Friday, 19 November 2010

Three Days in Honfleur

Two wonderful restaurants recommended by the Michelin Guide in the charming town of Honfleur: Le Breard and Sa Qua Na

After reading an article in the New York Times travel section about Honfleur, and receiving a promotion for a cheap train fare, I could not help but make the necessary arrangements to go for a few days in November. I chose to stay in the wonderful La Maison de Lucie that the article mentioned. I always double check with the Guide Michelin, however, because where France is concerned, this is absolutely the best guidebook to use.

La Maison de Lucie is a small inn with stunning rooms and suites. Breakfast is served in one of a half-dozen sitting rooms, each one more charming than the last. At that season, a warm fire was burning in the fireplace day and night. The staff is friendly and helpful and they have a gorgeous and atmospheric hot tub/spa room that is a lovely place to pass a relaxing hour.

When I arrived at the Deauville train station, I waited at the bus station for the next bus to Honfleur. There, I had the most unbelievable experience: I ran into my friend from Tokyo, Kyoko!! I had last seen her in April when I was in her country. She had decided to come to France for a week, but it would make more sense for me to run into her in Paris or any place in Japan and not in a tiny town in Normandy. We took advantage of the small world experience and once we both arrived in Honfleur, met in a café for one of the strong apple drinks: either Pommeau or Calvados.

I have spoken about the Bib Gourmands in an earlier post (noteworthy restaurants where one can get excellent meals at reasonable prices), and chose one for my first meal: Le Bréard. There I had a wonderful meal for 48 euros without wine. Starting with the interesting huîtres pochées; bouillon de pomme glacée, algues et cèpes (poached oysters in a warm apple bouillon with cèpes and seaweed). I moved on to the excellent noix de St-Jacques nacrées, bouillon de châtaignes, potimarron aux cinq épices et citron vert (golden scallops in a chestnut broth with 5-spiced pumpkin and lime). This dish was generously garnished with chestnut pieces and was, in a word, spectacular.

For dessert, I could not resist the passion fruit soufflé served with a coconut biscuit and fresh fruit salad. At the bottom of the soufflé was another layer of soft biscuit that had been soaked in passion fruit liqueur making the dish quite bold and flavorful.

Not only was the food great, but the price was right. The chef, Fabrice Sébire, is one to watch.

For my second evening in Honfleur, I chose the new two-star restaurant, Sa Qua Na. This stands for santé, qualité, nature (health, quality, nature) but is also a play on the word sakana which means "fish" in Japanese. The youthful staff and the way the meal was presented reminded me of another favorite two-star restaurant in Paris: Le Bigarrade.

I chose the more copious menu and was served a parade of inventive and delicious dishes. Some of the standouts were the Pascade Aveyronnaise which is a sweet/savory pancake filled with chives and napped with truffle oil. It is from the Aveyron, the chef's native region. To continue with some of the high points: un daurade juste cuite, boulette de canard poêlé, romaine, semoule, jus moussé à l'huile d'olive. In other words, a lightly cooked piece of a firm white fish with a small ball of duck meat served with semolina, romaine, and an emulsion of olive oil. There was a wonderful poached salmon with sesame, fennel, clams and an oyster cream; a curly julienne of raw beef, celeri-rave, seaweed served as a pasta dish with a spicy seafood sauce; agneau de pré salé rôti, pâte de coing, jeunes poireaux; jus de persil (roast lamb with quince, young leeks, parsley jus). This winning dish consists of lamb that has been raised in the salt marshes of Brittany so that its meat is naturally salted because of the salty grasses the lambs graze on.

After an excellent assortment of cheeses, desserts continued in the same vein. I especially liked the succulent pear cake with beaten cream and caramel dribbled with walnut oil.

As the menu is long and complex, a nice touch is that they hand you a small printed copy so that you can follow along as you are served and as you taste.

On my last day, I explored Honfleur and also took the bus back to Deauville and Trouville--two beach towns that are separated by a bridge. Deauville is chic and fancy and Trouville is a blue collar town which I find more interesting. I wandered by the port and through the fish market and wished I could buy the shellfish I was admiring. To quench my desire, I sat down at the famous brasserie Les Vapeurs and ordered a sea food plate with langoustines, jumbo shrimp, periwinkles, whelks and clams: wonderful. A specialty is steamed mussels that they serve with whatever you like, but most people choose frites. It is a great place to watch the day go by while you are enjoying your meal.

Italian in New York

Stellar Italian Dining in NYC: Da Umberto, Marea, Motorino, Basta Pasta, Centolire

Coming from France, I don't want to have French food when I travel unless I am travelling in France! During this trip to NY, I reserved or asked friends to reserve in Italian restaurants, as the NY restaurants do extremely well in this department. I also went to Mario Batali and Lydia Bastianich's latest creation: Eataly--an enormous Italian food store which is full of restaurants as well.

My cousins, Larry and Boots took me to Da Umberto and we were pleasantly surprised. We had been there more than 20 years ago when it was full of tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and lots of noise. After the owner died, his son had the restaurant redesigned, making a quieter more dignified atmosphere. We had a pleasant evening dining on wonderful food and enjoying the conversation. I had a lovely and delicious pasta dish: cavatelli with wild mushrooms and marscapone, followed by a copious and flavorful fish soup (caciucco) of just-caught fish in a tomato broth. Larry and Boots shared a salad with thinly sliced fresh artichokes and followed this with a baked orata for two. For dessert we shared the wonderful ricotta cheese cake and a terrific tiramisu. With dinner, Larry ordered a 2006 Santa Cristina Chianti Classico Superiore of the Antinori family. Although we were having fish and this is a red wine, it married quite well with the wonderful meal.

A few days later, I went out with my foodie friend/cousin, Jenny, to Marea--a reknowned and much-appreciated restaurant. In fact, I had read a review of the place earlier that morning in which the critic highly recommended throwing pocketbook caution to the wind and going there. True to its reputation, we had a spectacular lunch. Some of the outstanding dishes were granchio: lump jumbo crab with figs, duck prosciutto and white cheese in a salad; a mixture of slow-cooked calamari with lobster and shrimp in a tomato sauce; roasted sea scallops with grilled peach garnished with tomatoes and eggplant; and a wonderful semolina spaghetti tossed in crab and sea urchin. I just love sea urchin when it becomes a sauce on spaghetti. Jenny and I shared everything so that we could taste many of the very appealing dishes. For dessert, we had the rosemary panna cotta with figs, pignoli, and a wine reduction and an array of home-made sorbets. This was truly a memorable meal.

Marea's chef, Michael White, is not Italian but spent many years there and has opened a number of great Italian restaurants in NYC. I can't wait to go to another one the next time I am in NY.

High school friends met me outside of Union Square at Basta Pasta. It is an Italian restaurant owned and operated by Japanese people and is modelled after the original restaurant in Ebisu, Japan. Thank goodness that Mickey was there, as he pointed out that the specialty of the house is a parmigiano reggiano pasta dish with prosciutto. To make it, they take a huge parmigiano wheel and cut it in half, then scoop out the inside of the wheel to make a large cavity. Next, they chip away at the cheese. The warm tagliatelle are then tossed inside the wheel and the warmth of the pasta melts some of the cheese so that it clings to the tagliatelle. The pasta is then served garnished with velvety prosciutto. This is a spectacular dish. There are also other wonderful pasta dishes on the menu, and so as to take advantage of the best of all worlds, I had a 1/2 portion of two. My second pasta dish was Linguine alla Pescatore with clams, mussels, sea scallops, shrimp and squid.

That sounds like enough, but I went on to order a roasted Canadian turbot with clams, parsley, snow peas and crab-infused foam. A magnificent dish. For dessert, we shared a melting dark chocolate cake called the Vulcano,
named after the Greek God.

The restaurant is very popular and noisy but it just started to serve lunch. I don't know if it would be any quieter at that time, but it sure is good!

My dear friend, Freda, took me to Centolire--the Upper West Side haven of Pino Luongo. This chef has owned and operated many successful Italian restaurants in Manhattan. We had a terrific meal, catching up and savoring the excellent cuisine. We shared interesting salads and a brilled branzino for two. I had a small portion of pasta after the salad: Rigatoni Buttera with sweet and hot sausage, peas and cream. I loved it.

Although Freda refrained, I could not resist choosing the tangerine soufflé. It was beautiful and perfectly cooked.

At lunch one day, I went to Eataly which is the new huge bright space for everything Italian including products and restaurants. It is the latest brainchild of Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. You can buy anything Italian there (both imported cans and jars of food and fresh food). Inside the space are several restaurant areas including the pizza-pasta area, the roast vegetable area, the panini area and a fresh roasted meat sandwich area. There is also a "real" restaurant hidden away in a corner called Manzo. True to its name, it showcases beef dishes. The gelato and cappuccino bars should not be missed. This is a very large and fun place to go at lunch. Be prepared to wait on line if you want to snag a table.

Before I close, I just want to put in a plug for Motorino in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The pizza there is definitely spectacular and ties with Two Amys in Washington, D.C. Now that some of my favorite pizzerias in NY have gone by the wayside, I have to say that this one is my favorite and the best. Although it is in Brooklyn, it is an easy subway ride from Union Square on the L train.

Dining in Washington, D.C.

Several Great Restaurants in Washington, D.C.: Nora, Central Michel Richard, Two Amys, Zaytina and Jaleo

I spent ten glorious days in Washington, D.C., dining out with different friends and members of my family. The first evening I was there, I went to Zaytina which is a wonderful mezze bar (Mediterranean appetizers) with my friend, Ann, from college days. Unfortunately it was extremely noisy and hard to converse. That always puts a damper on my experience as you find that you can only appreciate the food and not your companion.

We did have some great "tapas" though: Havuc Koftesi which are wonderful carrot-apricot fritters; Octopus Santorini (marinated grilled octopus), Kotopoulo Youvetsi (a chicken, orzo, cheese and tomato dish), and a delicious dish of veal cheeks with preserved lemon. The food was fine but I would recommend this restaurant at lunch or with a very loud talker!

The same chef has a Spanish tapas restaurant on the other side of town called Jaleo. I had the traditional ajo blanco (chilled garlic-almond soup) this time it was garnished with fresh crab, a tortilla with potatoes and onions, and sautéed gambas (jumbo shrimp) in garlic. This was a delicious and very filling lunch.

My brother, David, took me and his companion, Kapri, to Nora. This restaurant is known for the fact that it uses organic, seasonal ingredients in its dishes. I started with a roasted chanterelle and creamy goat cheese tart which was garnished with a red pepper emulsion: sublime. Kapri had a red and gold beet salad which had feta cheese, orange and grapefruit segments, bitter greens and a pomegranate dressing. That was great too and very inventive. David also chose a salad. This one contained local baby lettuces, Medjool dates, almonds, gorgonzola, and a honey vinaigrette. The dinner was off to a running start.

As I adore corn and can really only get it in the USA, I had the salmon garnished with corn, herb pesto, and an oven dried tomato pea-tendril and radish salad. Kapri chose the wild Alaskan halibut with pepper piperade, heirloom tomatoes, green beans and roasted eggplant. David went for the succulent gnocchi with broccoli rabe and a variety of wild mushrooms swathed in a rosemary-almond pesto.

We shared a caramelized pear with Amaretto, served with a chocolate ganache and also the luscious pineapple upside down cake. With our dinner, we had a lovely South African chardonnay.

Another great place is Central Michel Richard. M. Richard is French and moved to D.C. from LA many years ago. He has a number of restaurants in the city, and this the newest edition to his "empire". It is billed as a place for wonderfully prepared comfort food. I went to Central with my cousins, Ben and Becca and we had a terrific time. Becca ordered a salad frisée with lardons and a poached egg followed by a beautiful scallop dish garnished with corn and wild mushrooms. She was not happy with her scallops. I had a flavorful yellow tomato gaspacho with lump crab meat and then enjoyed the short ribs with pappardelle and syrah sauce. Ben chose creamy burrata (a mozzarella) with tomatoes. For his main course, he chose the bucatini with meatballs. That was a true winner and definitely fits into the gourmet comfort food category. Desserts were the weakest course: Michel's chocolate bar (like a kit kat bar); apple pan dowdy with vanilla ice cream; chocolate lava cake à la mode. They were all too sweet and mediocre.

Saving the VERY BEST for last, I happily went to Two Amys twice: once alone, just for pizza, and once with my good friend, Howard. According to me and to other friends who have been there, Two Amys serves some of the best pizza in the states, perhaps in the world (!) and is matched by a favorite place of mine in NYC. Just by looking at the photo, you can see how luscious and beautiful the pizza is. At dinner time, TA serves a variety of Italian appetizers. We had suppli al telephono: rice balls filled with meat and cheese and then lightly fried golden; a beautiful and tasty shrimp and beet salad; sheep ricotta and heirloom tomato plate and pizza!! Unfortunately no room for dessert. The pizzas have thin crusts just thick enough to be chewy. For me the flavor of the tomato sauce (excellent) and a chewy crust are primordial. This is truly a wonderful place.