Joël Robouchon

July 13, 2011

Joël Robouchon

MGM Grand ~ Las Vegas

La Cerise

cherry gazpacho with sheep ricotta and pistachios

La Coriandre

duo of creamy avocado and coriander on spiced tomato pulp

Le Caviar

green asparagus with lemon balm and sevruga caviar

chilled velouté with panna cotta and ossetra caviar

maki of ground couscous topped with ossetra caviar

La Noix de Saint Jacques

seared scallop, heart of palm and scented coconut milk

Les Févettes

savory scented fava bean cream with sweet onion foam

Les Crustacés

truffled langostine ravioli

roasted lobster in broth

“chaud-froid” of sea urchin on fennel potato purée with anise orange

Le Turbot

turbot and artichoke en cocotte with barigoule jus

La Courgette

slow-cooked zucchini with fresh almonds, bacon and curry

Le Veau

sautéed veal chop with natural jus and pesto vegetable taglierini

Le Soja

risotto of soy bean, sprouts, lime zest and chives

La Mangue

Layered mango variations, strawberry gelée, almond cake

Le Caramel

Caramel parfait, hazelnut marjolaine, chocolate sauce

Mignardises

Weighing in at sixteen courses, this is one of the most generous tasting menus I have attempted and it did not disappoint. Even in the sin-biding situs of Las Vegas, I was not foolhardy enough to undertake the full suite of wine pairings – one wine for every two courses – leaving the food the center of attention, which is as it should be.  We had a 10 pm reservation and left the restaurant just shy of 1 am.  This is not a meal with which to trifle.  The extravagance will test both your wallet and your resolve.

Before delving into a dissection of the individual dishes, first, a note on my personal feelings about dining in Las Vegas – you cannot forget you are in Las Vegas – and, while I celebrate the dizzying diversity and bawdy boundlessness of Sin City, it can (and does) distract from the business of serious eating.  The food and sheer volume of décor did not disappoint, but I felt the service was not comme il faut.  It’s possible that I am simply spoilt beyond satisfaction, but this is my review and, in my opinion, the service was lacking.  The pacing of courses varied widely, some servers were somber, others jarringly jocular.  In short, the service was not the seamlessly efficient and careful shepherding I have been trained to expect in dining of this caliber.

The décor is ample.  I would be remiss if I did not catalogue a few of its most notable features.  The restaurant features a few separate dining rooms; the one in which we were seated is dominated by a massive crystal chandelier hung low and bright.  All else is purple.  Lilac drapes with swooping flourishes pool on aubergine carpet echoing the same curling superfluities.  The tables are scattered, inexplicably, with faux gems in crystal and pink and festooned with tidy bunches of bashful pink roses.  The plush plum banquettes host a clutter of violet pillows and the walls are papered in amethyst.  It is something else.  Thankfully, there is also the food.

Our meal began with champagne and a tour of the bread cart; the generosity of the décor reflected twice over in the variety and ambition of the burnished orbs, ovoids and batons tumbled higgledy-piggeldy – cheese puffs, bacon bread, basil and saffron rolls, brioche, French, sourdough and milk breads – a yeasty explosion of delights accompanied by a sizable curl of encouragingly golden butter.

The first course, an amuse bouche dubbed La Cerise, was startlingly red, refreshingly tart, and rich with ricotta.  It went down easy with no argument at all.  La Coriandre was perfectly acceptable if not a standout dish.  Le Caviar, however, is a signature offering – three dishes in one course, each incorporating the eponymous garnish.  The first was composed of two delicate asparagus tips, perfectly cooked, anointed with lemon oil and capped with glistening quenelles of caviar.  The second, was an elegant velouté cloaking panna cotta flavored with something I’m sure, but all I remember is the glorious salinity of more caviar.  The third, and least successful in my view, was a coarse cauliflower couscous rolled in nori and sealed at one end with a diminutive disk of still more caviar.  The nori was damp from its filling and difficult to chew, but again, there was still the elevating presence of caviar.  The La Noix de Saint Jacques scallop was next – a shy bite paved with the tiniest cut vegetable crust and dotted with a mist of white flowers.  It was delicious and gone too soon. Les Févettes was devilishly deceptive in its simplicity – a prim white bowl full of pillowed white onion foam atop which was poured a sprightly green fava soup pricked with micro-cubes of ham.  It was at once refined and deeply satisfying. Next up, Les Crustacés, composed again of three dishes.  The first was a truffled langostino ravioli was something special – meaty and tender and redolent of truffle – I would have happily eaten many more.  The second was a simple medallion of lobster resting in lobster broth with what I guess was saffron (and cognac?) – it was also delicious.  The third course was not so much hot-cold as cold-cold, which was disappointing.  We had been instructed to consume the three offerings in the order in which I’ve reviewed them, but by the time I got to this course, the warm component was no longer warm.  It still tasted good, so I’m not exactly complaining, but I didn’t experience it as was intended.  Le Turbot, ah, the turbot – this was one of my favorite courses – the fish was meltingly tender, the artichoke hearts endearingly piquant and the barigoule jus was the perfect complement.  I especially enjoyed the “punny” presentation – it was served in a bowl fashioned after a giant egg (gilded along its cracked edge, of course).  Next up, was La Courgette which I did not enjoy and which represents the one lowlight among many lovely courses.  The components were cooked correctly, but the bacon and curry combination didn’t work for me and the flavors felt overpowering after the delicacy and sophistication of the preceding course.  Le Veau, presented as the “main course,” was beautifully cooked and mercifully portioned – the bright summer pesto taglierini was a wonderful counterpoint to the unctuous honesty of the veal.  Le Soja, a “risotto” of fine chopped soy beans and mung bean sprouts was bursting with richness and had a wonderful umami component that I have to imagine was mushroom-induced, but I suppose I’ll never know.

And now, a brief pause before dessert.

La Mangue was delicious but not anything I haven’t seen before.  Le Caramel, on the other hand, was definitely my favorite course of the entire meal.  For starters, it was just beautiful to behold.  The mousse and marjolaine layers were housed in a compact chrysanthemum-shaped pastry mold dusted with a deep, rich red powder that gave the appearance of cherry velveteen – referencing the color of the opening course – it was art and I hardly wanted to eat it.  Happily, it was as successful on the palate as it was on the plate and I would have readily eaten several more.

Le Caramel

As was inevitable, the candy cart of mignardises rolled around and I did my best to put on a brave face, but by this point I was well and truly stuffed to the gills.  I managed to make my way through a bit of candied ginger dipped in dark chocolate and a tiny chocolate and caramel tartlet (finished with gold leaf, naturally).  The server – bless him – decided I should also take a pre-wrapped salted caramel “for later this evening.” Never mind that by then it was well after midnight.

It was a very special meal that I certainly relished.  I must confess it came at a price, so there is that to consider, but if you should ever find yourself on a winning streak in Las Vegas with cash to spare I would recommend you look into a reservation at Joël Robouchon.

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Sydney by the Forkful

February 22, 2011

Opera House

I am freshly returned from a five-day trip back to Sydney dedicated almost exclusively to a whirlwind culinary tour of tried and true favorites and newly discovered treasures.  I’ve done my best to capture it all here, but highly recommend you test each and every one of these eateries yourself when you are next in the neighborhood.  This jaunt represents my first trip back to Australia since moving back to the States over two years ago and, after the unqualified success of this most recent experience, I cannot wait to go back.

Café Sydney (Lunch)

Café Sydney is the perfect welcome to a town besieged by picturesque panoramas and quality dining. It is hereby nominated as the official starter for all trips to the city as it went over a treat this time around.  Located on the rooftop of Customs House just across the street from the Sydney Ferry Terminal at the Quay, Café Sydney features photo-worthy harbor views and excellent Modern Australian (Mod Oz) food.  It is the ideal location for the first time visitor or seasoned veteran to shake off the travel and spend a leisurely lunch soaking up the sunshine on the patio wine in hand.

On this occasion I was joined by a friend and former work colleague who, unprompted, greeted me with a bag full of Tim Tam* in a variety of flavors.  As if that weren’t enough to ensure a favorable report, I also enjoyed:

chilled green pea and mint soup with prawn scampi and crème fraiche

tandoori roasted freshwater salmon with green lentils, buffalo yogurt raita and spiced coconut salad

In fairness, I had just come off a 14-hour flight and can be sure that the gift of Tim Tam and the idyllic setting each contributed to my ebullient mood, but the food was also outstanding – fresh ingredients translated into vibrant and exotic flavors evocative of the Asia Pacific region and showcased in a crisp, fashionable, but comfortable setting.  As I said, the perfect welcome and a convenient encapsulation of so much of what Sydney has to offer.

*Tim Tam are “Australia’s Favorite Cookie” and for good reason! These chocolate biscuits originated in Australia and are composed of two malted-chocolate biscuits surrounding a layer of chocolate crème and dipped in a textured chocolate coating.  They come in several flavors, but dark chocolate is hands down my favorite.  They are available in the US seasonally (from October to March) from Pepperidge Farms.

Sailors Thai Canteen (Lunch)

Another Sydney CBD institution, Sailors Thai touts itself as “Australia’s Thai food doyen” featuring authentic Thai cuisine in both canteen and fine dining formats. This was a casual lunch in the canteen enjoyed at the long communal table that dominates the narrow dining room punctuated by a palm-framed window overlooking the harbor.  A lazy breeze wafted in as my lunch mates and I dug into:

green papaya salad w/peanuts, dried prawns, spicy & sour dressing, coconut rice & sweet pork

stir fried chicken with pumpkin and wilted greens

stir fried noodles with egg, prawns, peanuts and bean sprouts

The communal table affords ample opportunity for perusing menu options as they arrive in front of your neighbors.  The food and wine offerings are all tempting but mercifully spare, allowing you time to relax, concentrate on conversation and work up an appetite. This is a great spot for a quick and delicious meal before or after a walk around the Quay and through the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Bentley (Dinner)

Bentley - Surry Hills

Bentley is a perennial favorite and never fails to please.  It has served as the venue for many wonderful meals and holds memories for us of fine food and friendship that have secured it vaunted stature in our hearts.  One of the more unique characteristics of this restaurant that I most appreciate is that it offers haut cuisine and an award winning wine selection in a low-key relaxed atmosphere without sacrificing quality or service. The food is characterized as Modern European, but incorporates local produce and protein, and flirts with a bit of molecular gastronomy. This is not an everyday meal, but it is a meal you will remember (and yearn for). One of our favorite Bentley starters while we lived in Sydney – alas, not on the current menu – was a marinated white anchovy fillet rolled in a coil, dusted with crushed pistachio praline and perched delicately on the end of a wooden skewer. Deceivingly small and humble in appearance, that one bite prompted an explosion of Technicolor flavor – the saltiness of the anchovy, the sweetness of the praline, the sourness of the marinade, and the satisfying texture of the crushed nuts – that continues to reach across time and distance as evidenced by the fact that, years later, I still remember it longingly.

This most recent meal was more of the same quirky but successful experimentation.  Our party of six agreed to begin with one of each of all of the appetizers and starters as follows:

smoked eel parfait with white soy, kombu & seaweed

pumpkin custard with pumpkin seed & goats curd

kingfish ceviche with pickled daikon & yuzu mayonnaise

beef tartare with liquid wasabi

duck liver foie gras parfait with puffed rice & pickled raisin

beetroot with red chard, horseradish and soy beans

jamon poached swordfish with kohlrabi, squid ink & black sausage crumbs

ocean trout with ocean trout mousse & fennel pollen

pork belly with wattle, garlic milk & rhubarb

cured venison and consommé with salsify, chestnut & scallop

What I identify most in Bentley’s food is its daring sense of fun – unexpected flavor combinations, unusual ingredients and whimsical plating techniques – that make your time there more of an experience than a meal.  The foregoing were no exception, but some were better than the rest.  My favorites included the smoked eel parfait, beef tartare, duck liver parfait and jamon poached swordfish.  The eel parfait was silky smooth and formed into a long cylindrical baton wrapped in a kombu gelée buttressed by seaweed – a cheeky juxtaposition of refined texture and hearty sea and smoke flavors. The beef tartare was served in a fine dice with green onion and pearls of liquid wasabi that burst in your mouth on contact and went down far too easy – a zesty reinterpretation of a much loved classic.  We ordered another two rounds of the same. The foie gras parfait was another stunner (not a surprise for us foie fans) and was well matched with malty puffed rice and the port-like sweetness of pickled raisins.  We ordered up another one of these as well.  Last but not least, the jamon poached swordfish was my favorite of all the dishes.  A firm round of fish was wrapped in a wide vegetable noodle impregnated with squid ink.  The texture and flavor of the fish signaled a pressed and preserved Japanese style and had a sweet saltiness that stood up to the thick chunks of kohlrabi and sausage crumbs.  Sausage crumbs!  If there was ever a better crumbing medium, it is beyond my imagining.

Pilu at Freshwater (Lunch)

porcetta

After a scenic half-hour ferry ride to Manly and a short cab ride North, we arrived at an unassuming Sardinian restaurant perched above the beach at Freshwater.  As we situated ourselves at a table on the covered patio overlooking the ocean, a cool breeze wafted in through the parted floor-to-ceiling windows gently fluttering the starched white tablecloths.  The cerulean sea stretched out before us curly with spume and dotted with surfers.

We were besotted before we’d even had a bite.

After several minutes of staring speechless at the expansive view and bathing in the calming susurrus of the incoming tide, we finally managed to order a couple glasses of the 2008 Le Vigne di Zamo from Collio DOC in Friuli, an enticing blend of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Riesling.  It arrived richly golden offering satisfying complexity and refreshing green and herbal notes.  Pilu garners continuing praise for its eclectic and hard-to-find wine selections focused primarily on offerings from Italy and Australia.

After some dithering over the primi, we ordered up a squid ink spaghettini tossed with spanner crab, chili, orange zest and bottarga, as well as scampi on the half shell sautéed with sea urchin butter and baby herbs.  We opted to start light as we had been advised not to miss the house specialty – porcetta for two slow roasted for several hours.  Each of the starters were good – simple but flavorful – however, as it turned out, neither had much of substance to say next to the suckling pig which was transcendent.  First arrived two plates featuring garnishes for the porcetta – salsa verde, poached spiced pears and mustard fruit jam. Next followed a knobby-footed cork platter nestled in the crook of the waitress’ arm on which sat, burnished and resplendent, six portions of lovingly roasted suckling pig served on the bone along with a generous serve of housemade pork sausage.  The smell of it alone was intoxicating, but the spectacle of that delicately crisp skin resting on a layer of unctuous fat atop meltingly tender pork was not to be believed.  It was positively Rubenesque.  The meal was rounded out with a serving of roasted baby potatoes and a salad of shaved root vegetables and celery tossed in vinaigrette.  I relished every bite.

After gorging ourselves on an unforgettable seaside feast of porcine delights, we slowly (ever so slowly) wended our way back along the coast to Manly beach with the sun on our shoulders and the wind in our hair just in time to catch the ferry back to the Quay.  It was a wonderful meal and a perfect afternoon.

Thanks to Chai and Alyssa for a most excellent recommendation.

Manly

Café Sopra (Lunch)

Across the street from Danks Street Depot (also not to be missed) in Waterloo and above Fratelli Fresh, you’ll find Café Sopra, a lovely locale for a leisurely lunch.  I’ve written about Café Sopra previously on this blog while living in Sydney, but it continues to be one of my favorite lunch destinations.  The daily menu is written on a giant chalkboard dominating one wall of the dining room where vaulted ceilings and French doors beckon in the sunlight.  On this visit we sampled:

salade of frisée with smoked trout and poached farm egg

oxheart tomato with boconcini and baby basil

pappadelle with green peas, mint and ricotta

rigatoni bolognese

marzipan cherry tart with white chocolate ice cream

The food was great, as usual, and the atmosphere relaxed.  It is clearly a local favorite as well, judging by the evident enjoyment on all the faces around us.  Also, as you pass shelves of Fratelli Fresh olive oil, vinegars, dried pasta and fresh produce, you can hardly help but shop on your way out. Not to be missed.

Rockpool Bar & Grill (Dinner)

We snuck this one in under the bar on our last night in Sydney after Friday night drinks at The Ship Inn.  Among the options for a late night meal, was this impressive dining room imagined in a converted bank with 1930s art deco styling.  The six of us were fortunate to score a private dining room where we could enjoy our wine and conversation (primarily focused on food) unperturbed.  That said, the marbled colonnades and belle époque details in the dining room warrant study, so I’ll be eager to return for the food and the architectural ambiance.

Dinner was enjoyed family style, so I’ll endeavor to describe each of the dishes featured, all of which were robust with flavor and presented with an elegant panache.

seared king prawns with goats cheese tortellini, burnt butter, pine nuts and raisins

duck ragu with pappardelle noodles

free range chicken with tuscan white bean, tomato and bread salad

36-day dry aged grass fed ribeye and t-bone

mushy peas with slow cooked egg

sautéed mixed mushrooms

passionfruit marshmallows

salted butter caramels

Each dish was well prepared and presented with raffish refinement.  Both cuts of beef were satisfyingly charred and rich with intensely beefy flavor.  The duck ragu was unctuous and appeared inviting, but was over-seasoned for my taste.  The chicken, slow-cooked on a rotisserie, was cooked perfectly and served with a pungently garlicky aioli that complemented the fatly juicy chicken.  Mushy peas were complex and packed an unexpected kick of heat.  Mixed mushrooms were woodsy and a solid pairing with the steaks.  We finished the meal at nearly midnight with light-as-air marshmallows and brightly buttery caramels.  Another memorable evening dedicated to food.

Din Tai Fung (Brunch)

Din Tai Fung Sydney

I am a sucker for a Shanghai soup dumpling, so when I learned that Din Tai Fung, recipient of a Michelin star, had an outpost in Sydney, it was immediately added to the itinerary, which took a bit of orchestration as, by this point, we had only hours left before catching our flight back to the States.  There isn’t much I won’t do for a good dumpling.

Shangahi Soup Dumpling

The restaurant itself is designed to promote efficient dumpling production and consumption.  There is a separate room adjacent to the dining room where no fewer than fifteen dumpling makers outfitted with gloves and face masks roll, stuff, crimp and otherwise contribute to the assembly line manufacture of what must be a mountain of dumplings.  We arrived fifteen minutes before the restaurant opened and, by the time the hostess deigned to seat us, a long line of eager adherents had already formed – an encouraging sign.  Din Tai Fung features other items on its menu, but their raison d’être is dumplings, and, of the many dumplings on offer, the “soup dumplings” are the clear star.  Shanghai soup dumplings are characterized by the inclusion of gelled or frozen soup or stock in the dumpling filling so that, when steamed, the soup is liquefied resulting in a surprisingly mouthwatering dumpling experience.  We ordered two varieties – shrimp with pork and the standard ground pork.  The shrimp and pork combination was my favorite.  The dumpling skins were tender but toothsome with a bulbous base housing a mix of ground shrimp and pork and a flavorful clear stock.  The cap of the dumpling was crimped around a whole small shrimp which acted like a cork sealing in the juices.  I could have eaten twenty!  In addition to the soup dumplings, we ordered regular dumplings with vegetables and shrimp, water spinach sautéed with crispy garlic and, for dessert, more dumplings with a sweet taro paste filling.  It was all delicious and this meal served to revive my dedication to the pint-sized but potent dumpling.

shrimp & pork soup dumpling

And so concludes this account of my week “forking” Sydney.  It was a fabulous trip of food and fun.  I cannot wait to go back and discover what else is on offer.  My sincere thanks go to all the Sydneysiders who contributed to the success of this venture.  It would not have been half as fun without you.

Coi (January 19, 2011)

January 24, 2011

Michael and I dined at Coi in San Francisco earlier this week to celebrate my birthday.  It was a wonderful meal. Easily among our top ten dining experiences and highly recommended.  Before presenting a detailed description of the food, I offer a few observations regarding the caliber of the kitchen and similar intangibles that do not appear on the plate but which contribute mightily to any meal.  The tasting menu – the only option available in the dining room – consists of eleven courses which is no small undertaking and requires a judicious hand.  The delicate presentation and correct portioning of each course ensured each taste was a pleasure and left us sated but not overfull.

The full menu is featured below, but there were a few dishes that stood out and warrant more attention.  I list them not in order of presentation, but according to my measure of their success. The best dish in my opinion was the beef, followed closely by the chanterelle porridge, crab melt, farm egg and the “pasturized” roasted beets.  Every one of these dishes was solid – deceptively simple, innovative and delicious.  The beef was a portion of tenderloin, which is not generally my preferred cut, but this tasted like rib eye masquerading as tenderloin – rich beefy flavor and silken texture – perfectly seasoned, expertly cooked and resting in a pool of elegant cauliflower mousseline punctuated with vibrant green cypress oil.  It was a thing of beauty.  The chanterelle porridge – akin to risotto – was served beneath sherry foam with a side car of thin-shaved crispy root vegetables to be applied to each bite in order to maximize each crispy, smooth, earthy, sophisticated spoonful.  It was both hearty and refined and we were each sorry when it was gone.  The crab melt was simple but inspired – substituting the traditional cheddar cheese with a translucent layer of lardo and contributing an unctuous decadence to in-season crab atop a delicate cut of toast.  And the hits just kept coming. The farm egg was at once comforting and surprising – the loose yolk melding with the acidic salsa verde was rich and familiar but bold and exotic. The beet dish was an impressive homage to its components – presented as a thick puree incorporating the cheese and decorated with the tiniest sprouts and coy little flowers.  The dish itself seemed to be blushing and tasted as fresh and daring as a ruddy ingénue (okay, that description is a little over the top, but I REALLY liked this dish).

I do not mean to suggest that the other dishes were lacking; they simply did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the offerings noted above.  Indeed, if there is any commentary to be made that is not completely fawning, it is only to note with perplexity that the housemade rolls served with dinner and flavored with “pepper” tasted unmistakably of blueberries.  Again, not bad, but not like any pepper I’ve ever had.  The wine pairings were interesting – including a sparkling sake and a white aged on the lees – but they did not hold a candle to the food.

It was a great meal and we will certainly be back.

FROZEN MANDARIN SOUR
angostura bitters, kumquat, satsuma ice

CLAM
geoduck and manila, bull kelp, meyer lemon, wild fennel

PASTURE
beets roasted in hay, fresh cheese, wild sprouts and flowers

CRAB MELT, CALIFORNIA STYLE
steffan’s lardo, wheatgrass

FARM EGG
cauliflower, nettle-dandelion salsa verde

EARTH AND SEA
steamed tofu mousseline, mushroom dashi, yuba, fresh seaweed

SAVORY CHANTERELLE PORRIDGE
crisp root vegetables, cress, sherry

PRATHER RANCH BEEF
black garlic, carrot, sudachi, spinach, cypress oil

REBLOCHON
mixed chicories, sherry vinegar

LIME SHERBET
frozen yogurt, pomegranate, mint

BREAD & CHOCOLATE
brioche ice cream, pistachio, tarragon

Acquerello

August 29, 2010

 

August 25, 2010

First Course

Parmesan budino, mushrooms ‘trifolati’  and shaved Parmigiano ‘Vacche Rosse’

Grilled lamb’s tongue with celery, salsa verde and black Gaeta olive oil

~~~

Second Course

Ridged pasta with foie gras, scented with black truffles and Marsala

Lobster panzerotti in a spicy lobster brodo with “Diavolicchio”

~~~

Third Course

Lamb loin in lamb sausage, roasted fennel with black Gaeta olive tapenade and marble potatoes

Sous vide ‘bavette’ of American Kobe beef with braised oxtail stuffed squash and basil

~~~

To celebrate our third wedding anniversary this past week, Michael and I dined at Acquerello in San Francisco.  The menu above lists my selection for each course in the primary position with Michael’s choices second.  We very much enjoyed the meal, would recommend it to anyone and are already looking forward to our next visit.

The restaurant is intimate and serene.  The palette is composed of muted earth-tones intended perhaps to evoke the sun-scrubbed walls of a rustic Italian farmhouse, but the finishing is unerring and precise.  Both the wait staff and sommeliers are attentive but unobtrusive and the pacing of the service correct. The highlight of the evening was the foie gras pasta with truffles and Marsala, which is a signature dish and not to be missed. Though it is clearly as big a favorite of the staff as of the patrons, our waiter did explain that the inclusion of Marsala wine in this dish results in a sweetness that may not suit all tastes. While I did appreciate the warning, a little sweetness was not enough to dissuade me from the delectable duo of foie and truffles.  We ordered wines paired with each course and were delighted by the evident enthusiasm with which the sommelier presented each offering and explained his pairing strategy for each dish. In advance of the second course, he sidled up to our table with a half-smirk and inquired whether I would permit the pasta to be paired with a Sauternes – a play on the traditional partnership of foie gras and Sauternes, as well as a mechanism for balancing the uncharacteristic sweetness we had been warned about.  I am not generally a devotée of sweet wines, but given the excellent pairing provided for the first course, and the careful choreography dedicated to this single serving of pasta, I resolved to leave its execution to the professionals. Absolutely the right decision, as it turns out. I do not mean to discount the other courses or components of the meal – Michael’s lobster panzerotti was a winner – but I feel duty-bound to report the presentation and consumption of the foie and truffle pasta with as much detail as my receding recollection can provide.

The pasta was served in a low bowl capped with a white porcelain dome – an elegant touch affording a bit of drama upon reveal of the dish, but, more than that, the perfect means of ensnaring the ambrosial aroma of rich foie and earthy truffle that oozed out from under that innocent cap when it finally lifted.  The scent of it enveloped me like a heady swoon and I am sure I batted my eyelashes and blushed – defenseless against so ardent an introduction. The preparation of the dish begins with foie gras melted down into “butter” combined with a Marsala wine reduction.  The pasta is tossed in this sauce and decorated with shaved black truffle. It is decadent to be sure and a little goes a long way, but there is so much to experience in each bite – the luxurious texture of the foie, the mysterious umami of the truffle, and the maple syrup sweetness of the Marsala wine that ties the two together. It is a simple dish of a few complex ingredients amplified by the golden raisin sugar in the Sauternes. This pasta was an all-around pleasure that left me feeling positively giddy with delight.

Perhaps the success of the second course contributed to unrealistic expectations on my part, but the lamb served as my third course was not as well received. The loin was prepared sous vide – cooked in a vacuum bag under water with to-the-degree temperature precision. This technique has obvious benefits as it guards against overcooking of delicate protein and permits storage at temperature which can buy the kitchen time, however it is not my preferred method for the preparation of red meat. The lamb loin was, admittedly, cooked to my specified temperature, but both the flavor and the texture were off. I missed that lovely, distinctive lambiness and the loin, while promisingly pink, was dry. It is possible that the sous vide preparation was not the culprit since the loin was subsequently rolled in lamb sausage and finished in the oven.  Either it didn’t spend enough time in the oven – due to the fact that the interior loin was already at the desired temperature – or it should have been seared off and oven-roasted without the need for sous vide, but in any case the result was not as I had hoped. Perhaps it is simply personal taste, but I think true flame is the best homage to a quality piece of red meat. I want the exterior caramelized and constricted by direct heat, which is to say nothing of the fond that should find itself into the sauce on my plate. I will grant that the foie and truffle pasta was a hard act to follow, but even so, I think the lamb should have been stronger.

We had initially intended to include a dessert, but once the plates were cleared after the third course, we were forced to conclude that our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs.  I look forward to returning to Acquerello and sampling more of what they have to offer.  Perhaps next time I will see about some fish.

A Girl and Her Cleaver

March 2, 2010

As noted in my previous post, I spent this past Saturday at the St. Helena campus of the Culinary Institute of America participating in an introductory butchery class titled “Behind the Meat Counter.”

We fortunate few were instructed to present ourselves at the CIA’s general reception at 9 am with a medium-capacity cooler in tow.  After some cursory instructions and affixing of the inevitable “Hello my name is” tags, we were escorted to a classroom for initial orientation followed by a far-ranging tour of the CIA’s impressively appointed facilities – gleaming steel, rich red enamel and wickedly sharp cutlery as far as the eye could see.  It was a treat to inspect the many test kitchens where fledgling chefs hone their skills and earn their credentials.  It was surprising to observe the clear distinction drawn – both in attitude and physical territory – between “savory” and pastry chefs.  Turns out that pastry chefs are considered the nerds of the bunch due to their penchant for precise measurements and inflexible adhesion to process.  Renovations were recently completed on a chocolate and candy kitchen featuring six marble bench tops with finely calibrated temperature controls to promote the careful tempering required to produce the generous shine, luxurious texture and satisfying snap indicative of a quality product.  But I digress.

The disposable toque makes it official

The real focus of the day and my particular attentions was meat and its “fabrication,” the technical term used to denote the breaking down of larger primal cuts into the steaks and chops with which we, as consumers, are more familiar.  The course included both a demo and hands-on deconstruction of a chicken, a rack of lamb, one full bone-in center cut pork loin and a beef round.  I would have liked to see a rabbit or a duck or other game on the agenda – I would have been over the moon for some offal – but, as it turned out, the product provided presented more than ample challenge for the time allotted.  The course itself is intended for the culinary “enthusiast” with little to no experience and the class participants ranged from a CIA-trained pastry chef to one woman who I am confident had never held a knife before in her life, so I congratulated myself on occupying a position comfortably in the middle of the pack and said a silent prayer hoping to end the day with a full set of fingers.

The individual meat-specific lessons were administered thusly – the chef (“Chef Wild” funnily enough) would address his product, chicken in the first instance, skillfully palpating the bird to indicate the several joints where the parts would be separated from the body while we stood at rapt attention around his demo bench.  He then selected a knife and with expert precision sliced through skin and flesh, bone and sinew with no apparent effort – talking all the while – until a perfectly portioned chicken lay disassembled on the board before him.  Then he would clean his knife restore it to his rigidly regimented knife roll, smile and say “your turn,” whereupon we would all turn to our appointed stations to find that a chicken had suddenly materialized thanks to the stealthy efforts of a small but efficient cadre of teaching assistants.  And then the fun began.

I witnessed at least one whole chicken hit the floor as a result of overzealous joint reconnaissance and observed some curious freeform cuts that I did not recognize as components of the Colonel’s ever-popular bucket, but I too was there to learn so I tried to keep my eyes on my own board and stay out of the weeds myself.  No mean feat as it happened due to the sorry state of the knives provided.  I’m not suggesting that an “enthusiast” level class warrants fresh metal, but the tools offered had an edge somewhere between a shovel and a pair of kindergarten safety scissors, which, contrary to what you might think, is far more dangerous than an appropriately sharpened knife.  But no matter.

Chickens having been dispatched with relative ease, we turned our collective attention to the beef rounds populating our freshly sanitized cutting boards, each of which – estimating conservatively – weighed in at around 10 pounds comprised of a tri-tip perched atop a generous mound of sirloin all of which was capped by an inch thick bonnet of waxy fat, membrane and sinew.  Our mission – to remove as much of the fat cap as possible while preserving the integrity of the meat below, separate the tri-tip from the sirloin and portion the remainder into two healthy slabs of pot roast, thinner minute steaks or 1-inch cubes of stew meat.  Removing fat and sinew from room temperature meat can be deft work not helped by a knife with an edge like a trowel.  I cannot speak to the efforts of my colleagues as my attention was completely consumed by the task at hand, as well as surreptitiously monitoring the location of Chef Wild as he wandered between the benches noting deficiencies and offering advice.  He reached my station as I was studiously running my blade beneath a stubborn sinew lifting it from the glistening sirloin below and said, “That’s good too.” For obvious reasons, I chose interpret that as commentary appended to previous observations about my neighbor – “That is good. That’s good too.” – and elected not to seek further clarification.

At this stage it was clear to all that we were short on time.  Wiping furrowed brows and bent at uncomfortable angles, we trimmed and sculpted our subjects as best we could acknowledging that the surgically precise cuts presented on the Chef’s board were the most remote unobtainium.  Running low on time, the executive decision was made to skip the lamb racks, which were deposited whole into our coolers for “study and fabrication at home.”  This left the full bone-in center cut pork loin – easily the largest cut assigned – as our final challenge.  The options for fabrication of this cut are many and, with a mere 45 minutes of our class remaining, we were invited to tackle at least four different cuts from the whole loin.  Under ideal circumstances this might be a welcome adventure, but, with the clock counting down and a general panic in the air, it was – I must confess – a little daunting.  Several of the participants, myself included, spent the first few minutes gaping at the two-foot hunk of meat bristling with ribs and cushioned by fat intended by Mother Nature to protect the long, lean pork loin and its smaller cousin the tenderloin.  I had never previously addressed a piece of meat of this dimension nor boasting such a flurry of bony protuberances.  There did not seem to be an obvious entry point, but acknowledging the dwindling time and the naked fact that the whole loin was not going to fit into my cooler, I swore a bit under my breath and dove in.

I resolved to fashion two double thick center-cut pork chops (a personal weakness), one four-rib roast, the tenderloin to be grilled whole and, if I was lucky, some boneless end-cut loin chops – all of which was very nearly stymied by my realization that the chime bone (vertebral column) had been left intact running the length of the loin and intersecting all the ribs I had so recently resolved to separate.  The chime bone is a serious structural component and I was not going to get through it with a chef’s knife – much less a dull chef’s knife.  There was a bone saw in the room slowly working its way down the line, but with no time to spare, and following an honest assessment of the likelihood of my inadvertently sawing off a finger in the final minutes of the countdown, I elected instead to investigate alternative methods.  Using my knife as a wedge I separated the individual vertebrae as indicated for my desired cuts and, taking hold of the ribs on either side heaved the whole mess down on the edge of my bench as hard as I could and, to my very great surprise, with an organic crack, the chime bone separated and the cuts fell apart.  It was immensely satisfying.

I cannot pretend that the pork cuts are as carefully crafted as I would have liked and I have a fair bit of work to do if I intend to serve them to company; however, I will have far have greater confidence tackling primal cuts after attending this class and I doff my hat to the experienced butchers who make light work of what I have learned firsthand is a daunting and dangerous process.

In addition to these practical lessons, I came away from the CIA with no less than 25 pounds of

Double thick center-cut pork chops

chicken, beef, lamb and pork that are now languishing in my freezer until I can negotiate a means of getting them on the table.  The first items on the menu were those double thick center-cut pork chops (I could not resist!) – brined overnight (water, salt, whole peppercorns, lemon juice and rind, thyme, honey), roasted in a hot oven with a pan-seared finish.  They were fantastic!  Moist and redolent with rich pork flavor – well worth the price of admission.

A special thanks to Michael for arranging this most recent culinary adventure.  It was an inspired idea and a wonderful way to spend a day. This has reinforced my amateur interest in meat and butchery.  Perhaps one day I will have the knowledge and means to butcher and dry age my own steaks.

A girl can dream.

Andy Thompson’s Legendary Three-Day Bolognese

This is a great recipe for the winter months when the weather rages and you want to spend a weekend (and I do mean the entire weekend) in the kitchen. As with all great recipes, this one benefits from adaptation to suit your own preferences. I offer it as a starting point that will produce rich and satisfying results. I intended to get this up sooner, but the holiday season had other plans for me. Better late than never. I’ve tinkered with this recipe a few times since it was passed down to me. This latest batch turned out well by all accounts, though I would also recommend a version without tomatoes for those of you less bound by tradition. As you‘ll see below, this recipe requires a lot of work, but freezes well so if you’re going to go to all the trouble, you may as well make a bunch. Happy cooking!

To make Andy Thompson’s Legendary Three-Day Bolognese, you will need:

Three days dedicated as follows:
Day One – Veal Stock;
Day Two – Assemble Sauce and Simmer;
Day Three – Simmer.

I will concede that you can accomplish this recipe in less than three days if you are willing to buy your stock or forego as much simmering time as I believe this sauce requires, but I leave those decisions to you, your schedule and your conscience.

Raw Veal Bones

Ingredients

Veal Stock (yields approx. 8 quarts of stock)

12 lbs. veal bones (see cook’s notes below)

6 large carrots quartered

4 large onions quartered

3 bulbs celery quartered

6 large garlic cloves crushed

1 bunch flat leaf (Italian) parsley

4 bay leaves (fresh if you’ve got them)

1 large fistful of fresh thyme (2 of those plastic herb capsules you can buy at the store)

6 rosemary sprigs (each about 6 inches long)

Water to cover in a 20 quart stock pot

(Note: Try to resist the urge to salt your stock. You will need to reduce it by quite a bit, which makes seasoning tricky.)

Roasted Veal Bones

For the Veal Stock

Finished Veal Stock

Get yourself a vessel of sufficient size. I borrowed a 20 quart stock pot for this purpose, but I’ve used several smaller vessels in a pinch. Heat your oven to 450◦F. Roast half of the veal bones on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes or until they are browned all over. You can skip this step and make a lighter “raw” veal stock, but I like the added depth that comes from roasting some of the bones. Once roasted, add all the bones to your pot as well as the carrots, onions, garlic and celery. You want the bones and vegetables to be compact in your pot so that they can be easily submerged by the water. Anything that is sticking up above the waterline will be wasted and will not give up its essence in your stock. Add the herbs – just pitch them in. You can use cheese cloth to construct a bouquet garni for the herbs if you like, but you’ll end up straining the stock several times anyway, so I don’t bother. Cover the whole lot and bring to a “tremulous” simmer – just the nuance of a boil where you can see the surface tremble – and skim off the scum that rises to the surface for the first 15 minutes. Cover and keep at barley a simmer for four hours (you can also leave in the oven at 250◦F provided you check periodically and adjust the temperature to ensure you are heating but not boiling off the stock you are working so diligently to produce). You don’t want to boil your stock so much as steep the ingredients in the water like a meat and vegetable “tea.” After four hours you’ve extracted what you want from the bones and vegetables. Turn your heat off. Let the whole thing cool (if you want) and remove the big pieces from the pot with a pair of tongs and discard. Strain the stock through a sieve or chinoise at least twice. Then strain through a sieve lined with cheese cloth. Once your stock is strained, taste it. You will probably need to reduce further to obtain the concentration you want. For the bolognese (and for a soup), I would reduce by half at least (presumably you’ll be adding other flavors to the soup you’re making, so you don’t want the stock too strong)a nd for sauces and general “finishing” purposes reduce by half again. You can use a hard boil to reduce your stock once it is well strained. If you want a very concentrated demi glace, you can reduce until you are left with a dark, rich, syrupy consistency that is great for making pan sauces and gravy. Reduction times will vary depending on your initial yield of stock and the concentration you’re after.

Bolognese (serves 14 with leftovers)

4 tbsp. Olive oil (more as needed)

2 lbs. beef round cubed

2 lbs veal shoulder cubed

2 lbs ground pork

(Note: You can use alternative cuts and combinations of meat. You can use all ground meat if you prefer, but I like my sauce on the toothsome side.)

4 large carrots diced

3 large onions diced

1 bulb celery diced

2 bulbs fennel diced

Picked leaves from 1/2 bunch thyme

Picked leaves from 5 stems rosemary

2 bay leaves

2 cups dry white wine

2 cups whole milk (or half and half!)

2.5 cups pureed plum tomatoes

Veal stock to cover (3-4 quarts)

Salt and pepper

Pasta

For the Bolognese

Bolognese – Day 2

Begin by ensuring your meat is relatively dry. You want to brown the meat and develop a bit of caramelization, but this won’t happen if your meat is wet. To dry our meat you can either blot with paper towel or leave uncovered in your refrigerator for a couple of hours (be sure there are no offensive odors in your fridge that may cling to the meat). Assuming your meat is dry, heat a large dutch oven (big enough to hold your completed sauce) on high heat and add olive oil. Brown meat in batches (browning any ground meat last) and set aside. The bottom of the dutch oven will develop a bit of a crust from the caramelized protein. Remove the meat and add diced onion. If needed add additional olive oil to coat onions. Once onions begin to caramelize, add carrots, celery and fennel. Add herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Saute until vegetables begin to soften. Add browned meat (and any juices that have accumulated under the resting meat). Add wine and milk and reduce until pan is dry. Add pureed tomatoes (if using). Simmer and stir until heated through. Add veal stock to cover. Simmer on low heat (or in a low oven) for as long as you care to (usually 3-4 hours on day 2). Let cool and refrigerate overnight. Simmer further on day three (usually 3-4 hours more) tasting periodically and adding additional veal stock if your sauce looks dry. Ultimately you want your sauce a little loose because when you add the pasta for serving the starch will tighten it up. When you are about an hour away from serving (or finishing) your sauce, adjust the seasoning and take off the heat. If eating right away, put your pasta water on to boil. Depending on the consistency of the sauce you prefer and how much cooking time your sauce has received, you may wish to blend part of your sauce to ensure it will cling nicely to your pasta. You can use a food processor or blender, but I find an immersion blender does the trick nicely without having to shuttle the sauce back-and-forth between vessels. Serve with your favorite pasta (I like orrechiette or spaghetti) or cool and portion for freezing.

Bolognese - Day 3

And there you have it. While time-consuming, you can be proud of your industry and will be pleased with the results (as will the fortunate few allowed to partake). As noted above, you should experiment to suit your own tastes, but this version has worked well for me. Bon courage et bon appetit!

Worth the Wait

Cook’s notes – For those of you who are local, Draeger’s sells veal bones by the pound if you order ahead. You are likely to get a better price at your local carniceria.

Chez Panisse

August 16, 2009

MK & NMR Chez Panisse (Cropped) 2009 Jul 18 081

Alice Waters’ Restaurant in Berkeley has been on my list for some time, so I am excited to finally broadcast this review.  Last month my parents celebrated their wedding anniversary and happened to be in town for the occasion.  Michael and I had the pleasure of accompanying them to Chez Panisse to fête the event.  It was a lovely meal in good company.

Apértif of Proseco and Plum Purée

Antipasto of shaved zucchini with prosciutto and ricotta toast

 

2008 Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir

 

Albacore tuna with capers, olives,
anchovy, roasted peppers and orecchiette

 

1999 Chateauneuf-du Pape, La Crau, Télégraphe

 

Grilled Cattail Creek Ranch lamb with
chanterelle mushrooms, wild fennel and fresh flageolet beans

 

Nectarine and blackberry millefoglie with zabaglione

Chez Panisse has built its reputation – and a groundswell of support for the domestic Slow Food movement – on its use of the freshest local protein and produce prepared with honesty and a devotion to the ingredients themselves.  Some might call this kind of preparation “simplistic” or “unadorned,” which it is, but it is also a great way to get reacquainted with how basic good food should taste.  You won’t find any of the complicated, time-consuming preparations or techniques you’re likely to encounter at other fine dining establishments, but that doesn’t mean you’ll come away wanting.  The evident care and effort dedicated to sourcing the best quality local ingredients is where the restaurant focuses its attentions, while the kitchen does its utmost to preserve the native, natural flavors that blossom on the plate as a result.

The downstairs restaurant (as opposed to the café dining option available upstairs) has a warm, coppery patina with a low ceiling and a wide view of the rustic kitchen and its open fire spit and grill.  The service was spot-on and the wine list featured many quirky boutique options from local California vintners as well as a fair selection of Old World wines in half bottles and by the glass.  All of the courses demonstrated the pure, bright flavors of their component pieces and, while they were not sophisticated, they combined to create a pleasant evocation of summer.  I cannot tell a lie – the tuna in my orecchiette was overcooked; possibly the result of resting a little too long under the salamander, but I found this misstep more surprising than distracting.  The lamb was perfectly cooked and well matched with the mushrooms, fennel and beans.  It was fantastic with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape (for which, I admit, I have a weakness).

We are quite spoiled in the Bay Area for good food and great restaurants, which we owe in no small measure to pioneering chefs like Ms. Waters who care about the food they serve and are staunchly dedicated to doing it in a responsible and sustainable way.  What Chez Panisse lacks in technical pizzazz, it makes up for with refreshing simplicity and honest flavors.  I look forward to going back.

MNR & NMR Chez Panisse 2009 Jul 18 080

Cyrus

May 18, 2009

It’s been a while since the last post, but I have to say I think it was worth the wait.  Michael and I dined at Cyrus in Healdsburg last night along with two charming dinner companions visiting from Boulder, Colorado.  You know the drill.  Full menu followed by commentary.  Enjoy!  We certainly did!

Those are some happy campers!

Those are some happy campers!

~ Cyrus ~

May 17, 2009

Champagne & Caviar
California Select, Farm Raised White Sturgeon with Traditional Accoutrements
Chateau Jean Vesselle “But Rosé – Oeil de Perdrix”, Bouzy, France
~
Canapés
Five Flavors
Salty – Sous Vide Cucumber
Sweet – Guava Mouse with Mint Gelée
Bitter – Grilled Grapefruit
Sour – Sudachi Marshmallow
Umami – Shitake and Sushi Rice Fritter
Vin Gris de Pinot Noir
~
Amuse Bouche
Kampachi Sashimi with Ocean Vegetables
~
Thai Marinated Lobster with Avocado, Mango
and Hearts of Palm
Riesling, Dönnhoff “Grosses Gewächs Dellchen”, Nahe, Germany 2007
~
Foie Gras Torchon with Tamarind and Dates
Grasberg, Marcel Deiss, Alsace, France 2002
~
Soft Shell Crab with Corn and Scallions, Sauce Billi-Bi
Chardonnay, Rouchiou “River Block”, Russian River Valley 2007
~
Duck Breast with Bok Choy and Asparagus, Sesame- Shao Xing Sauce
Pinot Noir, Littorai “The Haven”, Sonoma Coast 2006
~
Wagyu Beef with Burdock and Shiso, Oxtail Umeshu Consommé
Sagrantino di Montefalco, Paulo Bea “Pagliaro”, Umbria, Italy 2004
~
Artisanal and Farmhouse Cheeses
Kapcsándy Family Winery “State Lane Vineyard”, Napa Valley 2005
~
Verjus Sorbet, Blood Orange Riesling Soup with Crystallized Picholine Olives
Riesling Spätlese, Robert Weil “Kiedricher Graferberg”, Rheingau, Germany 2006
~
Strawberry Rhubarb Bread Pudding
~
Mignardises
House-made chocolates and candy

Yesterday was a scorcher in the Bay Area and wine country was no exception.  We arrived 20 minutes in advance of our reservation and were promptly shown to a table in the bar to refresh ourselves before dinner.  The Cyrus bar serves a traditional mint julep – crushed ice, frosted silver julep cup and all – and, while I did not partake, it did appear to be particularly thirst quenching on a hot spring night.  The ambiance of the restaurant is refined – as one would expect – but relaxed enough to put one at ease.  Patrons used their normal speaking voices and chuckled to each other without the keen sense of being overheard that sometimes accompanies these fine dining experiences.  A welcome relief.  The more wine I drink, the harder it is to whisper.

The décor is simple, but luxe.  Columns of bone-white lilies atop rigid stems four feet tall were stationed at strategic intervals around the main dining room which was otherwise a calming combination of gold and ivory.  Textured white china and Laguiole knives.  Tables are placed at a comfortable distance from each other – close enough to feel sociable, but far enough apart to feel airy.  The staff was friendly, accommodating and jocular, which is crucial as the wine list is a tome and boasts many hard-to-find and limited release offerings about which our servers had much to say.  I had only a limited sampling of the wine pairings on offer.  None were outstanding, but all were good.  In addition to their standard pairings, the restaurant offers a “Grand” pairing of dinstinguished treasures.  I will certainly have the “Grand” the next time around.

The food was very, very good.  The lobster course was the best executed overall in my opinion, though the soft shell crab was a favorite of the table.  The foie with tamarind reduction and dates was served with miniature oven-warm naan.  Warm bread is always a good bet (even on a hot night).  The wagyu beef was more marbling than meat and a rare treat for that reason.  My favorite dessert component was the plank of picholine olive brittle propped against the verjus sorbet – perfectly crisp, salty and sweet and with just enough give in the flecks of olive to keep it from cracking apart.

Chef Douglas Keane just won the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Pacific region.  He is one to watch.  I like that his tasting menus are at most seven courses.  I also celebrate the fact that you can have an entirely vegetarian tasting menu.  I wasn’t brave enough to try it this time out, but I would  be very tempted to go veggie on the next round – particularly in spring.  Diners also have the option of a less daunting five course alternative.  Part of me felt a little disappointed that we only had the two “meat” courses, but most of me was relieved not to relive the labored breathing and “food sweats” that so often follow a 10 or 12 course meal.  I think seven courses is just right.  I was sated after the meal, but not uncomfortably so.  Happily, you’ll also notice that fewer courses translates to lighter bill at the end of the evening. 

It was a meal to remember and, for those of you keeping score at home, on food alone I’d rate it above Tetsuya’s but below The French Laundry.  That said, we got a booking without any trouble at all and it didn’t require a transoceanic voyage, so if you’re after a truly special meal without a lot of fuss and within driving distance, Cyrus has what you’re looking for.

More at http://cyrusrestaurant.com/

This Food Is Haunted

March 16, 2009

shining_twins_1

I have just come this evening from the Twilight Zone, from the Land That Time Forgot.  There is a time capsule of a restaurant – a shrine to the color mauve – within a mile of our house that remained, until tonight, undiscovered.

We dined this evening in a place beyond description – a chapel bathed in silk damask, with a thirty-foot ceiling and a four-piece band.  This is the dining room scene they edited out of “The Shining.”  This is the last vestige of the mediocre country club meals of which I never had the mostly qualified privilege to partake and never had the stomach to imagine.  This is where the 1960s Milwaukee mob goes to celebrate after a big heist.

I am at once horrified and delighted to report that such a place exists.  That it exists within a mile of my house prompts similar ambivalence.  This place sets out real silver and gilded plates for two seatings a night in a dining room of delectable irony of which the management is stubbornly unaware.

They stop short of doilies, but only just.

If you ever wondered what happened to Sole Meunière and Steak Diane, wonder no more, for these throw-backs survive in geriatric splendor at a restaurant called “Chantilly.”  If you’re willing to bump elbows with patrons 50 years your senior eating cuisine of a similar era, you too can stare agape at the six-foot flower arrangement – bristling with gladiolas – that dominates the room.  I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the word “milquetoast” until tonight.  It is a triumphant and unsettling spectacle of mediocrity.

The entire experience is devoid of imagination – everything about it had been done, and done better.  The food is as musty as the 70-year-old four-tops around you, and, but for a three-generation-family celebrating the birthday of a 13-year-old the spitting image of the Beave, we would have been the youngest people in there by leagues.

The food is, frankly, abysmal, but if you, like I, celebrate the strange and unusual – relics that defy the odds – you will make it a point to see it for yourself.

Go there (but do not eat anything).  They have a full bar, which is the strategy I would recommend.  I am sure – with a certainty approaching fact – that the kitchen is whittling down overstock from the 80s, but these past few hours spent in a freakish David Lynch snow globe has inspired in me a gratitude and appreciation for our current reality that I would not have imagined possible.

australian-miscellany-hats

Michael and I will be leaving Australia in a few days to return to the Bay Area, which prompted me to reflect upon the many unique experiences and valuable lessons derived from my time here in Sydney.  Foremost among them are the following, many of which I will dearly miss and always remember fondly.

 

Centennial Park – Sydney does great parks and Centennial Park is an especially fine and sprawling specimen.  Many of my favorite days in Australia were spent on the bank of a quiet little pond on the outskirts of the city with a book or a game of Scrabble while James splashed around after ducks and chased the ball.  Always a crowd pleaser on a sunny day.

http://www.centennialparklands.com.au/

 

Danks Street Depot – A perennial favorite and the one Sydney restaurant that I wish I could take with me when I go.  This place never fails to satisfy.  The freshest produce and best quality ingredients prepared with integrity and imagination.  I especially enjoy their Bar Food Nights featuring themed menus once a month on Thursdays.  Their Mexican Bar Food Night was a triumph and provided – hands down – the best Mexican food I’ve had in Australia.  I’m picking the head chef, Jared Ingersoll, as one to watch.  If he doesn’t end up with a signature line of sustainably-grown, responsibly-hewn and beautifully-crafted wooden salad bowls and nubby, organic cotton kitchen towels, I will be shocked.

http://www.danksstreetdepot.com.au/

 

Cafe Sopra (Fratelli Fresh) – Just across the street from Danks Street Depot in Waterloo, this rustic but refined first floor eatery with a massive menu written by hand on an impressively scaled black board is the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon lunch.  Sadly, for the moment the Waterloo location is only open on Saturdays, but the new Potts Point version is a good second bet.  As mentioned, the menu is just dizzying in dimension – ranging from a light but aromatic osso buco in bianco with gnochetti and gremolata to a rich and satisfying crockery-baked smoked chicken farfalle with whole grain mustard and leeks.  Fantastically coy little salads – cavalo nero, shaved brussel sprouts, and crisp prosciutto mounded beneath a poached egg dressed with aged balsamic and peppery olive oil – are also on offer alongside more traditional antipasto features.  I prefer the atmosphere of the Waterloo spot for dining – it affords more elbow-room and has better ambient light – but the Potts Point destination has a better grocery set-up which is very attractive for the multi-tasking dining/shopping option it presents.  This place is not to be missed.

http://www.smh.com.au/news/restaurant-reviews/sopra-at-fratelli-fresh/2005/11/11/1131578221002.html

 

Pasta Emilia – I am now thoroughly spoiled for pasta having had this exceptional boutique shopfront just up the street from our place in Bronte providing handmade fresh pasta and fabulous sauces.  Anna-maria, the proprietor, is a wonderfully warm personality with an infectious smile.  She makes all the pasta and sauces herself and I have found she is always ready with serving suggestions and recipes to augment her flawless creations.  My personal favorites include the duck and porcini ravioli with truffle cream sauce and her pre-made lasagne with béchamel and bolognese (just put it in the oven – what’s not to love!).  She also hosts dinners (often in conjunction with Hudson Produce) to commemorate traditional festas of Northern Italy – do yourself a favor and get on that mailing list.

http://www.emilia.com.au/

 

Hudson Produce – Hugh Wennerbom, slow food wrangler and providor, is a force to be reckoned with.  On his farm, he raises much of the fruit, veg and meat he delivers to discerning restaurants and private clients in the know.  By happy accident, our apartment is located just above Hudson Produce HQ, which I have to think is the only reason we have even an inkling of these hand-crafted and home-grown treasures.  Based on what I can gather from my self-guided neighbourhood watch (I am a culinary stalker in the making!), Hugh spends much of the week on the farm trellising broad beans and coddling piglets before heading back to the Eastern suburbs heavy with his bounty.  The operation appears to be manageably sized – private distribution is driven by circulation of a weekly email with gallows-humor and tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the latest hiccups on the farm along with romantic photos of this week’s culinary features (faces and all!).  We’ve enjoyed wonderful Taralga Farms jam, pork sausages, fresh fish, farm-reared beef, and wonderful La Barre olive oil.  As though that weren’t enough, Hugh is also a retired chef and hosts periodic dinners using his excellent raw materials at a funky diner location in Chippendale – they always go over a treat.  If I were to judge, I’d say Hudson Produce is poised to quickly outgrow its banks and it will be interesting to see how Hugh manages to do more on the farm while developing the distribution side; although, in fairness, both Hugh and his lovely, unflappable wife, Mary Ellen, have ambition and ability to spare.  If anyone could increase the scale of this business without a skip in their stride, it’s them.  Remarkably, there isn’t a website to send you to, but if you’re truly interested, you can leave me a note and I’ll see what I can do.

 

Work/Life Balance – The best lesson I’ve learned in Australia is to insist upon and fiercely defend an appropriate work/life balance.  Coming from the Bay Area, I used to think that work/life balance meant eating at least once a day and not sleeping on the floor of your office.  The Aussies seem to understand that your work should not define you.  Now to see if that’s an import I can get past US Customs.

 

Bronte & Clovelly Beaches – I can’t pretend we’ve had the best beach weather while we’ve been here (judging by the foregoing, the weather has, however, been ideal for stuffing our faces!), but on those rare days when the sun shone bright, it was a special treat to be able to lather on the SPF +400 and walk down to the beach from our little apartment.  James Brown in particular will miss his walks down to the cliff-side park for ball chasing with a postcard-ready backdrop of the ocean.  He may not appreciate the view, but I certainly do.

 

Fare thee well Australia and many thanks to the locals and ex-patriots alike who did so much to make me feel welcome while I was here.  A special thanks to Madeleine, Sterling and George, who rented us our apartment in Bronte; they have been a wonderful source of information on all things Aussie and have demonstrated remarkable patience in dealing with us “yanks.”  Thanks also to Hugh, Mary Ellen, Henry, Adelaide, and Winnie for suffering our proximity with grace and humour (and an affectionate ear-tousle to Nelly, their dog, who just never could trust that we didn’t have some nefarious plot in the works).