest specials offered the night of our visit ranged from 19 to 29 Euros. But the food is worth it.   And, I might add, that food is only part of the charm of Chez Savy. The owners and staff are a lively, likeable bunch. The décor is unique --- long, comfortable booths, soft lighting, lots of wood, brass, leather and artifacts from by-gone days.

And there’s a party-hearty vibe created by an appreciative international crowd as well as lucky locals who were, the night we arrived, sharing pre-dinner aperitifs and cigarettes at the sidewalk tables -- even though it was 34 degrees.

That’s what I call love. 

February 11, 2014

NOPI: You Had Me at Hello….and Goodbye

Who says cheesecake has to be a dessert? Certainly not the chefs at NOPI in London, where I dined recently and discovered a scrumptious “cheesecake” that I didn’t have to wait ‘til after dinner to enjoy.

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Valdeón Cheesecake, listed under Vegetable Starters/Dishes to Share, was a quivering blend of pecorino, parmesan and the bold, spicy Spanish blue called Valdeón cheeses, served bubbling hot in a tiny copper pot. We cracked through the well-burnished crust and scooped out the molten cheese, teaming each nibble with the bits of pickled beets, crushed hazelnuts and thyme honey drizzle served with it.  This cheesy spectacle alone would have made the rainy night trip to NOPI worthwhile. But there was more, much more. (Photo by UrbanSpoon.)

First, though, let me introduce NOPI (North Of PIcadilly) to those who haven’t made its acquaintance. It’s the London Soho restaurant of Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef who, with co-author Sami Tamimi, won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook last year for their tome “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” 

In London, the Ottolenghi empire also includes two self-service café/delis, another restaurant on the city’s outskirts, and a busy bakery operation. The NOPI menu, limited and changing frequently, is a celebration of the bold, “sunny” flavors of the Mediterranean and Middle East. 

Occupying a narrow but deep storefront on Warwick Street, NOPI is a casual but stylish “all-day” restaurant with a colorful bar and small tables snuggled close together. A mesmerizing black-and-white movie is projected over the stairwell that leads down to a large room where long refectory tables face the bustling open kitchen.

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Our recent memorable dinner also included an appetizer of roasted eggplant slices, topped with feta cheese marinated in lemon and chilies, and topped with crushed pistachios; and another of purple and candy beets dressed with quince puree and dusted with sunflower seeds. 

Since NOPI is of the modern “shared plates” frame of mind, there are only five dishes designated Mains. I loved the whole, twice-cooked baby chicken that was served with a tiny pile of lemon myrtle flavored salt and a snappy chili sauce.

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I also flipped over the Truffled Polenta Chips --- fat, crusty wands, as in fish ‘n chips not potato chips--- with a spicy tomato chutney for dipping. (Polenta Chips photo by FoodiesOnTheProwl.)

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Accompanying wines are reasonably priced and from small producers, mostly in France, Spain and Italy. The creative cocktail list includes a martini with fresh ginger and cilantro, and a Goslings rum creation with Benedictine and pumpkin puree.

NOPI definitely had me at Hello, with the cheesecake appetizer. But the Goodbye was no less spectacular.  Their version of chocolate mousse called “Chocolate, spiced hazelnuts, orange oil, crème fraiche” was awesome --  a voluminous, bittersweet wonder that filled and coated the mouth with rich cocoa flavor, brightened by sweet orange essence and crème fraiche tang. No photo can capture the scrumptiousness. To think that it’s sitting there right now, more than 5,000 miles away, makes me want to cry.

Even if you can’t get to NOPI any time soon, you can enjoy its robust flavors by checking out the impressive catalog of recipes on the Ottolenghi website.

February 06, 2014

My Very Own "Downton Abbey"

I’m a big fan of Downton Abbey.  Love Mr. Bates and Anna.  Love Carson’s dry humor and can-do attitude. Want Mrs. Hughes in my corner. And Mrs. Patmore in my kitchen.

Much to my delight, I got to experience a little bit of that jolly scene when I checked into 51 Buckingham Gate Taj Suites and Residences in London last week.

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Located just a couple blocks from Buckingham Palace (and walking distance to many museums, Westminster Abbey, Parliament and parks), this Five-Star-star Taj hotel is actually a cluster of fairytale buildings built around a pretty courtyard with Victorian fountain and outdoor cafe. It’s a very traditional scene but with chic, contemporary furnishings and friendly, accommodating service.

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51 Buckingham Gate actually consists of three mansions – Minsters, Falconers, and Kings. Each offers luxurious accommodations ranging from Junior Suite to seven-bedroom.  Minsters is considered the most posh, though all three offer rooms that are elegant and wildly spacious by big-European-city standards. Minsters is also the most expensive. That’s why I had booked a Junior Suite in Falconers at a special rate that also included breakfast. (More about rates below.)

However, because renovations were underway on Falconers and Kings (January/February is low season in London), I was given a Minsters suite with spacious living room, two bathrooms with heated floors,  a small, ultra-modern kitchen, and a supremely comfortable bed. I especially loved having extra space to hang all the wet overcoats, umbrellas, and waterlogged shoes involved in four straight days of near-freezing rain.

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But best of all was the Downton Abbey aura --- totally British; gracious and elegant but never stuffy; knowledgeable and responsive but never overbearing.  At the front door we were greeted by Sergio, the head of the butler staff who would become travel advisor, etiquette authority, raconteur and friend during our four-night stay. He whisked our bags to the suite, pointed out how things like heating worked, offered to unpack our bags for us (we politely declined), then suggested we relax after our journey with a bite to eat in front of the library’s fireplace. Sitting in the cozy salon, with a pot of tea and a terrific grilled cheese sandwich, I could have sworn I heard Lord Grantham calling for his footman.

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London is expensive. And 51 Buckingham Gate is expensive --- a large (500 sq. ft.) Junior Suite runs about $550 a night in February on Expedia. But there are always special offers available, including the “Extended Stay” that I took advantage of, and a “Stay Two, Get One at 50%.” Moreover, I have read on travel sites that guests are often upgraded to larger rooms. Given the spacious and refined accommodations and exceptional service, I consider 51 Buckingham Gate an excellent value, especially when compared to the other Four- and Five-Star London hotels I looked into.

The property is also home to Saint James Court’ – A Taj Hotel, the largest of the buildings in the cluster with 338 rooms. A classic double runs about $250 right now on Expedia. That hotel doesn’t have the Downton Abbey luxury of 51 Buckingham Gate, but it does offer excellent service.  Late one wet, icy night, after we had been turned away by a couple of hotel bars on the way home from the theater, we sloshed into the Hamptons Bar at St. James’, and warmed ourselves with glasses of Port and delicious complimentary bar snacks, served by a most accommodating staff.

Hotel dining options include Bank Westminster and Bistro 51 restaurants and Zander Bar, as well as Quilon, the Michelin-starred restaurant featuring contemporary SouthWest Indian food. More about my memorable dinner at Quilon later. 

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