Thursday, 22 July 2010

Second Trip to Berlin

A brief report on two Berlin discoveries: Indonesian and German.

Two years ago, I went to Berlin and had several wonderful meals. This time, I went back to the same places but also tried some new ones.

The first restaurant is a hangout for the friends with whom I was staying. Mary and Alex go to Good Time several times a week. I mistakenly thought that Indonesian food is riijstaffel, but in fact, that is just a Dutch adaptation of what is truly Indonesian fare. One thing they told me to watch out for: hot food!!

I was not daunted, having had the experience of ordering hot food in Thailand and more recently in L.A. We started with a wonderful spring roll Weisse Roll( Roll in German) stuffed with prawns, pork, herbs and salad. And we also shared Yam Mun Yang which is spicy grilled pork with onions, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and Thai celery salad. This dish came with only one "pepper" (indicating level of hotness) on the menu. My favorite of the appetizers was the Gold and Silberbeutel--fried dumplings with finely ground pork, water chestnuts to dip in a lime-chili sauce dressing.

We shared the main courses as well. Ped Kiemao (three peppers) which is a crispy duck on a bed of chilis, thai basil and mixed eggplants; Api Sapi (five peppers!!!!!)--an extra spicy and hot fried beef filet with chilies, peppercorns and peppers; Nasi Goreng which is the Indonesian version of fried rice, served with grilled chicken on skewers and a nicely marinated salad.

All the food we had was completely new to me and for that reason, quite exciting. It was also very delicious and not at all expensive. Can't wait to go to Java or Bali to try this food up close.

For our German meal, we went to Kayzer Soze--named after the sinister character in The Usual Suspects (great movie in which Kevin Spacey plays Kayzer). I had Bavarian sausages with German potato salad. The sausages are white and made from either veal or pork and herbs. The potato salad is served warm and is dressed with a vinaigrette that is long on vinegar. It is not my favorite food, but I know that I was served a good example.

Mary and I also went to Kadewe which is one of the biggest department stores in Europe. We basically went there for the air conditioning, as Berlin was sweltering when I was there. But we took advantage of the food floor which is vast, having not only restaurants and wine bars, but also many different stands with a variety of foods, most notably sausage. Foreign foods appear as well, and I bought microwave popcorn and Graham Crackers which I have never seen in Paris. I watched the many people who were eating at the different restaurant stands and noted for myself that this would be a great place to get authentic German food at reasonable prices. Next time...

This year's birthday celebration

Arôme is the place I chose for my birthday dinner. Newly renovated with a very accomplished chef, it was a memorable experience.

This year for my birthday dinner, Françoise and I went to Arôme--a favorite restaurant of mine that has one Michelin star. My friend, Eric Martens is the owner/director of the place. He is a perfectionist and quite passionate about his work. Last summer, the restaurant underwent major renovations. Now the room is beautiful and warm, with touches of Japanese-style decorations. Behind the glass wall at back, one can see everything that goes on in the kitchen.

They serve my favorite champagne, so of course we ordered that: the Billecart Salmon Rosé. Such a flavorful wine that lends itself to special occasions. We chose one of the several menus they offer and started with the Emietté de tourteau (fresh crab), tartare de tomate et sorbet basilic. This was attractively presented in a sleek martini glass.

For the next course, we had Homard d'Amérique du Nord en gelée (probably Canadian lobster in a salad), crème d'avocat, concombre, granny smith et emulsion de betterave (beet). Because of the beet sauce, it sounds strange, but the dish was both beautiful and delicious. It too was served in a martini glass.

For our main course, we had the pièce de veau aux herbes de Garrigues, girolles, ail, amandes fraiches, haricots beurre, émulsion d'herbes. What a wonderful combination and how well the fresh almonds contrasted with the rest of the dish.

With each dish, the sommelier prepared a glass of wine to bring out the flavors of both wine and food. More and more, this has become the custom in France: wines served by the glass to enhance the flavors in the dish.
We had the wondrous soufflé au Citron de Menton, sorbet au fromage blanc et au citron. A spectacular ending to an unforgettable meal.

Afterwards, Eric brought us into the kitchen to meet the friendly Thomas Boullault, who is Arôme's very talented chef. All in all, an experience to record as one of my best food memories.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dining in Venice Beach

Two fine restaurants in the Venice Beach Area of L.A.

I met Tracy and her husband, Franck, in Paris and was very pleased when Tracy told me she wanted to learn about food and cooking. After that, we went to many lovely restaurants in Paris and she was my companion for all my birthdays. We had the opportunity to try many of the wonderful 3-star restaurants that Paris has to offer.

About five years ago, Tracy and her family (now with two wonderful children) moved to L.A. I visited them then and then again this year. They live in Venice Beach. We went to Mao's Kitchen which is a reasonably-priced Asian place, where we ordered enough dishes for an army so that I could have something to take with me on the plane back to Paris. We had one of my favorites: Mabo Tofu with vegetables and a spicy brown sauce; Mao's Hometown: a dish with smoked tofu, onions, wood ear mushrooms and shrimp; Sichuan Eggplant with Mushrooms; and Kung Pao Beef. Everything was served with brown rice and it was a wonderful feast.

That evening, after a day wandering on the beach and then shopping in a small Japanese area with inexpensive and fun shops, Tracy and I went to the best restaurant in Venice: Gjelina.

This is a place to order a variety of courses and dishes that everyone shares. However, the roasted salmon with corn appealed to me, so we decided to order that as our maincourse. The appetizers we chose were the delicious wood-roasted cauliflower with chili, garlic, parsley and vinegar; hen of the woods mushroom toast with creme fraiche and truffle oil (sensational), marinated artichokes with creamy burrata, pistachio pesto and crispy shallot.

After all that (and the salmon) we were really sated, but had to order two desserts to taste. We chose the Flourless Chocolate Cake with Crème Fraîche and Hazelnut and the Butterscotch Pot de Crème with Salted Caramel and Crème Fraîche. Both were spectacular.

I rolled home the next morning. But had no problem eating my leftovers from Mao's Kitchen on the plane!

LA restaurants revisited: focus on Ethnic Fare

This visit to L.A. focusses on Asian cuisine, with a wonderful experience at a hot new Italian with an established Italian chef, and a few wonderful American places thrown in.

Friends say that L.A. has recently come into its own as a gastronomic destination in the U.S. During my ten day stay at the home of different friends, I dined at some greats and must concur with the latest report that L.A. is a haven for restaurants.

Before my trip, my friend Joel said he wanted to spend a whole weekend eating but we did much more than that. Joel is an accomplished cook and with all the cooking classes he has done with his husband, Rusty, they really do impressive work in their own beautifully designed and equipped kitchen. Joel announced that he wanted to make a meal for me and he made TWO. One consisted of a fantastic zucchini flower pasta dish from the fresh zucchini flowers that we found at a local farmer's market. And on my last day at their home, Joel and Rusty created a multi-course luncheon complete with Jim Lahey's delicious bread that Joel made from scratch, a fresh summer pea soup and a wonderful layered tomato salad.

Now, on to the restaurants. First of all: an American star is Joan's on Third where I took part in a small reunion of old high school friends. This is a place with magnificent salads, hot dishes, sandwiches and array of gorgeous and delicious desserts. My friend, Jill, told me that Joan's is famous for its cupcakes, and after the delicious salads and sandwiches, we chose a wonderful strawberry short cake with freshly made whipped cream and an excellent little golden cupcake.

Nancy Silverton has built up quite the gastronomic portfolio in L.A. She and her husband, Mark Peel opened the very successful Campanile, which has kept its great reputation over the years. Branching out on her own, she opened the fabulous La Brea Bakery, and more recently has wowed L.A. with the Mozza pair: Pizzeria Mozza and Trattoria Mozza.

We were four the night we went to Pizzeria Mozza. All the better to sample many of the wonderful appetizers and pizzas.
For the appetizers, we chose Corn al forno with herb butter, Pork ribs al forno with apple cider vinegar, honey and fennel (spectacular!),arancini alla Bolognese (not very good), Fried Squash Blossoms with Ricotta (also excellent). For our pizzas, we ordered a Funghi Misti with fontina, taleggio and thyme, Fennel sausage pizza with pecorino, red onions and scallions, and a Squash blossom pizza with tomato and burrata. The crust is crusty on the outside and chewy within. We definitely had a feast.

After all this, who could order dessert? Us!! Four people shared the sorbetto al cioccolato and the Butterscotch Budino (a house specialty) with Maldon sea salt and rosemary pine-nut cookies. A sensational meal.

For our big bash event, we went to Drago Centro--a new restaurant in the empire of the famous chef, Sr. Drago. Anyone there would be treated like royalty but we were especially pampered because Joel knows the wife of the manager: Matteo. We were immediately ushered to the "Mayor's Table" in the corner and from which one can watch everything that is going on in the sleek, modern, diningroom.

After our celebratory glasses of sparkling Franciacorta (which I prefer to Prosecco), we got down to business. We had two half-orders of risotto: one with morels di Orvieto and black summer truffles (that Matteo generously shaved over our rice), and a risotto di piselli (this is the season for fresh peas): consisting of peashoots, English peas, cherry tomatoes and garlic cream. Both transported the three of us to heaven.

For our next course, we shared a whole portion of Gli Spaghetti allo Soglio which came full of langoustines, mussels clams, squid in a herb-tomato ragout. Sensational.

For our main courses, we chose to share two: Il Branzino in cioppino broth with potato and bits of small seafood; and L'Anatra which was duck confit with potatoes, frisée and raspberries. The raspberries added a magical sweetness and tartness to the dish.

With each dish, we were served an accompanying Italian wine that married well with the dish.

Who had room for dessert after this wonderful meal? We decided that we had to try I Bomboloni--small home-made donuts sauteed with bing cherries, crystallized pistachios, a hint of chocolate sauce and pistachio gelato: sublime.

This was a truly impressive meal. Yes, it was expensive but for the quality of what we were served, the beauty of the presentation of each dish, as well as the friendly attentive service, I think it was well worth it.

Joel has done a lot of reading of Jonathan Gold, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning food critic and who writes mostly about ethnic hideaways. Joel, Rusty and my NY friend, Chris and I went to Jitlada--a favorite authentic Thai restaurant of his. We convinced the waiter that coriander was a no-no and were served delicious and very hot Thai dishes like you would get in Thailand. The trick is to eat the hot food in small bites and to punctuate each bite with a piece of cold, raw vegetable such as carrot or cucumber. I loved the dishes so much that I ate them quickly and suffered the burning lips and throat syndrome, but my friend, Chris, complied with the instructions and had a fine time with everything.

In the evening, we were still in the Asia mood so we invited Regina to join us at Izakaya by Katsu-ya. Katsu-ya is the home of many a wonderful sushi restaurant in L.A. but recently opened this Izakaya (casual eating with a lot of beer and sake--order a lot of foods cooked in different ways) in West Hollywood. Again, with four people, we could sample a variety of their wonderful dishes in a noisy and very fun atmosphere. We had Cod Popcorn in sauces and the izakaya fish tacos. Very flavorful. The serious ordering began when we were seated: Crispy Rice with Spicy Tuna--a specialty of the house and fabulous. It is served as a rectangular maki with the tuna on top and the crispy rice as base. Yellowtail Sashimi with spicy Jalapeno, Renkon (Lotus Root) in a sweet sauce, Baked Eggplant with edamame and fried julienne of onion, Ebi Yakisoba (a vegetable-noodle stir fry full of shrimp), seared linme snapper (a white fish) in carpaccio, and finally, a succulent and delicious blue crab roll. We paired our dishes with cold sake and were very happy and satisfied when we left the restaurant.

With my foodie friends, Megan and Rafi, I went to a fantastic Mexican restaurant in the heart of Hollywood: Loteria!

I met Rafi and Megan on the honeymoon in Paris. They were touring France for its beauty as well as for its wonderful restaurants. They always take me to the best spots in L.A. Loteria! was a lot of fun. The specialties are burritos and quesadillas stuffed with a variety of delicious foods as well as their excellent Margaritas.

We started our meal with the compulsory Margaritas and then decided to share some Quesadillas de Plaza con Flor de Calabaza--i.e. corn tortillas filled with either squash blossoms and cheese or roasted poblano peppers and cheese and topped with a spicy tomatillo sauce.

For the main course, two of us ate Burrito of Tinga de Pollo filled with chipotle peppers and a red salsa, and Carne Deshebrada with shredded beef, guacamole, salsa and chipotle. In each burrito was a good portion of rice and refried beans. True to Mexican form, the food was very flavorful, sensuous and filling. This place is on my "must return" list.

But Joel has other ideas for my next trip including a counter where one gets fantastic Cuban food. Can't wait until I can go back to L.A. for some terrific dining with good friends.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

New York, June 2010

A fantastic sushi restaurant discovery, cocktails above the clouds, a four-star restaurant, great Chinese, and I finally find the pizza place I have been looking for.

I had wonderful weather in NY as I made my way eating up a storm during my semi-annual trip. The first wonder of the trip was Sushi of Gari--an authentic sushi bar up to a point. The sushis are all lovingly created and delicate, but each one is topped with something very interesting like a warm tomato provençale mixture, fried julienne of leeks, bitter greens, pine nuts and fried lotus root, jalapeno, tofu cream, etc. You will never find anything like this in Japan. My friend, Chris and I sat at the sushi bar and ordered the "compulsory" omakase or chef's choice. In a place like this, you want to be sure to get the specialties. So the sushis kept coming and coming until we said "stop"! This was a great discovery and although I always like to try new places, I will definitely come back here.

A few days later, I met my sister-in-law and nephew on the 55th floor of the Peninsula Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Nothing spectacular in the drinks but the setting is not to be missed. We were there on a clear sunny day and the view was breathtaking.

The four-star restaurant I went to this time was Jean-Georges. Vongerichten is the surname of this Alsatian chef and he has opened many a fine restaurant in NY. His visits to Asia have resulted in some of the trendy Asian places in lower Manhattan; however, with this one he is loyal to his French roots. I don't usually like to go to French restaurants when I am travelling (I can get the best French food in France, after all), but for four stars, I would make a concession. And anyway, French food in the states does have an American flare in terms of technique and choice of ingredients.

I met two old friends for a special meal and we shared several dishes. First and foremost was the crispy soft-shell crab served with shiso-yuzu mayonnaise (now that really doesn't sound very French at all), and a crispy sweetbread dish garnished with Alsatian potato salad, radish and jalapeno. There was a warm green asparagus salad, served with hollandaise, as well as a watercress and sugar snap pea salad that came with shiitakes, cristallized mustard and served with a lemon-soy vinaigrette. No, that isn't French at all. The desserts were spectacular and included variations on lemon for one, chocolate for the second, and caramel for the third. The room is bright and airy, the wine list excellent, the service attentive and friendly without being overbearing. The lunch menu is also very reasonably priced.

After reading the new New York Times food critic's review of Chin Chin, my friends Pat and Tim and I decided that we had to try it. What a great place. The restaurant is near the U.N. and is large, attractively decorated and with a very polite and helpful staff. We ordered too much food but everything was terrific: pork dumplings, mu shu vegetables, barbecued ribs, the house specialty of Grand Marnier shrimp (not on the menu), a soft shell crab dish (it was the season in June) and Tung chicken. They even have excellent American desserts and we shared a not-very-Chinese flourless chocolate cake with vanilla gelato. I love plain delicious desserts and this one did not disappoint.

I mentioned in an earlier post that New York magazine had done the "definitive" article on the best 25 new NY pizzerias. At that time, I was unable to go to one of those on their list but this time I make the trek to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (not difficult to get to on the L train) where I had the pleasure to discover MOTORINO. Motorino bought my former favorite Anthony's Una Pizza Napoletana on East 12 street, but their original restaurant is in Brooklyn. It is definitely worth a detour if you love pizza as I do. My friend couldn't join me, and I decided to go alone. Often, dining alone in a pizza place is a bit uncomfortable, but the service was so friendly and the ambiance so casual that I felt right at home. They have designer pizzas but the crust is spectacular so you know the Margherita will be completely authentic. I started with a fennel salad with orange segments and capers and then went on to the best part: the Pizza Pugliese: topped with Burrata (a creamy fresh cheese), broccolini, sausage, chilies and garlic. Delectable! This place, along with Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge is on the top of my favorites list and I am sure to go back there many times over. The crust, chewy and crisp at the same time, is what makes this pizza great.