Archive for August, 2007

Espresso track

August 2007

Don’t ask me why we wound up in Rome for two days (something to do with the goddamn rental car costing as much as a hotel room in the countryside), but I have to say my least favorite city was vaut le voyage this time, and not just for the sight of a highway lined with young, stylish hookers on a Sunday morning as we blasted back to return said goddamn car. In a rare stroke of good luck, we slept in the Aventine, the leafy residential neighborhood, and ate mostly down the hill in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse area. We’d stayed there on our last trip and found Volpetti, the specialty food shop that makes Dean & Deluca look like Trader Joe’s, and one quick stop had set us back $60. This time our guard was up. When a familiar tempter asked where I was from and then proffered a slice of “drunken cheese” — one washed with amarone — I turned around to see Bob had vanished before we could get seduced again, but I stayed long enough to buy us at least a slice of the just-baked zucchini blossom pizza to go.

The pizza was good, even cold, but lunch around the corner was even better. After checking out the kick-ass Paolo Pellegrin show over in Trastevere, we pushed one tray for two down the Volpetti cafeteria line while an amazingly patient attendant dished up trofie with pesto, extraordinary eggplant parmesan, seafood (all octopus) salad, roasted and marinated zucchini slices and a lovely little half-bottle of white wine. Our eyes were 33 euros bigger than our stomachs, but I wasn’t complaining.

By then we were on a roll. Every morning started with a surfeit of fruit from the buffet at the excellent Aventino (included in the 95-euro room rate, booked through venere.com). The night before we had put up with Vespa din on the sidewalk to eat at “Da Oio” a Casa Mia, where my rigatoni cacio e pepe was perfection and Bob gnawed his Roman-style stewed chicken down to the rosemary- and pepper-infused bone. Lunch was at a sleek businessy restaurant he sussed out in Trastevere called La Ripa: sauteed frutti di mare (mussels and clams in a peppery brodo), super-tender grilled grouper and calamari, and spaghetti with clams. And every afternoon we trekked in the brutal heat to Sant’Eustachio for an espresso granita. Bob would get his plain and order alla panna for me, and we would stand outside in a patch of shade, passing them back and forth for maximum bliss. It was hard to believe I almost died from caffeine withdrawal in Rome, back in the days when I drank tea and the Excelsior Hotel balked at brewing it and I had to medicate myself with Coke. Harder still to believe some people still think St. Peter’s is the only shrine in town.

Volpetti shop, Via Marmorata, 47, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 574 2352.
Volpetti Tavola Calda, Via Alessandro Volta, 8, Testaccio.
“Da Oio” a Casa Mia, Via Galvani, 43/45, Testaccio, 39 (0)6 5782680.
Ripa 12, Via San Francesco a Ripa, 12, Trastevere, 39 (0)6 5809093.
Sant’Eustachio, Piazza S. Eustachio, 82, 39 (0)6 688 0248.
Hotel Aventino, Via S. Domenico, 10, 39 (0)6 570057.

French twists

August 2007

I don’t think we have ever done Italy and France back to back, which must be one reason why I was so underwhelmed by the food in a country where I had always fully intended to have my last meal. The comparison was rather stark, especially considering the first course at our first dinner in Tuscany, at Posta Marcucci in Bagno Vignoni, was Kelleresque in both concept and execution: a plate of Cinta Senese prosciutto paired with a chilled melon soup with a dollop of onion jam — the ham tasted irresistibly barnyardy against the sweetness. But another reason is simply that a wedding banquet in Italy is a hard act to follow, at least as staged by a multinational crew. The reception was around the pool at magical Il Poggiolo in San Quirico d’Orcia, where four food stations had been set up: One with fried food (tomatoes, arancini, zucchini, etc.) to be eaten from paper cones, one with melon and prosciutto carved to order, yet another with cheese and red wine and one more with bruschetti; if that was not enough, waiters were passing hors d’oeuvres like little tarts with artichoke and truffle filling. The sit-down dinner under the hyper-clear stars started with gnocchi, followed by a filled pasta, then roast pork, then Tuscan steak, then the wedding cake, then a full dessert table.

The steak, and the melon soup, were so extraordinary that it’s no wonder Bob yawned at the best meal we had in Arles, at Le Cilantro. I ordered essentially the same two dishes off the special menu, but the beef was not as dazzling and the soup came with slivers of prosciutto crisps and a balsamic granita. He had seared tuna and sea bream, each with two sauces, and we both left thinking the room was half the reason for the Michelin star.

We had a promising start at lunch at Tamarillos in the lively city of Montpellier — minis including foie gras with vanilla, then coconut milk risotto with langoustines, dried strawberries and mushrooms — but the herky-jerky service and slow kitchen cost us patience by the time our main courses came. Glutton for fowl punishment, I ordered duck with mango and chewed yet another penalty ration. Bob’s scallops with spinach and pistachios arrived with neither of the billed ingredients, but who was counting?

My faith in France was restored at L’Entre Pots in Languedoc, in the Moliere stomping ground of Pezenas, and not just because we had been tasting picpoul all morning. This was a Paris-quality restaurant, on every level, starting with the fact that our wine was chilled in a silver bucket shaped like a dinosaur egg. It even offered half-portions on several starters and main courses, and I took one (monkfish sauteed to succulent perfection with calamari) while Bob made a meal of two (anchovies atop eggplant and tomato, then veal saltimbocca with a plethora of mashed potatoes). My appetizer of exquisite brandade with pesto tapenade was enough for an entree. The bread was excellent, the cafe creme even better. And the place itself was designed more like a resort than a restaurant, with a patio where we ate, a seating area with tables in the middle of the restaurant, and shelves with food and a few housewares for sale in the front. Like that ice bucket.

Hotel “Posta” Marcucci, Bagno Vignoni, 39 (0) 57 788 7112.
Il Poggiolo, San Quirico d’Orcia, 39 (0)57 789 9074, www.poggiolo.info
Grand Hotel Nord Pinus, Place du Forum, Arles, 33 (0)49 903 4444, www.nord-pinus.com
Le Cilantro, 31, rue Porte-de-Laure, Arles, 33 (0)49 018 2505.
Tamarillos, 2, Place du Marche aux Fleurs, Montpellier, 33 (0)46 760 0600.
L’Entre Pots, 8, Ave. Louis-Montaigne, Pezenas, 33 (0) 46 790 0000.

Market ratings

August 2007

Can you love a town without eating in it? We stopped in Salon-de-Provence to break up the roughly five-hour drive from Languedoc to the Nice airport and could not have been more infatuated, even though our consumption was limited to a couple of pichets of rose at a sidewalk cafe late on the night we drove in and a world-class cafe creme next morning before we blew out (we sneaked croissants in from Narbonne with that). If I were heading back to Provence, I would make this my base for the cheap hotels and street life; our perfectly serviceable, beyond-clean room at the Vendome was 44 euros, WiFi included. We didn’t have time to check out the soap factories (this is the home of the Marius Fabre we got hooked on thanks to Alain Ducasse and his otherwise worthless bastide), but we were lucky enough to be in town for market morning, and what a market it was. All the food looked exceptional, and it was not geared to tourists at all. Bob will probably never forgive me for not being a chicken eater after spotting the first rotisserie dripping juices onto potatoes and whole garlic cloves. Instead of getting one to go, we split a roasted eggplant-and-tomato tartine at a rest stop, having learned another rule for happy eating in the new Europe: vegetables are always better than the industrial meats and cheeses.

The market our Languedoc friend took us to in Nardonne was even more splendiferous, housed as it was in a gorgeous century-old hall with 80 shops. Our heads were swiveling from the second we stepped inside and saw a huge line for roast chickens, a three-foot-wide pan of seafood paella being ladled into takeout containers, an olive display manned by the most persuasive barkers scooping out samples, and a couple of bars where shoppers — men and women alike — were drinking beer and wine at 10 in the morning. One stall was devoted to cassoulet, several others to cheese and a couple to dazzling seafood (my favorite had lumped all the ingredients for bouillabaisse together under a sign). When we stopped to try a local cheese, I learned a good lesson, though: Look before you buy. The local sea salt was 7 euros at the cheese stall and up to 9 at other stands.

Hotel Vendome, 34, rue Marechal Joffre, Salon-de-Provence, 33 (0)49 0560196.
Les Halles de Narbonne, Bd du Dr Ferroul, 33 (0)46 8326399.

New York minutes/August 2007

August 2007

The good and gimmicky: Hill Country, where I wanted to hate everything but actually was impressed by both the concept, the unnaturally hospitable staff and the Kreuz Market sausage. I’m not sure I would brave it at a busy dinner hour, when it would have to be a circle of cacophonous hell, but at lunchtime on a Monday it was pretty deserted and we were patiently served at the barbecue, side dish and drinks sections. You start with a meal ticket to be stamped at each stop (one that costs $50 if you lose it), and facing down the food makes you want to over-order before you head for the picnic tables with rolls of paper towels waiting to eat off butcher paper. We stuck to a quarter-chicken, a quarter-pound of “moist” (as opposed to lean) brisket, one sausage, coleslaw, pickled cucumber salad and a glass of Texas chenin blanc and got out for $34, no tip needed. The brisket turned out to be too fatty for my taste, but the chicken was excellent for chicken and that sausage was just outstanding — I’d had it before by mail order, and fresh was a whole new experience. Most meats are sold by the pound, but you can buy as little as a slice. WIGB? Only for lunch. I’m too old for head-banging din. 30 West 26th Street between Sixth and Broadway, 212 255 7245.

The inevitably perfect: Pearl, where my cod sandwich came with overheard snippets of chef gossip that made me think about how un-New Yorkly hospitable the West Village is to women (Rebecca, Anita Lo, April Bloomfield, Jody Williams, Amanda Freitag, to name just a few).

The not bad: Alouette, for a change, where we sought out neutral ground after my consort dragged in from a week of teaching at the Maine Photo Workshops. I chose it primarily because the noise level is usually so inoffensive even if the food, whether by idea or execution, can be mediocre to gruesome. But our timing was off, and we were led to the attic level (read: hot) two tables away from boors and basically felt as if we were eating in the spillover chute. Still, the special of mayonnaisy shrimp in avocado was a dated notion but satisfying, and Bob’s monkfish with shiitakes was far better than average for the neighborhood. A real chef could turn this place around so that the upstairs would be as packed as downstairs. WIGB? Where else can I find peace and $7 Macon-Village sanity so close to home? 2588 Broadway near 97th Street, 212 222 6808.

The overreaching: Asiate in the Mandarin Oriental, where the protracted Restaurant Week deal reeled a friend and me in and where both of us walked away adding up all the other venues where $24.07 would have gone further. I was further suckered into ordering salmon because it was described as glazed with both sea urchin and miso, and the resulting flavor and texture could best be described as cat foody. The corn soup with crispy chickpeas and chanterelles that preceded it was unobjectionable, but my date was beyond underwhelmed by the taste-light raw tuna salad and the special cod. I think the cheapest glass of wine was $11, which had to help underwrite the view-maximizing design of the room but was still hard to swallow. The service was almost obsequious. On the plus side, the bathrooms were exceptional. WIGB? Only when I have $24 for a diner breakfast with a view, served by inchworms. Or if someone gives me megabucks to explore that tantalizing wine list.

The dispiriting: Tandoori on 94th Street, a “new” cafe that proves something about reincarnation, although I am not sure what. In 21 years in the neighborhood, I ate at the original at 97th and Columbus exactly once and got takeout or delivery only slightly more often, and I remembered the food as being slightly less dull than dishwater. So don’t ask how I wound up on the buffet line at the new location, where I used to be able to buy crema and chilies and fresh chorizo at Stop One. (Well, actually, I had fled the new fusiony Asian place nearby because it was not just empty but reeked of fish.) Suffice it to say that it was a total rip if you don’t eat lamb or tandoori chicken or whatever fish previously occupied the third Sterno station. I was left with only a yellow dal, an okra-heavy curry with potatoes and spinach with chickpeas to eat with coriander chutney and mango pickles and a whole basket of bread. It was only $8.95 and I have seldom felt so cheated.

The divey: All State Cafe, where I had not been in donkey’s years but agreed to join friends who were craving cheeseburgers and worried that Fairway would be too zooey. I just had a turkey club with big leaden fries and a couple of glasses of overpriced glasses of wine, and the place was the same as it ever was. WIGB? Maybe. It was quiet enough for a shockingly calm debate about Israel. 250 West 72d Street, 212 874 1883.

The doomed: China de Puebla, where the owners have apparently sunk megabucks into the swank decor without considering location, location — our table looked out onto a barrier under the subway tracks and off toward the projects. Only four tables filled on a chilly Monday night. The food was up and down, but at least the concept was clear when the excellent salsa landed with a mix of tortilla and shrimp chips. The best thing three of us split was the hoisin-braised duck empanada with chipotle sauce; the salmon seviche with Asian pears, passion fruit and cilantro was over-cured. And the best entree was the roast chicken with black sticky rice and plantains; my consort’s shrimp and scallops were drowned in other dark flavors, while my crispy tofu with vermicelli and edamame in curry sauce was a bunch of very fresh-tasting ingredients refusing to talk to each other. The service was excellent, although having spent five weeks in a too easily begrimed sling, I have to say the sight of one on a server’s wrist was a little queasy-making. WIGB? Not anytime soon, unfortunately. 3143 Broadway at 123d Street, 212 222 8666. [Late July 2007]