Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Destination Wedding in Mexico: November 2008

A week in Puerto Vallerta including some great restaurants

My friends Joel and Rusty hosted a four day bash to fete their nuptials. 82 guests converged on the charming town of I, Mexico on the west coast of the country. I was fortunate to stay in a lovely reasonably priced hotel (Hotel Playa Conchas Chinas) that boasted a delicious Mexican restaurant: La Playita. Black bean soup, seafood salad, and chiles rellenos stuffed with whole pieces of lobster were delicious dishes that I consumed with glee. I must order everything WITHOUT cilantro and that posed no problem to the kitchen.

At the luxury Villas next door (Quinta Maria Cortez and Casa Tres Vidas)--we were welcomed by our hosts for breakfast each morning. In addition to the refried beans and rice and huevos rancheros was served the most delicious bacon I have ever tasted. People also raved about the sausage.

We were invited to La Palapa which is a restaurant on the city beach that has a complex of condos that can be rented for several days or weeks. We all sat at tables beach side--under umbrellas--as we were served by friendly waiters. I had the most delicious coconut jumbo shrimp in a papaya-mango sauce (from the restaurant), skewers of fresh shrimp and plates of lobster that I could buy from vendors on the beach (see photos). The restaurant also serves three different types of ceviche and I had one with passion fruit and jicama. If you want to go shopping, you don't have to move as the vendors wend their way through the people sunning and swimming on the beach. You can buy jewelry, candy, cakes, blankets, hammocks, etc. etc. It is a very colorful scene and so it is easy to spend the day watching the movement of the ocean, eating and drinking, shopping, and enjoying the atmosphere.

One night, Joel and Rusty hosted a dinner at La Piazzetta--one of their favorite Italian restaurants in the Romantic section of town. We were served a variety of delicious pastas, pizzas and antipasto. The signature drink is tequila in the form of the margherita, but I enjoyed several very good tequilas on the rocks during my week-long stay in Mexico. On another evening, 12 of us went out to Cafe Olla--also in the old Romantic section--and were delighted by the copious platters of grilled seafood and fish. That is a very popular place and one must reserve in advance. On another evening, I went to Polo's Mariscos which is an excellent seafood restaurant. The shrimp cocktail is the greatest!!. You get 12 large succulent shrimp in a light tomato juice-type sauce topped with fresh perfect slices of avocado. The dish is served in an old fashioned drugstore ice cream sundae glass. This is almost considered peasant food and can be had at any small restaurant, as the shrimp is so plentiful in that part of the world.

The wedding was a beautiful event on the beach with a truly lovely service. After the ceremony, mariachis serenaded us as we enjoyed various hors d'oeuvres (including those excellent coconut shrimp as well as mushrooms stuffed with cheese). At the Villas we had a formal sit down dinner with a choice of grilled beef or red snapper Vera Cruz style (onions, and tomatoes). Instead of the usual rice and beans, this elegant meal was served with fresh vegetables, a salad and potatoes. The wedding cake was a delicious white cake with fresh strawberries. It was difficult to remember that this was November, as the weather was hot and perfect and the food very summery.

We had two other delicious meals at the Villas--Mexican specialties (chicken chilaquiles, salsa, skewers of chicken or pollo) on one night and a delicious Mexican barbecue consisting of chicken in a spicy sauce as well as fantastic ribs. I had my share of corn and of flour tortillas too and so it was not a surprise when I returned home weighing four pounds more than when I left!! Even though there is so much fish, the food is quite starchy and it is easy to put on the pounds.

I stayed in Puerto Vallerta for a few days after the wedding as did other guests. So of course, I explored the local restaurants. I went to Polo's Mariscos on a rain evening and had great shellfish. One of the most simple things you can get is a shrimp cocktail and this one was served as a big ice-cream parlor parfait glass chock full with large succulent shrimps in a spicy red cocktail sauce. The Combo for one was unbelievable: two skewers of grilled shrimp with assorted vegetables; two of scallops with mushrooms and grilled lobster on a side plate. With this came lovely garlic bread. Being Mexico, the bill was very affordable.

Before I left, 11 from the wedding party and I went to the very popular Cafe Olla where the Seafood Combination for three consisted of baked potatoes, grilled whole lobsters, jumbo shrimps, mahi-mahi, red snapper, swordfish, rice and vegetables: truly a feast! The fish and shellfish were all very fresh and perfectly cooked.

For my last night, I dined at El Corono on Playa dellas Animas. It is a separate restaurant at the foot of my hotel. There, I had a huge burrito rolled with cheese and chicken, refried beans, rice and vegetables. Very filling but very good.

You would not be surprised to learn that after this trip with all the filling food, I came back to Paris ready to go on a diet. No more croissants for me for several months! That is the price one pays for the gourmet lifestyle.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Weekend in Nancy

Nancy: a charming city in Alsace and its best restaurants

I had a spectacular weekend in Nancy the weekend of Assomption when everyone is travelling--not to Nancy, however. The smartest move was to stay at the Grand Hotel de la Reine which is on the beautiful Place Stanislas. This is a stunning square that is quiet and clean because no cars are allowed. The buildings surrounding the square are all the same style and at every corner are beautiful baroque gates with iron gates, gold leaf decoration and ornate statues. Beyond the square is a lovely park, another beautiful square, an arch of triumph and streets to the main sections of town. The city is known for its art nouveau architecture and its works of art nouveau in the various museums. In addition there are some very good restaurants.

I had a huge meal at the one star restaurant, Le Grenier à Sel.I chose the menu dégustation and here are some of the delicious items I was served. Tomato-Grenouille Rillettes, a cone of a Bavarois d'avocat with fresh crab meat, a transparent large ravioli with oysters, ham and cucumber. The next course was a medley of foie gras with superb Cavaillon melon, a gingerbread tuile served with a wonderful sweet Côteaux de Layon that married so well with the richness of the foie gras and the sweetness of the melon. There were spring rolls of green asparagus, and of roast langoustine garnished with baby vegetables on a cucumber jelly. To refresh my palate, a delicious sorbet flavored with olive oil was served. I had had enough at this point, but the meal had only just begun. The pièce de résistance was a delectable filet mignon coated with a tiny bit of wasabi and served with kale layered with ham alongside a mountain of fresh chanterelles. This was a truly wonderful dish.

For my pre-dessert, I had an Irish Coffee--revisited. This consisted of a lady finger, coffee mousse, a touch of chocolate, and whipped cream. Just wonderful!! And frankly, sufficient. However, the real dessert was raspberry profiteroles with a lovely thin layer of chocolate coating the plate to flavor the profiteroles. I had tea which is a very effective digestive and this was served with mignardises. Although the dinner was exquisite from start to finish, it was hard to eat that much. One feels like one needs to train for such a long gastronomic experience and I felt out of practice!!

My favorite meal was much less elaborated and at the small V-Four. This tiny restaurant has the coveted I--a Michelin rating which means a restaurant that serves an excellent meal at a great price. I always seek out the Bib Gourmands and suggest that you do too. Thusfar, I have been pleased with the results. V-Four rose to the occasion. My I was a lovely green asparagus cappuccino--which just means a foamy and delicious warm green asparagus drink. I started with a carpaccio de Coquilles St Jacques served with thin slices of parmesan and salad. This was simply delicious with the cheese adding a surprising note of flavor. My main course was dorade on a thin polenta tart served with an herb oil and balsamic vinegar. This was a very unusual and interesting savory dish. I chose a local wine to go with it (Côtes de Toul, Domaine Regina 2007) and that was a very good.

The desserts looked terrific but after the meal of the night before, I decided to go with the Soupe de Fruits Rouges infused with Szechuan Pepper. This delectable concoction was the perfect ending to a wonderful meal. With a choice of excellent coffees, the meal came to just under 60 euros and was worth every cent.

Paris Update: A long time coming

Some fancy and not so fancy finds in Paris; a few hideaways that the French particularly like

It has been months since I have updated my Paris restaurant list and I have many restaurants to write about. A wonderful find that I went to twice in the same month is the new L'Ordonnance. This restaurant is in the 14th arrondissement (the middle of nowhere for me). The name means "prescription" and my dentist recommended it to me rather than writing me a real one. The food is inexpensive, classic, and simply delicious. The beef is wonderful, desserts are out of sight the wine list very sophisticated, and everything on the menu is worth ordering. This is a little unknown place so don't tell too many people about it! Eric and I went there after my visit to the dentist and loved it so much that we agreed to go back there to celebrate my birthday. On that evening, I had an assortment of fresh natural tomatoes of every color and size that was spectacular. (See the photo of the beautiful tomatoes.) The main course was capon with fresh chanterelles and a wonderful baba au rhum.

For the day of my birthday, Mary treated me and I treated her to a wonderful meal at the two star restaurant La Table de Joel Robuchon. It is open every day of the week and at lunch there is a lovely 55-euro menu which includes wine. You can't do better than that especially at such a temple of fine dining. However, we were most intrigued by the list of tapas and decided to order à la carte. We had a fresh artichoke with langoustines and a type of guacamole garnished with fresh baby squid; craw fish in a clear bouillon with tiny fresh pea ravioli, quail with foie gras and the famous compulsory buttery and creamy mashed potatoes that is the specialty of M. Robuchon. Dessert was a soufflé of passion fruit. This was a spectacular luncheon. Mary treated us to wonderful Burgundy white and red wines by the glass. It was a remarkable dining adventure.

My friend Noriko comes to Paris twice a year (from New York). She is a private cook and once or twice each trip, she likes to treat herself to a fine meal with me. This time, I chose Restaurant Auguste (chef Gaël Orieux) which has one Michelin star. The dinner is not cheap--we paid about 100 euros apiece and only ordered wine by the glass. The style is Breton: fresh fish, oysters, carré d'agneau. For dessert, we had a wonderful chocolate soufflé which is my favorite dessert. If you remember, my mother made me that for my tenth birthday party. Although expensive; I would go back to this place in a heartbeat.

Not so for Spring which Noriko chose. This small restaurant has had lot of hype and it is booked up months in advance but after my experience there, I don't know why. The restaurant has 22 seats and one menu--no choices. On the evening that we went, it was extremely hot and there was no ventilation. Sitting through that dinner was just torture. It went on and on interminably and the food was mediocre so even when served, one did not feel a sense of relief. I have been to small restaurants where one can choose what one is going to eat and is served much more quickly and adeptly than at this place. I could not wait to get out of there. The entire meal was rather tasteless except that the chef used his salt much too liberally. The wait staff was also very unfriendly. The 42 euro price tag was much too expensive for a place of such low calibre. No one wants to spend a cent on food that they do not enjoy.

Another new place that is also very popular is Les Itinéraires. It used to be Le Temps Au Temps and was situated in the 11th arrondissement. They did so well as to be able to move to a more popular and larger location. However, I thought that the service and food were mediocre. The ceviche de saumon with a purée of beet was interesting but as I don't like the combination of salmon with beets, I didn't enjoy it. I ordered beef cheeks half-heartedly for main course, and was almost finished when I saw that they had failed to tell us the evening's specials--both dishes I would have greatly preferred. Such a gaffe on the part of the server is inexcusable. The desserts were terrible. Again, the meal was too expensive for what it was which was a whole lot of nothing.

My brother David was in town for a few days and he took me to two great places. I had already been to the first one and chose it with enthusiasm: Le Cameléon. I love this place. It used to be a boring bistrot that was taken over by a master restaurateur: Jean Pierre Arabian. He has done a spectacular job of renovating the place and choosing a great chef. The food is wonderful and every item on the menu is tempting. David started with a very rich foie gras and I with a tuna sashimi salad. Our main course was a delicious cold salmon dish with tarragon, ginger on a refreshing bed of glistening diced cucumber. It was lovely. Desserts were fine: a chocolate mousse with a cocoa sorbet and a light lemon cream with fresh tangerines and oranges. We had glasses of champagne and a bottle of wonderful wine that was recommended by M. Arabian. The meal came to less than 100 euros per person. Lunch is less expensive and just as wonderful with many of the same dishes as part of a 35-euro menu.

The second evening we went to a more upscale place called Citrus Etoile off the Champs Elysées. I remember the chef, Gilles Epié, from his wonderful restaurant, Miravile, many many years ago. Since then, he spent time in the states, married an American and moved back to Paris to open this relatively new restaurant. The service was absolutely charming and friendly. I had an interesting warm lobster salad to start with. The lobster was piled with angel-hair strands of fried onions. David had a beautiful octopus salad with white beans from Paimpol, green tea infusion and celeri rave. It was light and tasty. My main course was an excellent meunière of sweetbreads. This is a very original rendering of that wonderful dish as sweetbreads are usually served poached and then en brochette. David had a savory dish of lotte on a fresh tomato sauce. For dessert I had a superb Grand Marnier soufflé and David chose a beautiful almond tarte with large succulent red cherries. This meal came to just over 200 euros.

Our final meal together was at a restaurant from the past. About 40 years ago, our father had a year's sabbatical in Paris. I was in college at the time, but came to visit in the summer. David and our two other brothers spent the year here. Every Sunday they went to the neighborhood pizzeria: Da Pietro. It is still going strong. For the most part, I think that Paris pizza is horrible. However, this place does an excellent job and when I crave a pizza, I come here. The personnel are very friendly and all the food is delicious. Pizzas run between 11-13 euros and it is hard not to finish the whole thing. The French love Italian food and as a result, this place is always full.

To end this post, I must recommend Le Clos des Gourmets--recommended to me by two different people I trust. Here is an example of a tiny restaurant with friendly service and a variety of delicious dishes. I went there with my friend, Gaby, and we both had a terrific time. She started with a cold white bean soup with pieces of smoked duck breast while I had a glass of cold mussels, cauliflower and a foamy emulsion that was lightly spicy. Both dishes were superb. My main course was a wonderful turbot with mashed potatoes flavored with pesto. I can't wait to make that myself. It was also served with a copious portion of fresh chanterelles--some of my very favorite foods all in the same dish. I loved the combination of textures and flavors. Gaby had an absolutely wonderful roast chicken that had a very powerful meaty sauce. This was a simple, yet spectacular dish. For dessert, I had sauteed mirabelles with verbena ice cream and Gaby chose a tart of black figs. This was a spectacular meal. The menu is 35 euros but many of the dishes have an additional charge. Gaby's meal was 35 whereas mine with the turbot was a bit more expensive. However, it was well worth the cost. I can't wait to go back to this place.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Trip To New York--June 2008

Some NY greats: Italian finds including the best antipasto, a wonderful breakfast and lunch place, theater district dining, and some of the top American restaurants

I am definitely a lucky woman. I live in beautiful Paris and visit the spectacular city of New York at least twice a year to see friends and family (and eat!!). I spend a few days in my mother's apartment which is in Riverdale (a gastronomic no-man's land) and then move on to the Village where I stay with my cousins Boots and Larry. Although Larry makes a wonderful breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice, various breads and wonderful coffee, I do at times venture out to City Bakery. The staff know me, as I do go there several times on every trip. It was actually a French cook who told me about their Pretzel Croissants; chewy croissants made in the shape of pretzels with a texture between a croissant and (you guessed it) a chewy pretzel. They are quite filling and I love them. I have a picture of them along with some of the beautiful muffins on this blog. On the weekends, City Bakery serves a wonderful caramelized French toast and everyday you can get their stupendous macaroni and cheese. I never liked that when I was a child, but I do now. At lunch, there is always a beautiful array of delicious and healthy salads and sandwiches, and on weekends the compulsory bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese. They are known for their tarts and cookies, but I prefer their breakfast pastries.

After years of going to the top American restaurants in the Zagat Guide which have been written up ad infinitem and tend to be very noisy, I prefer the smaller quieter delicious places. The prices in NY are extremely elevated, but one can find places that are more reasonable. My new favorite place is Ama on MacDougal Street. I was told about it by my friend, Mary, and I asked Boots and Larry to go there with me last fall. It is wonderful. Since that first visit, Boots and Larry have been back there many times. It is a simple restaurant with delicious food and wonderful friendly personalized service. Here are some of the dishes I have had there: Orrechiette with Broccoli de Rape e Saliccie, Cozze (mussels) Tarantino with White Wine, Lemon and Fresh Thyme, Panzerotti (little deep friend ravioli-type things) filled with Tomato-Mozzarella and with Spinach-Ricotta, Grilled Branzino, Rombo con Piselli et Cicorria (peas and chicory), Mezzalune di Melanzana (half-moon pasta filled with eggplant), Capunti di Altamura (pasta with a fresh tomato sauce. We have had every dessert on the menu and the standouts are Panna Cotta di Castagna or whatever flavor they are serving that day, Cioccolato Caldo Freddo (molten chocolate cake with dark chocolate ice cream), Ama--the classic sponge cake bathed with amaretto with cherry crème brulée, and biscotti. Doesn't it sound wonderful?? This is a great place.

My mother dragged me kicking and screaming to a French restaurant. I am a stickler for eating American, Italian, Thai or Japanese food when I am in NY but think it is a waste for me to get French food. However, Cafe Boulud was just wonderful. We had a lovely lunch with my cousin, Judy, and the waiters assured me that the food is American with a French twist. I had House Made Farfalle (not French!!) with Ruby Red Shrimp, Zucchini, Corn, Baby Yellow Squash in a wonderful light cream sauce. For dessert we shared Coffee Opéra (yes, it's French), Chocolate Pain de Gênes with a Marscapone Mousse and an Amedei Chocolate Cremeux with Amaretto Ice Cream. You guessed it! Everyone in my family loves chocolate.

The next day I had tickets to see South Pacific at Lincoln Center. My favorite restaurants in the theater district are Esca and Orso (both Italian) but I was not going to be near either one. So I chose Cafe Fiorello and was very pleased with the spectacular antipasto spread that they have. You can choose four or seven items either vegetarian or vegetarian and fish. One thing is more beautiful than the next and everything is excellent. There are about twenty different savory seafood salads and even more preparations of beautiful vegetables. Not only that, but there are lasagnes and frittate. I sat at the counter and was entertained as the different dishes were placed in their spots. The longer you are there, the more wonderful items are introduced. I had a light lunch but decided that I will definitely go back even if I don't have Lincoln Center tickets. See the photos of the antipasto spread.

My friend, Chris and I always dine out together and usually choose one of the big Zagat choices like Gramercy Tavern or Union Square Café or Tabla or Aqua Grill in Times Square. I have to say that I am tiring of them because, despite the quality of the food, they tend to be expensive and noisy. We went to Blue Water Grill this time and although the food was fine, the noise level made it difficult for us to talk. I had a fancy sushi roll (Spicy Yellowtail and Shrimp with Bok Choy, Arugala Aioli and Tempura Flakes) and a Blacked Swordfish with Sweet Potato-Crabmeat Hash. They were both too complicated to be good. Chris was smart and ordered oysters and a grilled sea bass. Those were delicious.

For my last night, my cousin Gary took his wife Lynn, my mother, and me to the wonderful Italian restaurant, Felidia. There you will have a quiet evening with excellent food and service. It is definitely pricey, however, The bread selection with accompanying olives started us off in fine style. I had a spectacular Ravioli con Cacio et Pere (pungent cheese and pear) with fresh pecorino. Just lovely. After that, I had Spigola Selvaggia Con Sedano e Funghi. This is red snapper with celery, sautéed mushrooms and a mushroom tomato broth. Lynn was the other inventive eater in our party an she had Sautéed Chicken Livers on a bed of Polenta with Frisé and Liver Paté followed by the Spigola. I ordered Granita di Caffé con Panna in memory of a wonderful dessert from Doney's in Rome that I had when I was 16. It was served with biscotti and brioche.

Cousins and friends live in the Upper West Side and I have had the good fortune to go to Gennaro's. It is in the west 90's and they don't take reservations or credit cards. But if you get there at 7, you can get a seat. It is noisy but fun and not so noisy as other restaurants can be. Everything on the menu is wonderful--especially their antipasto and pasta dishes. In addition to the dishes on the menu, they have a long list of daily specials that the waiter recites at table side. They do take-out, and I guess people opt for that rather than wait on line. I was introduced to Gennaro's by my cousins, Kate and Alex and after that, went there with foodie friends, Pat and Tim. You never leave this place hungry or dissatisfied.

Dining in L.A--June 2008

A report on LA's delicious restaurants: American style, grilled cheese, pizza, and some wonderful Japanese finds

I spent a delicious week in L.A. at the home of my friends, Rusty and Joel. Joel is a fantastic cook in his own right (you should see his kitchen) and he created two wonderful dinners for me--his seafood pasta one evening, and a trio of grilled fish--each one lovingly paired with its own sauce. But here is a list of the wonderful L.A. restaurants I tried. I was pleased to note that although they were pricey, the bills were nothing like what you see in Europe or in New York, for that matter.

The first day, I took a walk and discovered a stupendous sushi restaurant: Sushi Roku on Third Street in West Hollywood. I sat at the bar and spoke Japanese to "my" sushi chef (ittamae-san), Tizzi-san. Although I enjoy the fancy multi faceted rolls that characterize California sushi, give me some pristine fresh fish on rice balls and I am in seventh heaven. I was very impressed with the quality of the fish at Sushi Roku and thrilled when Tizzi-san prepared me a fresh shrimp in two different ways: the body live and the head quickly deep friend tempura style. The yellowtail (which is difficult to get in Paris) was heavenly and the drinks sublime. I also enjoyed speaking Japanese to a Japanese woman who had lived in L.A. for such a long time that my Japanese was actually better than hers!! See the photo of Tizzi-san with the head of the shrimp he prepared for me.

That evening, Joel, Rusty, John, Onil and I tried a brand new restaurant in Culver City. Both Joel and John are old friends from Boston and Rusty and Onil are their partners. Onil is a chef and has a small restaurant in Pasadena (see below). We went to Ford's Filling Station, which is owned by Harrison Ford's son. The food is California-style, and we all shared several dishes: Jamon Serrano Flatbread with Roasted Red Peppers and Mozzarella, Curried Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese, Pecans and Duck Prosciutto, Smoked Trout Brandade with Grilled Garlic Bread, Scallops with Fresh Corn (can't get that in Paris!!), Blistered Tomatoes, Fingerling Potatoes and Brown Butter, Polenta Cake with Vegetables and Truffled Marscapone, Kobe Beef Cheeks with Cracked Wheat Risotto, etc. etc. For desert, we all shared the Chocolate Pound Cake with Whipped Cream, Blackberries and Strawberries. Onil chose a French Viognier wine which is one of my favorite grapes. He went wild ordering for everyone and we each got tastes of every dish. It was delicious, a lot of fun and came to about $60 per person.

The next evening, two tried and true Foodie Friends of mine (the son of another friend from Boston and his wife: Rafi and Megan) took me to the spectacular Pizzeria Mozza. This is the newest offspring of Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and cookbook fame. Although the pizzas are designer, I could not resist when I learned that this was her restaurant. She has a fantastic reputation. You would think that I had not eaten for days when I tell you of all the things we ordered and tasted. The starter was to die for: a Chicken Liver-Caper-Parsley-Pancetta Bruschetta. All the flavors married beautifully and this was a spectacular dish. We also shared Fried Squash Blossoms filled with warm melting Ricotta Cheese--sensational. As there were three of us, we splurged and actually ordered three pizzas and each one was more delicious than the last: Fennel Sausage, Panna, Red Onions and Scallions for the first; Funghi Misti with Fontina, Taleggio and Thyme for the second; Wild Spinach, Cacio di Roma and Salami Nostrano. The third was my favorite. Next door to the restaurant is Mozza Trattoria but Rafi told me that he much prefers the pizzeria. Given the way I feel about pizza, I think he is right, and I cannot wait to go back to Mozza.

The next day, I took public transportation (that's right--no one can believe it even exists in L.A.) to Pasadena where I met John. It was a very hot day and we took advantage of the wonderful weather to visit the Huntington Estates--beautiful gardens. John took me to Onil's restaurant (Elements) where I had a Pan-seared Atlantic Salmon Niçoise. John had the famous Organic Egg Salad. Both were delicious. Just a few days ago (end of August), Onil opened the restaurant for dinner. It is a small place but everything is lovingly and deliciously prepared. I think he will go far in this business.

That evening, we joined another friend of John (Tom) and were completely wowed at R-23, an unusual and wonderful Japanese restaurant in Japan town. Japanese people really know about service. We had two lovely beautiful women waiting on us. They recommended the best sushi and other dishes and the four of us enjoyed a wonderful feast. We had a French Dungeness Crab Salad, Yellowtail Carpaccio with Yuzu and Salmon Roe (yuzu is a citrus fruit), an assortment of wonderful sushi, Fried Soft Shell Crab, Beef Sashimi, Grilled Duck with Scallions, Shiitake Mushrooms with Asparagus, Ohitashi (a spinach dish) with Shiitake. We drank a wonderful cold sake with this terrific meal. Japanese food can be ultra-expensive but in spite of what we ordered, it came to about $67 per person. That would NEVER happen in New York or anywhere in Europe much less Tokyo. It was very impressive and I would return there in a heartbeat.

Joel, Rusty and I had been talking about Grilled Cheese Night at Campanile for over a year. It is the most popular evening when Mark Peel (the chef and genius behind the restaurant) makes delicious GRILLED CHEESE sandwiches. One must reserve very far in advance for this event and it is worth it. If you can say that Grilled Cheese can be a gourmet undertaking, this is it. Such crisp bread and warm meltingly delicious cheese! Perfect comfort food. You have never had a grilled cheese sandwich like this before. That was not all, however. Campanile is a wonderful restaurant and we had the entire menu at our disposal. We chose the Grilled Cheese sandwich, a wonderful Lobster Roll, Crisp Ricotta and Squash Ravioli wih Wild Mushroom Duxelles, and a Nectarine and Blueberry Cobbler. We also shared the rich brownie à la mode. It was a wonderful memorable meal, made only that more memorable when I fell in the bushes on the way back to the house. I guess all the partying and excitement went to my head!!!

I don't mean to be boring but every single restaurant I went to in L.A. was so
wonderful that I want to do the same thing the next time I go back. Joel and Rusty will suggest that we go elsewhere and I am always up for trying something new. However, these several choices could not be beat!!

Friday, 22 August 2008


An in-depth report of pizza from an expert in Washington, D.C. and in N.Y.

People ask me what is my favorite food. I love foie gras, caviar, langoustines, soufflés, all things dark chocolate--but my all time favorite food is PIZZA. I have been on a quest to find a handful of the best pizza restaurants in Italy and in the states (namely New York and Washington, D.C. because their pizzerias excel). For many many years, my friend Ann and I try a different pizza place every time I go to NY. We have been all over Brooklyn and Manhattan at this point. We are pizza pals.

My absolute favorite US-based pizza place is in Washington, D.C. It is called Two Amys and is situated in a small (what looks like suburban) mall in the city. They have authentic Neapolitan pizza--which means that their restaurant has passed the test of ingredients and technique so as to be recognized by the pizza gurus of Naples. Personally, I like a crisp crust with a chewy exterior. I tend not to go for designer pizzas: save me the Margherita please.

In NY, there are many excellent pizzerias and New Yorkers pride themselves in being pizza afficionadoes living in a pizza metropolis just as important as Naples. After the Patsy wars (when many restaurants took the name of Patsy and hoped to gain notoriety and customers that way) the famous Patsy's under the Brooklyn Bridge changed its name to Grimaldi's. This, along one other pizzeria in NYC, is a favorite of mine. Count on waiting on line and a raucous environment inside, AND absolutely exquisite pizzas. There is a list of the choices and the menu is limited to pizza, wine and beer, and a few other Italian delicacies. Rumor has it (and it is a true rumor) that Frank Sinatra was a loyal customer of Grimaldi's (formerly Patsy's) and ordered their pizzas to be delivered to him at his hotel.

The second delicious NY pizzeria that gets my seal of approval is Una Pizza Napoletana on East 12th Street. I have been there a few times without my friend Ann. It is open from 5pm until the time that the pizza dough runs out. Every pie is made to order by Anthony (Antonio)--a young pizza chef obsessed with perfection. He has paid millions to install an authentic woodburning stove from Naples! This is his pride and joy. The restaurant is small and I find that it is best to get there at 5--otherwise, there is a long wait both on the sidewalk and again once you are in the restaurant and have ordered, as each pizza is lovingly prepared by Anthony. It is definitely worth the trip. There is a choice of three traditional pizzas and wine or beer--that's it. His Marguerita has the authentic Neapolitan label, of course. I can't wait to show Ann how terrific this place is.

May in Berlin

Berlin: a foody town with excellent Asian restaurants and some German places too

Last summer, after a short trip to Berlin, two of my cousins were completely blown away with pleasure. "A foodie town!!!" they insisted; youthful and full of positive energy. I just had to go, so as soon as I could free up some time, I was on my way.

It is true that not only does Berlin have zillions of great restaurants and food stands, the euro goes much farther. We don't understand it here in Paris, but things are so inexpensive there that it brought tears to my eyes. Mainly, I dined in Asian restaurants, but the one evening that I did choose a nouvelle German and upscale restaurant, my full dinner with wine came to about 34 euros!!

Although I didn't find the spectacular pizza place that other friends have told me about (see above for my pizza entries), I had the pleasure of lunching at Monsieur Vuong, where for about 8 euros, I got a fantastic glass noodle salad either with chicken or tofu and a beverage; and at Mao Thai which has beautiful and delicious Thai dishes; and at Kuchi which was one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to dine in. Monsieur Vuong and Kuchi are in the Mitte section which one of the coolest and trendiest areas in the city. Mao Thai is in nearby Prenzlauer Berg which is a bit more chic and quieter. Unlike many "trendy" restaurants, all of these places serve delicious food.

The night I opted for traditional German food (sauerkraut and sausages and dark beer) at Restaurant Kugelhopf (named after one of my favorite pastries), I was sorely disappointed. The service was so excruciatingly slow that it became an ordeal to sit in that restaurant. A simple dinner took hours to serve. I don't recommend it.

I ate in a number of Asian restaurants which were very good. The Japanese place I found, Kuchi, reminded me of the restaurants in LA or San Francisco. They had a large variety of exotic rolls on the menu with many types of fish and garnishes. They also serve Japanese rice dishes (donburi), sashimi and sushi. Everything is well prepared and delicious and the service is quite good. This is a popular place, so reservations are a must.

On everyone's "Best Thai restaurants in the world" list is Mao Thai in the very hip Prenzlauer Berg. This is an excellent restaurant with dishes that are lovingly prepared and beautifully presented . Mao Thai has two other branches in Berlin: one near the Brandenburg Gate and the other not far from the zoo. Each of the restaurants has a different name, but they all have approximately the same menu.

The big specialty to get in Berlin is Currywurst--horrible (in my humble opinion)!! It is a cheap hotdog covered with ketchup with plain curry powder sprinkled on top. This is another delicacy I would not recommend!! Don't miss the food floor at KaDaWe--one of the largest and chicest department stores in Europe. It is a large area full of all German specialties. I also had cocktails there at one of the many bars, and was astonished by how inexpensive the drinks are.

In general, prices are quite low compared to other European city restaurants. In fact, at lunch, I always thought I was just getting an appetizer when the prices quoted were for full main courses. It was a pleasure to discover the gastonomic jewels of Berlin.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

A steak dinner

A truly great but very simple Paris steak place

I love Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times and saved the one about the restaurants that serve the best steak-frites in town. We went to his number one spot: The Restaurant Severo at 8 rue des Plantes. What is lacks in decor, it makes up with flavor. This is not a restaurant for the faint of heart or for any type of vegetarian or even a chickaterian!! Ham or sausage for appetizers and then your choice of steak-frites: filet de boeuf, faux-filet, steak haché (hamburger) or tartare de boeuf. The best and most flavorful cut is the faux-filet. I like it saignant--very rare, and the restaurant did a fine job of not cooking it too too red for me. The frites were crispy and delicious and the wine that went with it (a Mercurey) was delicious. We saw some people being served salad so we opted for that to help us digest. We were served large bowls of mâche in a lovely mustardy vinaigrette. There are classic desserts at Le Severo: mousse au chocolat, tarte aux poires a l'ancienne, crème caramel, but we were really stuffed. Dinner came to about 80 euros including the wine and the coffee. Down the street is Severo Bis where you can get fish and meat. I am definitely going to try that place.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Lunch at Gagnaire and other three-star chefs

Grand Restaurants of Paris including Gagnaire, Senderens, and Robuchon

My friend from NY and Tokyo, Noriko, asked me to go to a GRAND RESTAURANT with her. One of my favorites has always been Pierre Gagnaire where I celebrated my 50th birthday with a lavish lobster dinner followed by a very creative and fantastically delicious chocolate souffle. Unfortunately, such luxury items would cost in the 400 euro range (for the whole dinner including a mid-priced wine and coffee) and I could not afford that now--nor would I want to spend so very very much on a meal. So I suggest to Noriko that we go for the weekday lunch which costs a hefty 110 euros without any beverages. We had a choice between two appetizers, one first main course and then a meat main course followed by four desserts.

It is Gagnaire's style to present each dish with a variety of side garnitures that marry well with the central plate. With the aperitif (pour nous mettre en appetit as they say--to get our appetites ready for the meal) was a crunchy pastry topped with onion marmelade and seafood, a delicious tuile with chopped fresh tomatoes and chorizo that was attached to the plate with a dollop of parmesan cream. There was also a grilled and caramelized hazelnut, a butter cookie flavored with ginger, and a tuile made of roquette topped with gingerbread. There was more but I am now going on to the first course.

The appetizers were a tartare of beef mixed with bass that was very astonishing and delectable; a purple puree of potatoes (the potatoes are naturally purple in color) mixed with sauerkraut and sausage, and a mixture of mussels, celery with the Japanese seaweed, nori.

The first main course was a delicious white fish served with winter vegetables and a luscious beurre blanc. Then came a lovely piece of venison served with a purée of pumpkin, and black rice mixed with red cabbage. Along with this was a preparation of the shoulder of the venison mixed with spaetzle. And the liver of the venison was served on toast--just wonderful.

With each dish, I had a lovely glass of wine that married well with what I was tasting (as recommended by the sommelier).

The many desserts were preceded with a little cookie of fresh strawberry and pepper, a small cake of white chocolate garnished with exotic fruits, a pastry flavored with verbena and almond. Desserts included a seasonal fruit salad with a cookie flavored with parmesan and sugar, an almond and lemon custard served with saffron ice cream, etc.

I loved the meal and had a wonderful time. The service was excellent and although everyone around us was ordering from the à la carte menu, we were treated royally. But when you have had the best, the luncheon menu pales in comparison. I missed my langoustines, truffles and chocolate soufflé. These are the items I had ordered at other times when prices were more reasonable. I didn't even want to look at the à la carte menu to see what I could have ordered had the prices been slashed by 4. (But I did take it home to study it at my leisure). Gagnaire is one of my favorites but I would prefer to go there when I can really take advantage of his talents with the luxury items.

On the other hand, Alain Senderens (whose restaurant, Restaurant Senderens and before that, Archestrate and Lucas Carton, I have visited more than any on earth) understood the problem with the expensive restaurant in our time. He returned his 3 stars and redesigned his restaurant (the decor is smashing!). Now he serves less expensive ingredients at prices most people can afford--each dish married with a glass of wine that goes best with it. Senderens has studied oenology and is passionate about augmenting the flavors of his dishes with wines that complement them. A full course dinner with everything included will be about 125 euros and this is from a three-star chef. Although he gave away his stars, the Michelin was "ornery" and awarded him two his second year of his newly reborn career. This is one of the best restaurant in Paris and I have always loved his style of cooking. His signature dish is Canard Apicius--duck that is flavored with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and other spices. For my birthday dinner, I had stuffed zucchini flowers with crab, poached foie gras with morel mushrooms, a wonderful caramelized pigeon dish, and a special dessert with saffron ice cream, candied red pepper and a lemon curd and finally a made-for-me chocolate gateau. The meal was lovely from start to finish.

Another fun place that is worth the detour is L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. Robuchon is a legend in his time and a truly talented and passionate artist. His new look is modelled after a Japanese restaurant where the clients sit on stools at the counter and watch what is going on in the kitchen. Basically, the food is a variety of tapas--each one costing about 15-20 euros. Three or four with a lovely dessert makes for a sensational meal. The last time I was there I had crab royale with slivers of celeri rave; a wonderful cream of chestnut soup garnished with smoked bacon and lobes of foie gras, scallops with an acidic seaweed butter which played off very well with the sweetness of the scallops, and sweetbreads (I love them!) with romaine stuffed with more sweetbreads. For dessert was a fantastic chocolate mousse served in a glass under a crust of chocolate ganache and garnished with some wonderful vanilla ice cream. This was a heavenly meal.