A Facebook/blog entry from my Chowzter buddy Juliana Loh on one of our many delightful experiences at the gathering in London. One of the most accurate photos of me ever taken, gratis Ricky Ly, another Chowzter, from Orlando.
A Facebook/blog entry from my Chowzter buddy Juliana Loh on one of our many delightful experiences at the gathering in London. One of the most accurate photos of me ever taken, gratis Ricky Ly, another Chowzter, from Orlando.
The single best thing I think I ate on the trip in May was an omelet Arnold Bennett at The Delaunay. Made with smoked haddock, plenty of cream and, combining two traditional versions of it, both hollandaise sauce and cheese, the whole thing glazed under the grill before it's served. I'd read about them for years, and passed up a chance for my favorite English breakfast, a kipper, to try one. Very rich, and I practically wept when I couldn't finish it all. The Delaunay is an elegant place near Covent Garden that does a booming breakfast business, and is so civilized, they provide newspapers. Excellent service, professional and welcoming.
London is expensive, and the dollar is currently pretty weak against the pound. We'll talk more about this in a bit when I offer a few bits on shopping, but while we're on the subject of breakfast, I had one at the Churchill Hyatt Regency near Marble Arch. They do a buffet for 30 pounds, which brings it in a few pennies over $50. No kippers there, I noticed, but plenty of nice Scottish salmon. Not nearly as large a variety as what one might find at their hotels in Asia, and mostly pretty ordinary stuff, good-to-excellent quality but little that was truly exciting. The single thing that absolutely sang was the hummus. That's right. The hotel has a large Middle Eastern clientele so the presence of it was no surprise. I have read about hummus that was described as silky, but I never came across it until the Churchill. I think part of the secret may be plenty of olive oil and tahini. Aside from the exquisite texture, the flavor was great, carefully seasoned and with the potential to be quite addictive.
The antidote to $50 breakfasts is, quite rightly, a fish and chip shop. Between Sloane Square, the entry to Chelsea, and Victoria Station, is The Friars Inn on Elizabeth Street. At the periphery of neighborhoods out of "Upstairs, Downstairs", it's a very simple little place, office worker clientele during the day, quieter at night. I repeat my advice of a few days ago not to get your fish and chips at a pub, especially one that's part of a chain. The Friars Inn is just down the block from The Ebury Wine Bar, much spiffed up from my first visit many years ago, but just as pleasant and welcoming.
And two blocks from the Churchill, just off the uproar of Oxford Street, is a modern Indian spot called Roti Chai, quite inexpensive given the neighborhood and quite good. The main level features lighter Indian street food; I read that there's a lower level with a more traditional menu, but at lunch there was no offer of it. This is a lentil-based crispy snack with a tamarind sauce.
Over two visits, I spent two out of five weeks in London, and on the whole, it really looks like the happening food scene is moving east, east of Covent Garden, east of The City. The neighborhoods aren't so beautiful and the history so famous, but that's where the action is. There are at least four restaurants there I'm aiming for on my next visit.
On the non-food front, I was shocked to see that Westminster Abbey is charging 18 pounds, around $30, for admission. Free to come in and pray, otherwise go to a side entrance and pay. No discussion of what happens to folks who pray and then stroll around admiring the interior. And three royal properties, the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace are all charging similar prices, although there are passes that reduce the cost somewhat. Happily, great museums like theVictoria & Albert, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection are still free. They're also often pleasant spots for tea - this is one of the dining rooms at the V&A.
Shopping? Oxford Street is still the hugely busy heart of it. Selfridges is still fun, but mostly I prefer elsewhere. Still, if you're looking for inexpensive right-now clothing, head for Primark, at each end of Oxford, Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch. Very inexpensive and equally chaotic but fun, especially if you're young.
Harrods? Wonderful food halls to view but overall increasingly geared to high-income non-Brits. If you absolutely must bring back a small gift with the Harrods logo (and there are now a plethora of them), the duty-free shops have Harrods branches and the tchotchkes are less expensive there. Slightly.
Elsewhere, there are interesting shopping streets. Marylebone High Street has lots of more local shops, including the wonderful Daunt Books+. Lambs Conduit Street - I don't make these names up, you know - in Bloomsbury is another small shopping street, a little more upmarket than Marylebone High Street, and it has the headquarters and bookstore of Persephone Books, which reprints "neglected ficrtion and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) authors". Fascinating and, for some of us, as irresistible as the omelet Arnold Bennett.
Portobello Road Market on Saturday is mobbed. The serious antique dealers who have shops there are open during the week; Saturday brings flea market-type stands. At the north end, there's food being sold, too, viz, these spiral potato chips. But the main reason to go for some is Books For Cooks a half-block off Portobello Road. It's across the street from a good spice shop and the shop where "Notting Hill" was filmed.
And on Sunday, there's the Brick Lane Market in east London. Coming in from the south, at the Aldgate East tube station, one thinks one's in the wrong spot. It's quiet, businesses are closed. but things build. Old buildings like the former Truman Brewery turned into flea markets, open air stalls - and an immense amount of international food, not just the South Asian that fills Brick Lane's restaurants. Curry Mate and I had Malaysian pancakes, mine filled with coconut and black rice, hers with Nutella. At the far north end, heading for the Shoreditch High Street tube station, it becomes very basic, men selling computer parts and bicycle wheels. Keep an eye out for street art on walls and stuck to utility poles; this part of London is a hotbed of it.
You will be happier with comfortable shoes, a credit card or two that has the chip mechanism in it and a vigorous curiosity.
There's nothing wrong in being a tourist. Places become tourist cliches usually because they're worth seeing, things like the London Eye and Big Ben and the British Museum. But after you've seen them, if you have a sense of curiosity, there are other places to explore. Some are slightly off the beaten path. Others are...more so.
When I was in London in May, my now-Norwegian stepdaughter was visiting there, too, and she'd
expressed her desire for a real English pub lunch, which has its roots in the Sunday lunch, or what we'd call Sunday dinner. (In my smalltown childhood, it was always served upon arriving home after church.) The traditional Sunday roast, you know. The Curry Mate was determined to give her ma what she wanted, and we ended up at quite a spot.
The pub is called The Prospect of Whitby. It's old. Really old. It dates back to, they think, the early 1500's - we're talking the reign of Henry the Eighth here. And it's right on the Thames River, between the Tower of London and Greenwich with its Observatory and Naval Museum and Mean Time.
Getting there takes a little work. It's beyond the last tube stop; one has to transfer to the Docklands Light Rail, built as the new construction farther down on the Thames grew. But the Oyster Card, or transit pass, covers that trip. After one alights at the first DLR stop, there's a stroll of perhaps ten blocks through a real neighborhood down to the pub.
Yes, a balcony outside the upstairs dining room, and an outdoor area on the ground floor, all good for looking at the river and thinking about history. Lots of photographs of famous clients - we spotted Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier as part of a group in an old black and white photo, for instance. Curry Mate, being a Pollack, had known to reserve, or book ahead, as they say, definitely a good idea.
Three of us did the roast lunch, one roast beef and two roast lamb, each with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, and "lashings of gravy" per the menu, and indeed, it was generously ladled. The dreaded vegetable medley even reared its hoary head. Our fourth person went for the Cod Father - two large pieces of fish battered and fried, the large English french fries known as chips and mushy peas, which are made from dried peas and often, although not here, seasoned with a little mint. Cocktails for the two other females, draft cider for the Cod Father and me. The food wasn't bad, just very simple.
We sat right next to the table by the bow window that the late Princess Margaret favored. If the balcony outside was as popular on her visits as it was on ours, she might not have seen much, but the view from it was delicious, and the outdoor tables were under a willow tree. Folks pulled up in a small boat, let their dogs ramble on the shore while they had a pint, and left.
Smartphones make the walk from the DLR station much easier, or if necessary, one can print out directions before leaving one's hotel. It would be a challenge for a driver who didn't know the territory. But for an afternoon out, it's worth it if you're tired of Buckingham Palace. And Princess Margaret, I reflected, didn't have to drive herself.
The Prospect of Whitby
57 Wapping Wall, London
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
If you are a traveller who likes to eat, I hope by now you have discarded the idea that food in London is still the punchline to a joke. Of course not everywhere is great or even adequate. Even in New Orleans, you can still get a bad meal, a city that used to pride itself on just the opposite.
Food tours are a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, with a few exceptions. Now, however,
things are picking up as people realize there are happy monomaniacs like us who want this sort of thing. My tour in Rome last year was such a success that I wanted to try the company's new London operation. (They're starting in Prague and Amsterdam shortly.)
Eating London Food Tours runs six days a week, a walking tour of about three and a half hours. Not all that time is spent vertically - by my count, we sat down at six different places to do sampling, and stood at a couple of others. And it's full of the history of London's East End, which is where it takes place, leaving from the old Smithfield Market.
Our group was around eight people, mostly Americans, three generations, with every degree of travel experience. Our guide, Emily, lived in the neighborhood, which made things even more personal. So where did we go? Here are some of the spots and some photos.
We started out at St. JOHN Bread & Wine with a bacon butty, or sandwich. English bacon, of course, is not like ours, much meatier and not cooked to shattering crispness. Fergus "Nose To Tail" Henderson, whose mother ship St. JOHN Smithfield restaurant this is an offspring of, loves the pleasures of swine. He uses heirloom pork with a careful brining and housemade bread, lightly grilled, with a little butter. (This is leaner bacon than what we see here, of course.) It reminded me of first-rate country ham with its smoke and cure.
Another stop was at a fish and chip shop, Poppie's, that began serving in 1945. The fish is fresh and wondrful, the fat chips absolutely typical. The classic mushy peas, made from dried peas, is the side dish. I think you may have to be raised with it. Insider tip (not from the tour but from a Londoner): If you want fish and chips, don't get it at a pub. It's apt to be mass-produced and awful. Go to a chip shop.
We tasted English cheese, sold, amazingly enough, at a shop run by famous French cheese merchant Androuet, and three curries to sample at Aladin, a restaurant on Brick Lane, a street of Indian restaurants. And then there's the pub. More accurately, there's Lenny and the pub. The Pride of Spitalfields has a plump and serene four-legged greeter. Lenny is actually quite famous, but he graciously allowed our group to sample both lager and cider.
There was more, and plenty of street art that the neighborhood is known for, plus buildings like this Jewish soup kitchen which at one point was so crowded with refugees that they literally ran a line in one door and out the other.
Three and a half hours, a large amount of food and a great deal of fun.
It's taken me three years to get to Dishoom. After eating very trad food on the last short visit to London, it was time to enjoy the Indian food the British Isles offer in such variety. I'd read about it before our 2011 visit, but an unexpected funeral to attend ended that idea. Now my best Curry Mate was in London in graduate school, and arriving a day early for the Chowzter confab gave me the chance. Two chances, in fact.
Don't get the idea this is one of those basement-level tables-jammed together spots that can be found throughout London. Nope. Two locations, although at least the Shoreditch location, where I went, also uses the basement are both large and roomy-feeling. Fascinating decor - Dishoom is inspired by the Parsi-owned cafes in Mumbai, and the food carries that theme to some degree, too.
The Parsis were a community of Zoroastrians who migrated out of what loosely is today's Iran about a thousand years ago. After that long in an area, the culinary traditions are mostly pretty blended, but that wasn't the main thing that drew me originally. It was the fact that they served breakfast that made them stand out. And now I found myself staying at a hotel three blocks away. In my jet-lagged daze, I didn't think to make a reservation and I couldn't wait for breakfast. Still, Curry Mate and I had had a really late lunch and thankfully, she was willing to indulge me and wait for a dinner table.
Because we did have to wait. The line was long but it was a nice night, we had lots of catching up to do and the restaurant came down the line every so often offering small glasses of Pimm's Cup to assuage any anxieties. Shoreditch is sort of like Brooklyn - discovered by the creative types, and now followed by businesses of all sorts in a very mixed use neighborhood, clubs next to ad agencies next to hire car services. And all of these folks like to hang out, drink, eat and talk, seemingly, which means popular spots are loud and late.
The star of the evening was the lamb raan. Legs of lamb are marinated in garlic, ginger and chili, then braised overnight in more spices. We opted for the smaller serving of it, generously piled on a bun. Dazzlingly delicious, not unlike pulled pork in moistness and consistency but with the Indian seasonings, it's won plaudits locally, and for good reason. Alongside are served the house slaw, very mild, and a wee dish of matchstick-sized crisply fried potatoes. The server suggested putting them on top of the lamb, and it provided good textural contrast. A few slices of deep-fried chiles had also been sprinkled on top, adding a little heat but very mild by Indian standards.
Sheekh kebab, ground lamb with cumin and coriander, is pressed around a skewer and grilled; two large pieces, each the size of a fat bratwurst, were the serving, with a single roasted chile as garnish. Alongside, we'd gotten some tomato-onion salad with a little cucumber, bruised to bring out the juices, plenty of cilantro (which is called coriander in the UK) and the near-ubiquitous lime, a wondrous daal, dark red and perhaps the most complexly spiced version of this common dish I've ever had, and some roti, the thin bread cooked to order, arriving hot and ready to scoop up bits of meat or daal or salad or some combination of those. Good Indian bread is irresistible, and this was wonderful.
Dessert? A mixture of modern and not. Chocolate mousse spiked with a little chili and salt, topped with shrikand, an Indian yogurt-based creamy dessert was rich and left lots of flavors waltzing around the tongue. The second, called kala khatta gola ice, was flakes of ice moistened with kokum juice, a fruit similar to the tangy tamarind, but dark red in color, the ice then topped with blueberries, chili and two kinds of salt. Startling - in fact, the menu acknowledges the "first spoonful tastes bizarre" - and intriguing, but difficult for most Western palates.
Yes, they were, and a large glass, to boot. Chai instead of coffee this morning for me, a glass of noticeably stronger and creamier qualities than I've found elsewhere, with less of an emphasis on the sweeter spices and a quiet note of black pepper in the back, not spicy-hot, but hot and satisfying.
A day of serious eating was ahead of me, so I held back (a little) and got the bacon naan roll. English bacon is, of course, leaner and not cooked to the crispness of its American equivalent, so think of a slice of ham, grilled and put into a freshly baked naan bread which had been spread with a little cream cheese, some minced herbs and some sweet chili tomato jam. (One can add a fried egg to this if desired. ) Again, little if any noticeable heat in the spicing, but the sort of dish that should make the Egg McMuffin shred its wrapper in shame.
7 Boundary Street, London E2
020 7420 9324
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
12 Upper St. Martin's Lane, London WC@
020 7420 9320
In London with food bloggers from four continents at a weekend planning (and tasting) conference for the website www.chowzter.com, which I'm starting to do work for. The Wall Street Journal had something to say about it:
And, being a reader, I read about New York. Voraciously. Somewhere in all those years, with decades between visits, I learned about Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop. When I began to visit the city with some regularity, I saw it from Fifth Avenue buses, although I was usually busier looking at the Flatiron Building across the street. But I never got there.
Eisenberg's began in 1929. It's not a legend, like, say Barney Greengrass. But it may be even more evocative. A long, narrow room, a counter and a few tables in the rear dining room, it feels like something out of a 1947 black and white movie. And the menu is uber-New York. Here you have your egg cream, your knockwurst, , your cream cheese and chopped olive sandwich. Whitefish salad, meet grilled cheese with bacon. "Individual can sardines", say hello to peanut butter and jelly. Cold borscht, hot matzo ball soup and manhattan clam chowder, the latter only on Friday. Got the idea? By St. Louis standards, this is a pretty big menu for such a small spot. Not in the Big Apple. (Maybe they should rename it the Big Pastrami?)
As it turned out, I wasn't too late to appreciate Eisenberg's. It was a breakfast visit on a weekday, with a fair amount of carryout business going on but plenty of room at the counter to watch the cooks at work. Coat hooks on the wall behind the counter stools, purse hooks under the counter, the latter always a sign of someone paying attention. Cholula hot sauce with the ketchup and what I suspect were fluorescent bulbs in light fixtures were about the only reminders of the contemporary era.
Better coffee than I would have expected, stronger and not sour, meaning the coffee makers get properly scoured. I watched them toss fresh mushrooms on the grill for an omelet and pondered my morning food. I ended up with one of my favorites, salami and eggs. Very properly offered the choice of scrambled or flat, I went with flat, the version I first encountered. The salty, peppery salami seasons the eggs perfectly, and it's one of the great unsung dishes of the city's traditional cuisine. I was surprised to see grits offered, but it was a little too much cognitive dissonance; besides, this calls for potatoes. What Eisenberg's designates "home fries" isn't what most of us would expect. Potatoes, onions, a few bits of sweet pepper, fried in such large quantities the potatoes cook before many of them brown, the whole seasoned with what I suspect is generous amounts of paprika to give the characteristic ruddy color. I've only ever seen this at New York-influenced delis and sandwich shops, and despite what may be an off-putting color, they're very tasty. And the Cholula was a good match when sprinkled here and there. Instead of toast, I went for a bialy, another item seldom found hereabouts. Flatter than a bagel and sprinkled with onion on top, they're less chewy than an authentic New York bagel, and lack the hole in the middle. Read about them here. Toasted and buttered, it finished things off nicely, although I did consider an egg cream to go.
While it's not exactly in the middle of Tourist Central in New York, this is an easy walking city, and if you walk from the Empire State Building to the Union Square Greenmarket, a spot all food-lovers should go, http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/manhattan-union-square , this is a good spot to stop, or to have a pre-market breakfast. The service is pleasant, and the watching and listening to the locals is good fun. And the prices are good, too.
Eisenberg's Sandiwch Shop
174 Fifth Avenue (22nd and 23rd Sts.)
Breakfast and Lunch daily, Dinner nightly but early closing on Sat. and Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult
Rumors of spring are rumbling around and with that in mind, maybe it's time to be thinking about a road trip. The commercials for Anheuser Busch on the Super Bowl reminded me that a good, and very interesting, time is to be had at their Clydesdale breeding farm.
Known as Warm Springs Ranch, it's about 15 miles west of Columbia off I-70. Like the brewery tour, this is the real thing, not something set up specifically for tourists, although it's shiny-new, unlike our old pal on Pestalozzi Street. They film some of those commercials here, in fact.
Only a couple of miles on hard-surfaced Missouri Highway 98, and passing a farm stand (and pumpkin patch, I found, in October), Warm Springs Ranch is so much the real deal that security is noticeable. Tickets must be purchased in advance. When you arrive, the large red stable is visible from the highway, but the gate is closed and remains so until a few minutes before the time one's ticket is set for.
This is a walking tour, although the ground is level and the distance not far. You probably won't see large numbers of the herd - this is a big property and there are many fields and all have what the website terms "customized walk-in shelters". But there are indeed Clydesdales around, and an opportunity to pet them and get photos with the gentle horses. In fact, getting them used to lots of people is part of what these tours are for.
Yes, colts - we saw the one that was in the 2013 Super Bowl commercial, named Hope, and another irresistible darling only three weeks old. And two of the trailers used for the horses' road trips are there, interesting, too. Much more, as well, including discussion of breeding and veterinary care.
Of course, there's an offer of beer at the end of the tour, unless it's Sunday, when local law puts the kibosh on.
They aren't open year round, but tours begin March 22 this year and run through October. Two tours a a day every day but Wednesday. $10 a head, kids under two free, and cameras are allowed. Reserve in advance via the website.
25270 Highway 98, Boonville, MO
Two more restaurants in the French Quarter to discuss briefly. One is Deanie's, new to the Quarter but not new to the city. They've been on the Lakefront, a neighborhood known as Bucktown, but now officially part of Metarie, and now are in the Quarter as well, just up the street from the Acme-Felix's faceoff. It's a block beyond the craziness of Bourbon Street, and on the night of our visit a little observation and, yes, eavesdropping, gave the idea that a lot of the patrons are local. It's surpringly large, glossy modern in the style of a streamlined diner.
A very light meal, indeed, by the usual standards, but quite tasty. An appetizer serving of the old New Orleans standard barbecued shrimp, was a half-dozen large shrimp. Traditionally served in the shell with the head attached, their butter-based sauce packed with seasonings, these guys were first rate. I personally prefer to shell them, which often isn't done by the locals, but I am delighted to follow the old crawfish instructions, which apply here, too: "You got to suck dey haids." The fat-enriched tissue there is the essence of the dish, and worth plowing ahead. Jonathan Swift wrote about how bold it was for the first man to eat an oyster, and this calls for the same amount of derring-do, but only the first time.
Yes, the sauce is swabbed at with pieces of bread, but Deanie's has an interesting variation of that. Instead of a bread basket arriving after ordering, another basket arrives, this one containing small new potatoes, perfectly boiled and accompanied by little pots of butter. They're still warm, and nibbleable as it is - the cooking water has crab boil seasoning in it, but when crushed into the shrimp sauce, ah, there's the way to go. Bread comes later.
"Something simple", requested my pal. A lovely piece of grilled tilapia, its mild flavor seasoned up just a little and, of course, with some butter involved as well, worked well, too.
Really good service once they cleared up just who the table belonged to.
No reservations taken.
841 Iberville St., New Orleans
Lunch and Dinner daily
And then there was the Old Coffee Pot. We wrote about it on a previous visit,, and it remains one of my morning standards in the Quarter. This was a late breakfast early in the week, only two other tables for the two ladies working the front of the house. They looked familiar from previous visits, kept the good coffee flowing, including bringing milk instead of the "creamer" provided, and chimed in "Amen" when another table said grace before eating.
The oysters Rockefeller omelet was great, a perfectly done omelet filled with small sauteed oysters and the creamy spinach mixture gently seasoned. The sky-high biscuit was flaky and flavorful. Calas, the rice fritter that dates back maybe a couple of centuries, were denser than I've had there in the past, and rather dryer, but the omelet was such a winner, it made up for it.
When the check for the grace-sayers had been paid, the server brought the receipt, put it down on the table, nodded pleasantly and said, "Have a great holiday and don't forget the reason for the seaosn." And then she planted her feet firmly, squared her shoulders, threw her head back and let out a contralto gospel "Silent Night". Amazing. (And a nice lady to us, as well, and hugged us goodbye But not as amazing as the song.)
My pal was so taken with the visit that she wanted to return, and so we did three days later. We walked through the covered driveway past the door to glance at the patio - and a waitress we hadn't seen the previous visit came out and announced quite firmly, "You can't sit there." We were after another oysters Rockefeller omelet. What arrived did have the oysters and spinach, although the spinach had been ladled over the outside, and the interior had chopped onions and green pepper and cheese, which hadn't been on the previous version (and added nothing). And the coffee was different, not nearly as good.
In addition, the other server, another face we hadn't seen before, was also in a state. Her frame of mind wasn't improved by the request of another table who declined beverages and asked for a pitcher of water instead. When that was delivered, they asked for lemon. A bowl of lemon slices, in fact, which meant they were planning on making lemonade. Servers say this is almost invariably a precursor to a really bad tip. So the atmosphere was dense with disapproval.
We ended up sympathizing with the server who had the frugal drinkers, and jollied them into giving us the cofee with chicory, which is what we'd had the earlier visit, but it was a whole different experience.
Okay, one rough visit in, oh, thirty years of patronizing them. Give it a chance if you haven't.
The Old Coffee Pot
714 St. Peters St., New Orleans
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner daily
It's an adage among restaurant aficionados that the better the view, the worse the food. Now, that's certainly not always the case, viz the much-mourned Windows On the World and others. But for many, there's a lingering question about eateries in places like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus or, uh, Jackson Square in New Orleans: How good could they be?
So when I began hearing persistent murmurs about Muriel's Jackson Square when I investigated brunch in the Big Easy, I was jubrous, as my mother used to say. Located on one corner of the square, across St. Ann Street from the Presbytere museum, I remembered the building holding a chain restaurant. No more.
Two dining rooms downstairs recall more the feeling of the Twenties or Thirties than the overdone Victorian that would have been an easy overereach. A a cool-feeling, dark bar stretches away from the corner door and windows, probably a sanctuary on steamy August afternoons. But on a sunny December Sunday morning, Muriel's was welcoming. A three-person jazz combo tootled merrily away, no electrical amplification in use. A window table. An eye-opener - and in New Orleans, that doesn't refer to a surprise, it's a breakfast cocktail. And the music.
Milk punch was on the cocktail menu, happily. It's an old New Orleans drink Sam Kogos of Riverbend in St. Louis introduced me to. Yes, milk, with either brandy or bourbon, a little nutmeg, some simple syrup. Think a less-gooey version of eggnog. Easy going down, and thus dangerous. I suspect that some cream may have wandered into the punchbowl for this batch. Good stuff. Turtle soup for a starter, a little kick of pepper riding atop the complex flavors. Nubbles of vegetables and bits of the turtle meat, gristle carefully removed rather than just being chopped up, showed up in the generous serving. (They happily complied with our request to divide it between the two of us.)
This is a menu full of local food traditions, with ingredients like andouille and chaurice sausages, remoulade sauce and gumbo, but the approach often uses them in a modern way. The difficulty with this is that it's a menu that gives a diner some hard choices. With much sighing, I passed up the duck and chaurice hash and went for an omelet filled with shrimp and andouille, topped with a chunky Creole sauce. The filling was generous, the andouille providing a good contrast to the shrimp, one being firmer and spicy, the other tender and sweet, and the tomato-pepper-onion sauce worked well. But the potatoes on the side were what caused a gasp. When the plate arrived, I remarked, "Mmmm, garlic. Smells good." The server replied with a smile that could have been called smug, "That's the brabant potatoes." The cubes of fried potatoes were indeed golden but otherwise looked unpromising. But one bite proved otherwise. Garlicky, although without any visible bits of it, perfectly cooked - and hot enough, by the way - they soared. The descriptive "Brabant" can describe several ways to do potatoes but this turns out to be a New Orleans staple I hadn't come across.
My pal succumbed to the lure of a daily special, a small steak with a marchand de vin sauce, based on red wine and beef stock, and oyster dressing. A nice piece of meat, and an excellent sauce. The oyster dressing, which had caught my attention, too, used quinoa for its starch. Very flavorful, not surprisingly, but too salty even for my salt-loving palate.
Bread pudding, of course, for dessert, the old New Orleans tradition, with pecans and a sherry-laced sauce. Too firm for my preference, a condition I ran across much of this visit, but very tasty, especially the sauce.
Excellent service, cheerful and knowledgeable, much patience with folks at tne next table who had lots of questions, seemingly their first time in town.
A worthwhile stop, and there's even a balcony upstairs that they use, at least sometimes.
801 Chartres St., New Orleans
Lunch Mon.-Sat., Dinner nightly, Brunch Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Brunch entrees: $16-$21
Even in New Orleans, things change. These days all of the old line "French" (because they really aren't French) restaurants in the Quarter have smaller, more casual operations near the motherhouse. For Antoine's, there's the Hermes Bar. (And a small coffee/sandwich/dessert location on Royal Street, as well.) It's next to the main entrance to Antoine's, and uses their kitchen, so it's easy to peek into the main dining room and the airier one that faces the street. By the way, the bar is pronounced HER-meez, as though it was Hermie's. New Orleans handles French pronunciation the way St. Louis does.
Unsurprisingly, it's not just a bar for drinking. There's a cocktail list, absolutely mandatory in any respectable New Orleans bar these days, the Crescent City being the host of the Tale of the Cocktail festival and of course, claiming to have originated the cocktail. There's a wine list. A very respectable light menu, sandwiches, soups, a little salad, and, yes, oysters Rockefeller from the kitchen that invented them. But - and this is significant - you can also order anything else from the main menu at Antoine's. Does that sound familiar, St. Louisans? You can do the same thing at Anthony's Bar downtown and the menu from Tony's.
It's not a cafe - the tables are all high, and well-spaced, leaving room for folks to mill around and talk, glass in hand. It's definitely a place for adults; on a weekend full of exuberant college football fans, a Saturday evening around 8 found it only half-full. Around 9.30, a band wandered in and began to play. Very inviting for supper after a day of travel.
Oysters Rockefeller for my guest. Large and moist, a swirl of the brown-green puree that's the source of so much guesswork atop them. I've never been fond of this rendition of the dish, laced with one of the licorice-flavored alcohols, my own shortcoming, but this was competently done, if heavier on the topping than one might have desired. Crab ravigote showed a generous serving of lump crab in a tangy, creamy dressing, rich and luxurious.
A poor-boy sandwich made from one of the signature appetizers, oysters Foch, doesn't deserve the adjective "poor". The city's traditional baguette is filled with fried oysters, pate, shredded lettuce and sauce Colbert, a dark, hollandaise-based sauce. Very satisfying, another rich dish that didn't seem stultifying, just as the crab didn't. Finallly, it would be a crime to go to Antoine's and not have the pommes souffles, deep-fried planks of potato that puff up like bolsters. Those served in the bar don't have the fancy basket that the ones in the dining rooms do, but no matter, they're ethereally delicious. Someday, though, I'm going to ask for a side order of bearnaise sauce for dipping.
713 St. Louis St., New Orleans
Lunch & Dinner daily
Just back from a visit to New Orleans, and while there are some longer restaurant reviews to offer you in the coming days. here are a few random notes to kick things off.
-- For instance, that shortage of pecans that hit the news in late November clearly has had repercussions down there. Praline prices have shot up, and a single praline is now priced around what you'd pay for a single piece of a designer chocolate. On some level, this at least gives the praline the respect it deserves, but it's still a bummer and someone who was going to get a small box of them is instead going to get...well, let's just say something else.
The best ones we tried were at what seems to be the mothership of Magnolia Praline Company in the 200 block of Royal. Large and airy and smelling of brown sugar and butter, freshly made bits of the candy are set out for tasting, Plenty of other things to buy, all food-related, and boxed pralines to buy or ship. But if you're eating them now, pay a little more and get the freshly made ones, which have no preservatives. Other, smaller, outposts of them bearing the red logo elsewhere in the French Quarter, but this is the one you want. Warning: The website is no help at all.
-- There are two spots named Maspero's in the Quarter. The one on Decatur very near Jackson Square, which is Cafe Maspero, happened to be a spot my pal and I hit for a quick pick-me-up between a late breakfast and an early dinner. Very inexpensive, cash only, full of tourists. But a stunning take on red beans and rice, the best I've ever had, with a wonderful depth and nuance that left me grunting with every bite. My buddy's jambalaya was good enough, but it was the red beans that thrilled. And hard to believe, but true: They serve a $1 frozen strawberry margarita. (Maybe 4 ounces.) 610 Decatur Street, lunch and dinner daily.
-- Frequent visitors know of the long-standing rivalry between the two oyster houses on Iberville Street, Felix's and the Acme. This visit, the Acme had long lines waiting on the sidewalk ("Is there a Groupon for them?" asked my New Yorker pal) and Felix's sported empty tables. We went to Felix's. Good enough half-shells, although be reminded these are Gulf oysters, milder than their cold-water cousins, a generously served crab salad and their oysters Bienville. For the past decades they've had my patronage, the Bienvilles were topped with cheese. No more. This is closer to what cookbooks say is a classic Bienville, cream sauce with pieces of shrimp and mushroom and a little grated hard cheese sprinkled on top before running them under the grill. Sorry. Not nearly as good, classic or not. But stay tuned for another option just up the street I'll talk about later this week. 739 Iberville Street, lunch and dinner daily.
--If you're looking for a quiet place for a drink in the Quarter - I can't vouch for the current status of the food - the perfect spot is the Napoleon House. Classical music on the overhead, skilled bartenders and a spot that's been there forever, and looks it. The Impastato family is in its hundredth year of ownership. 500 Chartres Street, closed Sundays.
-- And a few non-food but significant notes: The dear old St. Charles Avenue streetcar currently ends at Napoleon Street while tracks are being repaired. This means you can get to the Garden District, but if you want to toddle on uptown to Loyola or Tulane or the Camellia Grill, there's a bus that completes the route. Should be going on like this through much of 2014.
-- Many more street musicians than I ever remember seeing in the Quarter and every one or group I heard was at least competent and most remarkably good. They're happy to have an audience and no one hassles onlookers for donations. Some jazz among the music, and how good it is to see young musicians wailing away at that American art form.
Stay tuned for casual dining at Antoine's, the aforementioned seafood spot, lunch at Commander's Palace and a visit to Upperline Restaurant!
Once upon a time I didn't like breakfast, didn't eat breakfast except rarely and had nothing to say about it except to hit the snooze alarm. Then my very first editor told me I was going to be writing a column about breakfasts at restaurants. One begins to remember the old W.C. Fields line, "It was a woman that drove me to drink. I never got to thank her."
I was then about to make my first visit to Northern California, a land of many interesting morning meals, and the die thus was cast. Now when I travel, there's always a quest for good breakfasts, especially those that are a little, or a lot, different. A recent trip to Kansas City gave some good possibilities near the Plaza. Near, not on the Plaza, and a good chance to explore nearby neighborhoods.
There are two locations for eggtc. (yes, no caps and a period is part of the name), one on the Kansas side, and the original, south of the Plaza. It's a double storefront with plenty of street parking. As a bonus, if you're sans auto and staying on the Plaza, they actually deliver. (And it'll probably cost less than your room service breakfast would.) Very casual and very local, although there was a St. Louisan at the next table, to judge by his conversation.
It's a large menu that allows for plenty of customization of food (10 meat options, for instance), both at lunch and breakfast, and, if you're in need of a bloody Mary to go with your apple and goat cheese omelet or the Banatella French toast, they've got a bar, too. I tried the despierto burrito, "despierto" translating as "wake up" or "alert". Flour tortilla, scrambled eggs with chorizo that was properly seasoned despite lacking the orange coloring traditionally associated with it, cheddar cheese and diced onion on the inside, and a marvellous, sharp mango-tomato pico de gallo atop it along with some sour cream. Excellent, indeed. Unfortunately, the rapidly-becoming-ubiquitous "breakfast potatoes", which seems no longer to be a catchall phrase but potato chunks from a fryer, popped up here, too. Nothing technically wrong with them, but a disappointment on an imaginative menu.
Very good coffee kept warm with frequent refills, too.
5017 Main St., Kansas City, MO
Breakfast and Lunch daily
North of the Plaza, 39th Street is lined with non-chain shops and small businesses, plus restaurants. One of the most serious of them is Room 39, with a focus on local ingredients and close relationships with farmers. It's a small spot, although, it, too, has expanded to the Kansas side of the state line with a second location. It reminded me of the early version of Duff's, but with the flourish of chairs that all matched.
The breakfast menu is alluring, plenty of seductive options, but the meal should start with the orange juice that's squeezed to order, a real luxury. Biscuits and gravy offered a vegetarian option of mushroom gravy, and that was a serious possibility. But I was glad I ordered the baked eggs. Mundane sounding? Maybe, but not in the mouth, or even to the eye. A round of brioche had been hollowed out on top, a thin slice of salami and another of gruyere cheese nestled in the hollow and a couple of eggs broken into the nest. That was baked, the bread and cheese and meat crisping up where it was exposed to the heat. The optional truffle oil was the crowning touch. This is the most luxurious breakfast dish I've come across in a long time, with the rich flavor, the myriad of textures - just blissful. A bowl of fruit alongside was a fine contrast.
Alas, breakfast potatoes here, too, although it was pieces of creamy young potatoes, which was a nice touch. And fine coffee, strong and serious.
Both these spots, and a couple of other places I went, as the check was paid, offered to refill my beverage and put it in a go cup, a notable touch of grace.
1719 W. 39th St., Kansas City, MO
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner Mon.-Sat.
It looked like a movie set: The sky was blue, the grass and trees were lush, plenty of people – not a crowd but not just a few – were soaking in the sun, walking or talking or sipping drinks. Small children swooped around, giddy from being released temporarily from their strollers. I was in New York's Central Park last week.
One of my New York pals had found A Deal on a walking tour of the park and thought it would be fun for both of us. She, a native New Yorker, raised her children in Manhattan, so this was definitely not terra incognita to her, but this part of the park was new to me. We met our two tour guides, Sid and a trainee, at the entrance to the park at Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street. (They arrived by skateboard, but didn't use them in the park.)
It turned out to be a delightful walk with plenty of things you may have heard about, like the boat basin and the Bethesda Fountain, and other unknown little pleasures like one of the whispering benches and a tiny lakeside pavilion just big enough for a bride, a groom and an officiant. We got information on wildlife, trees, history, how the park is currently funded and who the face of the woman who's the center of the Bethesda Fountain is reputed to be – but, said Sid reported that it's only gossip and not verified fact.
We finished up on Central Park West with Sid discussing the Dakota, the legendary apartment building (no, it's not the one with two towers – that's the San Remo) which housed Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary's Baby and John and Yoko. John, of course, was shot at the south entrance to the building.
The park's bad reputation from the 1970's is no longer deserved. Like many urban parks, it isn't particularly wise to go strolling alone at night, but in the daytime it's a busy, busy place – and clearly greatly loved.
Gotham City Tours does smaller groups, which allows them to individualize things, and they offer other possibilities beyond the park. Our tour normally goes for $50 a person, but there's a discount coupon on their website.
A good investment for those who need a break from the roar of much of the business or tourist sections of Manhattan.
Williamsburg? What do you eat there? It's been too many years since my tourist visits for me to discuss places like The Trellis and Chowning's Tavern. But there's one spot that draws me back and rewards anyone who takes my word for it and stops by. I think my first visit to Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que was in 1980. From barely a step beyond a shack to the shiny counter and dining room that now sits in the pines on the I-95 edge of town, it's clearly struck a chord, and not, I suspect just with visitors.
I had, in truth, forgotten just how good this stuff was until a couple of days ago. I was visiting Norfolk for a wedding and returned to the Washington Bureau of the family, passing through Williamsburg, getting stuff to go at Pierce's and stopping to refuel a grandson now thriving at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. We grabbed a bag of sandwiches and headed for some outdoor tables on campus. The first bite provoked the spontaneous grunt of delight that marks a sudden wow of the tastebuds.
This is pork barbecue, finely chopped,and by habit of the house topped with slaw – not that the meat needs the added moisture. It's surely juicy enough, but in addition, it's very smoky. The house sauce, a thinnish red version that's vinegar-based with fruit notes and quite a bit of heat, is mixed in with the meat. I salivate writing about it.
The slaw, also available separately, is chopped coarsely and dressed with a creamy dressing – and for those who ask about such things, has no celery seeds. Potato salad is mayonnaise-based, mild, some hard-cooked egg, all very home-style. I understand the macaroni and cheese is first-rate, and they also offer collards, but we finished off with the beans, which seem to have been seasoned with a little of the sauce, and have a generous amount of sliced wieners.
Another first for me: Pierce's serves pork shanks. Think a large and extremely meaty drumstick without the knuckle at the end. They're smoked, of course, given a fast pass through a fryer when the order comes in and served with some of that sauce on the side. Tidier to eat than ribs, and meatier, too. What a good idea this is.
No matter whether Colonial Williamsburg and outlet mall shopping are your idea of heaven or hell, go to Pierce's. From I-95, it's easiest accessed from exits 238 or 242, and it's definitely worth the detour.
Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que
447 East Rochambeau Drive, Williamsburg, VA
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and entrees: $5-$17
Two nights in Chicago: How to choose restaurants? I began the usual research, but when I was in DC in June, mentioned the trip to a fellow grape nut, the esteemed and multi-talented Lou Marmon, who reported a dream of a meal at The Publican. "Go," he responded in an uncharacteristically peremptory manner. "Trust me. You'll like it." Unaccustomed as I am to following directions, I did so.
The Publican, in Chicago's old meatpacking district, belongs to a small group of restaurants (something Chicago seems to do well over the years) that include Blackbird and Avec, among others, a lineage that augurs well. It's large and spare, with several looooong tables that provide communal seating. While there are many individual tables, the big tables are clearly part of the experience here, lots of groups of five or more were having a swell time at them. Yes, noise levels are high; outside tables fared better, since there was little street traffic.
Plenty of local produce, and meat via their sibling, Publican Quality Meats, a shop and catering venue across the street. (It also does food on the weekends.) A serious beer list, fittingly, as well as some interesting wine. They credit the farmer's market in Evanston, one of the older suburbs for inspiration and supplies.
Like The Agrarian this past spring, they're offering tastes of different ham as a starter, and it was a temptation, but we went in another directions, after much discussion. Many interesting things but we succumbed to temptation and had a chicken liver pate. This may have been the best example of the classic we've come across in decades. Rich and unctuous, as smooth as George Clooney, tasting of brandy that had been flamed, it was indecently good. A blueberry garnish was a nice contrast, not acidic, just a little punch of sweetness. And it was a remarkably generous serving.
Another clear winner was the frites, or fries, served Belgian style in a cone of newspaper with some mayonnaise for dipping, or, to be more accurate, lily-gilding. They're also available with eggs, presumably soft-cooked for dipping, but it's hard to imagine even the finest farm-fresh eggs - which I'm sure they are - could do much improving on these guys, hot, crisp, tasting of actual potato, a sterling example of tuberosity.
For entrees, we passed on the fresh sardines frpm Monterey Bay, a mistake I'm still muttering about. (The following night would be seafood at Shaw's Crab House, which didn't come up to its previous standards, as it turned out.) A vegetarian dish of romano beans with small heirloom tomatoes, farro and farmers cheese was happily satisfying, the flat green beans more flavorful than their more common cousins, and the farro giving a nice toothy chew to the dish.
The dish titled "country rib" intrigued me; The meaty and sometimes bone-free versions we find in supermarkets here never seem to make it onto restaurant menus, and here was...well, something with the same name, at least. It definitely wasn't the same cut, less lean, more connective tissue and rather erratic bone pieces, and less than an inch thick. But it was juicy and piggy in flavor, rubbed with a little coriander that played well off its sidekicks, seasonal peaches that were sweet-tart and rings of ripe Fresno pepper, a fine combination of flavors to play off the pork.
Vacherin is not just the name of two cheeses made in France and Switzerland. It's also the name of a classic dessert, now seldom seen but just the sort of thing to make a comeback these days, when desserts at a certain price level must consist of several different items made separately and then put together (sort of a pie ala mode graduate school project). The vacherin begins with a crisp meringue shell, and is filled with fruit and/or whipped cream and/or ice cream. The publican's wore three kinds of ice cream, raspberry, vanilla and passionfruit, whipped cream, gigantic raspberries and a little candied lemon peel. The crunchy meringue is a fine contrast to the smooth and the cool and the fruit. We should see more variations on the vacherin.
A considerable amount of online muttering about service here, but things were very busy and we mostly were taken very good care of, water glasses kept full, tables bussed, almost none of the dreaded hundred-mile stare - and considering how many tables our server was covering, it may have just been surveying that couple across the room.
I went. I trusted. I liked it.
837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago
Dinner nightly, Brunch Sat.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Just back from a brief run to Chicago to see the Lascaux Caves exhibit at the wonderful Field Museum. Between my long-standing love affair with the Art Institute of Chicago and secondary affection for the Museum of Science and Industry, I'd never made it there before. Where else can you see paleontologists taking dirt from a dig, a coffee measure at a time, and going through it bit by bit under a microscope?
No restaurants nearby; my pal and I ate at the museum's outpost of The Corner Bakery. A sign promised local tomatoes and lettuce on their BLT plus BACON (their caps) yielding, therefore a BBLT. One of the sides was a bruschetta salad. The salad - no bread - used chopped tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes, diced mozzarella and a little arugula, all in a basil-laced vinaigrette, very good.
But the blowout was the BBLT. Grilled sourdough and a balsamic black pepper mayonnaise, yes, but also excellent tomatoes and plenty of really good bacon. It's a summer special at The Corner Bakery - this could make Crown Candy a little uneasy if there were TCB stores in St. Louis.
More: Glazed and Infused, just west of the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, has a walkup window upen until the wee hours on the weekend. Doughnuts to soak up partying, yes, but also a brisk business with morning commuters for both lattes and carbs. The maple bacon bar has an entire strip of black pepper bacon for the good fo man- and womankind. Also creme brulee doughnuts, and bismarks, like jelly doughnuts, du jour; I had a lemon curd with raspberry frosting.
Shaw's Crab House, a longtime favorite of ours, is on the same block. I am surprised to report a softshell crab special gave almost flavorless crabs overwhelmed by a very tart (? underripe ?) fresh tomato coulis. But the steamed king crab legs, a house classic, were great and so was key lime pie, raspberry pie and a creme brulee godo enough to remind us how this classic-turned-cliche ought to be done, with tender custard and a crunchy, toasted-marshmallow-flavor top. More on a visit to The Publican soon.
Lovely little towns are not a dime a dozen, and finding another one is always a pleasure. The outskirts of such spots are almost inevitably deceiving, so it wasn't until my second visit to Warrenton, VA, that I found myself happily neck-swiveling in the neighborhood around the old courthouse.
This being Virginia, there's an historical anecdote about every couple of feet, of course - I thought about Bill McClellan, whose possible ancestor, the general, gave his farewell speech here, as a number of plaques and signs pointed out. It's near the Virginia wine country, and the countryside itself - well, it's easy to understand why the English settlers felt at home here; the drive from I-66 and Manassas has spots that look like the West Country of England.
The World's Greatest Daughter-in-Law and I had slipped out of preparation for family festivities and aimed for a spot Marian Burros had written about in the New York Times. Alas: We reached the Red Truck Bakery after every sandwich in the place had sold out. Clearly this was one of those occasions when the tough get going. The vegan sweet potato-plantain-coconut soup was velvet, a hit of Thai red curry in it, rich and wondrous. Foccacia alongside had fresh rosemary and a glaze that looked like sugar but was sea salt. And the house coffee was splendid. We ate at a communal table next to the old service station's sales room - one bay is for dining and the other is where owner Brian Noyes bakes his magic - said table being made from timbers of a barn that General Sheridan set afire as he marched through the Shenandoah Valley.
Lots of local ingredients including local eggs for the egg salads and housemade pickles for it, too. Check the website, where the soup of the day is also announced. We left with an armful of bakery goods, including some caramel and peanut cookies, a loaf of bread with oatmeal, cranberries and walnuts and - fanfare, if you please, maestro - a moonshine cake. Noyes is using real, legal, 'shine in this, and while it makes things distinctive, it's not so deeply alcoholic that kids go "oh, yuck!" Lightly sweet, and a little spicy, it's a ring cake with a drizzle of chocolate ganache on it. Much polite argument over the last piece.
They also do mail order, including pies made with their own mincemeat when that season arrives. Not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Luray Caverns as well, so lots of excuses to go visit. And yes, there's breakfast, too.
Breakfast and Lunch Mon.-Sat.
Credit cards: Yes
Once upon a time, lower Manhattan, say, below 14th Street, had not been Discovered except by the locals and a few arty types. It was a series of real neighborhoods. Many small businesses were located on the first 2 floors of 5- and 6- story buildings, apartments upstairs. The first floor was actually about halfway below ground level, with stairs to go down to the door and the small area across the front of the building where pots of shrubs tried unsuccessfully to hide trash cans. Windows gave a truncated view of life on the street, and ceilings were low - there was a certain feeling of being in a burrow, but that added to the romance of any restaurant in such a setting. And there were plenty of them, cozy dark spots run by families dishing up coq au vin or spaghetti or kebabs, travel posters on the wall and stubby candles here and there. (Fans of old, old movies will immediately recognize the setting; Hollywood always knew romantic.)
So when I saw Antojeria La Popular, walked in the front door and down a few steps, I couldn't help but smile. No travel posters, and a modern bar, but cozy and lit like a scene from one of those old movies. The food is Mexican, but it's like few Mexican restaurants around. They're doing, to mix Spanish metaphors, Mexican tapas. No cliches, including no margaritas, but plenty of interesting cocktails. Sangria, too, red and white, as well as limited wine and beer.
Some of the dishes work well for sharing. Others, well, not so much except for close personal friends. But all of them we tried were delectable. By chance, the only ones that had semi-serious heat were the first two that arrived, which are shown in the picture. (Note the sign on the table.) Four different ceviches are available; our Distrito Federal contained sirloin slices as well as shrimp, tilapia, serrano chile and red onion in a slightly thickened sauce described only as a Triblin sauce. Not particularly handsome but tasty. Alongside was the creamy, warm corn dish Tabasco, named for the state in Mexico, not the sauce. It was almost a pudding in consistency, with strips of roasted poblano in it, giving it a slow-growing kick, but that was partly offset by plenty of Chihuahua cheese.
Continuing, came next tostadas, one called Michoacan, with chicken in a mole sauce topped with lettuce and a toasted sesame crema, and another, Zacatecas, with pieces of sirloin and a green sauce. Tucked into a pita was a combination of shrimp, bacon, avocado, and a little poblano chile, lightly dressed in a smoky mayonnaise, particularly remarkable. And then a real surprise, raw tuna diced with mango, just a little hit of habanero pepper (don't be frightened - this really sings) and again just a little binding with mayo, all on a large, thin slice of jicama to provide crunch. Practically brilliant.
Yes, flan is a cliche of a dessert. But that was what was available. This is probably the best flan I've ever eaten, exquisitely silky and rich but not rubbery, and somehow managing to be delicate. Like the seviche, not remarkably beautiful but worth pursuing.
A few blocks below Houston Street, it's possible for pre-theater dining for some of the tiny off--off Broadway spots, or to finish off a day of shopping in the neighborhood. (And the Spring Street subway station is at the other end of the block for tired feet.) Very small, very cozy, good people-watching. And they offer different kinds of chilaquiles, a sort of scrambled egg with tortilla dish, on weekends, and of Mexican chocolate, so it's a brunch option, too. Plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free choices are noted on the menu.
La Antojeria Popular
50 Spring Street, New York City
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: No
The neighborhood of Lincoln Center in Manhattan is full of venues for music, dance and theater, and that means plenty of opportunities for restaurateurs to offer brunch, lunch, dinner and post-performance noshing. And sure enough, the area is teeming with options. One restaurateur with excellent credentials is Daniel Boulud, who first gained major acclaim running the kitchen at Le Cirque. Soon he opened his own restaurant, Daniel, where Joe and I met him one night as we dined with Tim and Nina Zagat. (Apparently, in the kitchen were two guys whose names you might recognize, Jim Fiala and Carey McDowell, who ended up here in St. Louis.)
Daniel Boulud traded his whites for a suit and tie, and now has a group of carefully planned outposts, including three bearing his name across the street from Lincoln Center. One is a bakery/retail/seafood bar, called Epicerie Bolud, flanked to the east by Boulud Sud, which focuses on Mediterranean food, and to the south is Bar Bolud, where I ended up with friends.
In a storefront whose large windows frame the glittering Metropolitan Opera across Dante Park, the arched ceiling somehow manages to hold the noise to a manageable din, notable these days. With only slight effort, we could hear each other across the table. We opted for a series of small bites rather than having entrees, and no one gave us a fish eye over that choice; indeed, service was as good as you'd expect from a high-end New York restaurant that was jumping. And jumping it was; don't try this without a reservation unless you have a secure backup plan.
An amuse of gougeres, still warm, arrived and met with universal acclaim. My pals hadn't come across them before - they're a choux paste dough, what cream puffs are made of, that has cheese beaten into it. No filling required; the interior is soft and slightly chewy, the outside crisp. These were perhaps an inch in diameter, and we could probably have eaten a dozen of them.
The house version of a salade lyonnaise is close to traditional, a lovely tangle of curly, crisp endive, lightly dressed with vinaigrette, thick chunks of bacon, and a perfectly poached egg. What makes it distinctive is not just the sourdough croutons, but quickly sauteed lobes of chicken liver, giving another layer of savory flavor and a creamy texture to the mixture.
Soups should be superb at a restaurant with French bloodlines, and both ours were. The mini-tureens are heavy enough to keep them properly hot, and while a celery and chestnut soup was lush, velvety and as rich as the dress circle across the street at the opera house, its balance of flavors and cream didn't mutter, "Too much, too much." Fish soup featured on the pre-theater menu was a cream version, too, equally smooth and punctuated by brunoise of potato and several mussels barely poached. Brunoise? Beautiful word. It's chef-talk for dice about an eighth of an inch across.
From the charcuterie list came a slice of terrine made with leg of lamb, with some eggplant and sweet potato added in for texture as well as taste, little hits of garlic and pepper and one of the sweet spices singing along. The single letdown in the meal was the beef tartare, good quality beef, to be sure, but topped with what seemed to be a mayonnaise type of sauce, rather than the traditional egg yolk. Who knows if Health Department regulations or a caution in this age of immunodeficiencies and lawsuits helped this come to pass? It seemed to be part of a texture problem that surprised, a gooeyness that was unexpected.
But the dessert....ah, the dessert. Called le lion (and pronounced like the cat, not the city in France), it was held in shape by a shallow cup-shaped chocolate cookie that floated in a cloud of passion fruit- and yuzu-flavored whipped cream. Inside the cup, was a denser chocolate cream, more whipped cream on top, and then a scoop of chocolate-passion fruit ice cream, and yes, those are a few gold flakes on there. Why gild the lily when you can gild chocolate? Sheer bliss. Who knew passion fruit and chocolate could make such wow together?
There's a late-night menu, a pre-theater special, and they do brunch. But call ahead, even if it's only a half-hour's lead time. Restaurants in this neighborhood get very busy, even the so-so ones. And this is far beyond that.
1900 Broadway, New York City
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner nightly, Brunch Sat.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
More pictures of food in Italy and a link to a story about it.
Here's an antipasto table, something often greeting guests on entering restaurants.
And a food market in Rome, this one in the Campo di Fiori:
Finally, a patient would-be diner awaiting lunch opening at a small restaurant in the Trastevere
neighborhood in Rome:
Somehow, nearly always my first meal when I visit Italy is gelato. The post-arrival stroll designed to lift the fog of jet lag inevitably passes one, two, three gelato spots, and for a while I'm resistant, just too glad to be back and too curious about what's around the next corner. But then I lag, still doggedly hoofing it along, but thinking about where to go, where to go...and I end up with three scoops of gelato and a broad smile.
Gelato is everywhere, and don't think it's just a tourist thing - although there is definitely some that is made more for the, uh, unsuspecting. The quick giveaway is visible from the front door: Garish colors. Real flavors of gelato don't seem to glow in the dark. A ripe banana is not bright yellow - it's more of a cream color. No berry in existence gives an electric blue juice. And Sarah, the food tour guide of whom I wrote last week, says that billowing piles of gelato are another giveaway that this is the industrial stuff. The immense dollops looking like so much Marshmallow Fluff are, I admit, appealing, especially to an American eye accustomed to the more-is-better school. But the really good stuff is pretty subdued in color and seldom stays around long enough for the casual observer to notice mounds of it towering above the individual metal containers in the glass cases.
Gelato is not ice cream. It's lower in fat, and there is much less air beaten into the mixture than in ice creams. (Interesting side observation: Try lifting two or three different brands of ice cream that have the same size marked on them. Some will be heavier - usually the premium brands - because they have less air. This could lead to a discussion of the confusion between ounces of weight and ounces of volume, but that's for another time.) It's also softer than ice cream, as you will find with your first lick. And in Italy, it's quite acceptable to eat it as you walk. In fact, some gelaterias don't have seating room except for tables outside. There are gelateria chains; in Rome, Blue is ubiquitous and shudderingly garish. Online reviews range from "avoid at all costs" to "the best gelato in the world" - and that's just Google's first page. Not realizing it was a chain, I walked in to one, inspected the case (a common practice) and left post-haste.
But the good stuff? Ah, yes. On a side street between the Via del Corso and the Pantheon, I came across Giolitti at via degli Uffici del Vicario 40. I hear stories about lines at this place, but it's far enough from the Pantheon that it doesn't get the mobs constantly. The cone, or cono, in the picture holds blood orange, chocolate nougat and coconut. My first meal in Rome. No sidewalk tables, the street is too narrow, but indoor ones in an adjoining room.
San Crispino, near the Trevi Fountain, is Serious Gelato. But it''s far enough away that the mobs that clog the street around the surprisingly small fountain seldom make it there. Still, it's usually busy enough on its own. Two brothers make it using only seasonal ingredients and they're so serious that they don't sell cones, saying it interferes with the flavor. There's a chalkboard with a list of flavor combinations they suggest, which I ignored; if I'd had a second visit, I would have tried that. I had red currant, wonderfully tart, and caramel with bits of crunchy meringue throughout, absolutely dazzling. The muted colors of the long, narrow interior mirror the gelato colors. No seating. It's a couple of blocks east of the fountain, at via della Panetteria 42. Gelaterias don't give you spoons, but rather small plastic spades with which to eat, sort of a contemporary version of the cocktail sticks of yore. This is, I found after I got home, the gelato discussed in "Eat, Pray, Love".
Another Giolitti, not affiliated but run by a separate branch of the family, which is now in its fifth generation of making gelato, is in Testaccio at via Amerigo Vespucci 35. They offer whipped cream, panna, to top the gelato, and it comes out of a mixer that must date back to the 1930's. This is in-season gelato - they're open all year, but melon, for instance, is only made in summer, and apple in the autumn. Happily, chocolate is constantly available and so are many of the nut flavors. That's the mixer Just by the gentleman's elbow:
And not quite gelato but close is granita di cafe, coffee frozen and stirred intermittently as it's frozen to form large crystals and topped with softly whipped cream. Just off the piazza facing the Pantheon at via degli Orfani 84 (the sign says La Casa Del Caffe) is Tazza D'Oro Coffee, a coffee roaster and cafe. The espresso is excellent, but it's the granita di caffe that makes folks swoon. Pay at the register at the left and take your ticket to the hard-working guys at the bar. Tazza D'Oro smells wonderful, of course, and you can also buy beans and such. This is, by the way, the only place I found seriously pushy tourists, including three Asian women who stared at their granita di caffes for a while, reached over behind the bar when the baristas were busy elsewhere, grabbed a large container with tableware in it, and pushed off as much of the cream as they could into the container.
There are tables and chairs on the side street; otherwise, be like a real Italian and take it standing up. A don't-miss spot, and close enough to take your granita and sit on the steps of the fountain in front of the Pantheon.
I've come back from Rome with a new appreciation for the food there. Certainly food is one of the great pleasures of Italy, but the focus is usually on smaller cities like Bologna or regions like Sicily. Besides the restaurants - in Rome or wherever one visits - it's fun exploring the street markets and investigating the equivalent of supermarkets. And then there are food tours. (While this mostly seems a recent development, St. Louisan Robert Noah was giving food tours of Rungis, the wholesale food market of Paris as early as 1980.)
And so one morning I found myself getting off the subway at a stop named Pyramide (there really is a pyramid there) to meet the folks from Eating Italy Food Tours. This is an old neighborhood called Testaccio, former site of the city's slaughterhouses, thus deeply blue-collar and now slowly becoming gentrified.
The tours take about four hours. There's a lot of tasting, some easy walking with no hills, plenty of explanation, some lunch, and then dessert. The ebullient Sarah, an American from Ann Arbor who is studying to become a sommelier, was our guide, full of pleasure at what she was sharing with us.
Our group, which was eleven people, were American and British. We tasted things like cornetti, the Italian breakfast pastry, prosciutto, pecorino cheese with truffles in it, tiramisu (below),
15- and 30-year old balsamic vinegar, pizza, fresh buffalo mozzarella from real buffalos, salami made with Barolo wine and bruschetta created by Sarah on the spot in the new building for the Testaccio market with a couple of the vendors' wares. And then there was lunch, three kinds of pasta. We ended up at Giolitti, a gelato shop that is in its fifth generation of ownership. No funky, neon-colored piles of gelato here, just the pale pastels of real fruits and nuts, only those in season, and a circa-1930 mixer for the panna, or whipped cream.
The whole approach was a far cry from organized group tours run by jaded guides for people who are doing what they think tourists ought to do. Eating Italy Food Tours is run by people who like to eat for people who like to eat. Sarah said that it was common for her to run into people she had on tours a day or two before who've come back to the neighborhood to shop and stroll and eat, and after a couple of the (generous) samples, it's easy to understand why. It's 65 euros for adults, 45 for kids under 12, although we had none in our group. Between the food and the entertainment value, it's worth it.
I'm just back from Italy, with a couple of nights in London to kick things off. And, as usual, the food mainly fell into the category of More, Please. (Like New Orleans, it's not impossible to get a bad meal in Italy, but the odds are in your favor.) Plenty of tales to be told, but choosing at random, pizza in Rome is an easy place to start.
Yes, pizza began in Naples but Rome has taken to it with full abandon, and it's everywhere. Interestingly, there is, in effect, a daytime pizza and an evening pizza, each different. And please note that both of them are eaten by Romans, not just tourists. I dropped by Forno Campo di Fiori, facing the market on Campo del Fiori, (piazza Campo del Fiori, www.fornocampodifiori.com, closed Sunday) and twenty feet from the entrance, two elegantly dressed businessmen were standing, chowing down on some midmorning pizza. After all, when all you had for breakfast was a cup of espresso and perhaps a cornetto, similar to a croissant, you need something for elevenses.
This daytime pizza, known as pizza al taglia, or pizza by the piece, are long rectangles, more than two feet, with a fairly thick crust. Pieces are cut off to order, easy enough to do with a gesture of the thumb and forefinger measuring to the person behind the counter, the price computed by weight. At Forno Campo di Fiori, they're known for their pizza bianca, which is just brushed with olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt, although the pizza rosso, with tomato sauce, is good, too. Visiting a street market invariably produces hunger pangs; the market on Campo di Fiori is, despite what I've read, mostly aimed at locals and has pretty much no food to eat as you walk except fruit and a guy who, in season, squeezes pomegranite juice to order, so the snack is particularly welcome. And eating on the street is very common here, so don't hesitate.
In another neighborhood, Testaccio, I had some pizza margherita, the classic with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, in the daytime version, and it was remarkable. Volpetti Piu, via Alessandro Volta 8, just off via Marmorata, has more than just pizza, but it would be hard to get beyond the tangy sauce and perfect mozzarella for me to choose. That visit was part of a tour I took, and there'll be more on that in a further installment.
Why is night's pizza so different? Because it takes a wood-fired oven, and by law, they can't turn on those ovens until 7 p.m. Italians, of course, eat dinner late anyway, so don't bother showing up until around 8; even then, you'll be with other visitors. St. Louisans will be interested to know that these are thinner crusts than even we are accustomed to, and crisper.
The pizza at Pizzeria da Baffetto 2, also near the Campo del Fiori at Piazza del Teatro Pompeo 18, arrives uncut (but served with a knife and fork - remember most Europeans don't eat it with their fingers) and delicious. I opted for some salami as a topping, sliced very thinly but with a little hit of heat to it. While the pizza was baking, I had fiori di zucca, fried zucchini blossoms, which are filled with a small stick of mozzarella and some anchovy, battered and deep-fried. Glorious, and that was before I realized there was anchovy in there as well, gilding the lily, or, in this case, the zucchini. (There's also the original da Baffetto near Piazza Navona at via del Governo Vecchio 114, www.pizzeriabaffetto.it .)
As a side note, a pleasant conversation with a couple of honeymooners at the next table. She was vegetarian, and I asked about how that was going on the visit. "Fine," she said, "but sometimes I just want a salad, and they're difficult to find." I had just spent a week on a barge trip in northern Italy with a first-rate woman chef working the galley, and the guests and Silvia, the chef, had had a talk about salads, which generally come, if at all, as a side dish to the main course. So I talked about my newfound knowledge, and then she said, "I've gotten a few, at lunch. But they're never dressed. I like Italian dressing. Why can't I get Italian dressing in Italy?"
We talked about the cruets of olive oil and vinegar on the table. These days, it seems to be mostly balsamic, and on the barge, the balsamico was in a spray-top bottle that matched the oil cruet. But "Italian" (picture the fingers doing quotation marks here) dressing? Probably not.
Road trip! I suppose there are folks those two words don't cause a slight rise in the pulse rate, but it's no one that I know. While the apple season is peaking early, there's still a good excuse to drive up to Calhoun County, IL, to buy apples, and perhaps some fresh-pressed cider if you're lucky. Lunch? I've got the place for you.
And maybe it's just me, but this time of year, weekdays are even more fun, retaining that faint air of playing hookey.
We wrote about it some years ago, but I re-visited Jing Fong in New York's Chinatown and wrote about it in Relish. Very comfortable for the solo diner, by the way, especially since the traditional dim sum portions are small. You can read about it here.