Adventures on the wine route: 48 hours in Piemonte

It all began, as so many of life’s wonderful experiences, on Facebook chat.  I told my friend Johan I was going to Vienna, he thought I said Venice (Freudian mind slip?) and invited me to come join him and his friend David in Alba for a few days of wine tasting and truffle eating. The fact that instead of a short train ride from Venice I would have to fly an hour from Vienna left me undeterred. Really, who says no to an invitation like that?

the Alps, from my plane

And so I arrived at Malpensa on Monday afternoon October 3, ready for two days of drinking and eating adventures on the wine route.

Dinner at La Libera

Our first evening we ate at an osteria that came highly recommended in Alba, where we were based, called La Libera. We started with small plates of “cruda di fassone” which is like a distant cousin of steak tartare – incredibly fresh, raw beef diced and tossed with a little salt and a dash of olive oil. Yes please.

cruda

For our main course we all ordered homemade, hand cut tajarin noodles with white truffles. Three plates arrived at the table with small mounds of bright yellow pasta, then our waitress brought over a bowl full of white truffles and commenced to shave them directly onto our plates.  A little sprinkle of salt, and we passed the next five minutes in uninterrupted silence.

truffles!

I was very spoiled on this trip to be in the company of two oenophiles – Johan is a professional sommelier and has a restaurant, and David is a serious lay expert – so the only thing I had to do with a wine list was look at it for fun and occasionally a bit of education.  This particular evening, we drank a bottle of 2004 Cappellano Barolo Otin Fiorin Pie Rupestris.

Of course we also gave in to our sweet tooths (teeth?) and ordered some dolci.  I am a slave to tiramisu, and this one was particularly delicious – crunchy lady finger cookies, without the usual soaking in coffee and liquor, were topped with creamy mascarpone and a generous dusting of cocoa.

tiramisu (literal translation: pull me up)

Vital Statistics:
Location: Via Elvio Pertinace, 24, 12051 Alba Cuneo, Italy
Website: www.lalibera.com
Prices: about 75€ each

Wine Tasting #1: Rinaldi

The next morning we had an 11am tasting at one of the legendary vineyards of Piemonte, Rinaldi, located just outside the town of Barolo.  We pulled up at the beautiful stone house, with palm trees in the front yard and grape vines covering the door, ten minutes early, and, typically, were made to wait twenty.

Casa Rinaldi

Marta Rinaldi, daughter of Giuseppe (“Beppe”), greeted us and led us down to the cantina.  All the winemakers we visited are engaged in natural wine making – using traditional methods and no stabilizers or new-fangled inventions like temperature control.  At Rinaldi, the wine is first aged in large wooden vats called “tine” (pronounced tee-nay) which are left open on top, then transferred to steel containers.  While Johan and David engaged in intelligent conversation about winemaking methods, aging and grape varietals interspersed with smelling, tasting and spitting, I tried my best to imitate them and look like I had some vague idea about what was going on.

each barrel is labeled with a small chalkboard

how cool is this woman?

Vital Statistics:
Location: Via Monforte, 12060 Barolo Cuneo, Italy
Prices: Expensive.  Bottles retail in the US between $100-$200, depending on the year and blend.

Wine Tasting #2: Bartolo Mascarello

Our first afternoon visit was at Bartolo Mascarello, a short way down the road in the town of Barolo.  Sadly, Bartolo passed away in 2005 (read the New York Times obit here), but his daughter Maria Teresa continues as the fourth generation to run the family vineyard.

wine tasting is very serious

For this tasting we were joined by a rather large group of German tourists, so our tour was conducted in an interesting mix of German and English peppered with Italian by Alan Manley (a fellow American from Colorado – see his wine blog here.)  Maria Teresa also uses only the traditional winemaking methods, macerating her grapes in large concrete lockers before transferring to large oak “botti” (enormous wooden barrels, not to be confused with “barrique”, small, French oak barrels, of which more later).  When absolutely necessary (after decades of use), new botti are bought and put through a strenuous process to remove all the wood flavor so as not to contaminate the terroir of the wine.  They are filled and left to sit multiple times full of water and salt until finally deemed ready.

botti

Bartolo was notoriously against technological innovations when it came to wine, and to date the only automated process in the cantina is a machine for labeling, which Maria Teresa only allows because it doesn’t actually touch the wine.  However, many labels are still applied by hand – as witnessed by yours truly.

Mohammed hand labelling bottles (Photo credit: Johan Agrell)

In addition to being a prodigious winemaker, Bartolo was also an artist, designing a number of whimsical, sometimes political labels for his produce.  One of the best known of these, and cause of a scandal at the time, reads “No barrique, no Berlusconi.”

Behind that photo of a pig is one of Silvio himself.  Rumor is that when the wine was released in 2001, they were forced to do a mass recall in the Italian market.  The phrase has now become something of a tagline for the natural wine producers of the region.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Via Roma, 15, 12060 Barolo Cuneo, Italy
Prices: You can score a bottle of Dolcetto for about $30, but the more coveted Barolo runs upward of $100.

Wine Tasting #3: Trinchero

We then raced off to our final tasting of the day at Azienda Agricola Trinchero in Agliano Terme.  After some disagreements with the GPS (thanks Hertz NeverLost), we finally arrived about an hour late.  Typically, they hardly seemed to notice.  We made it past Gilda, the rather fierce looking and manically barking dog at the entrance, and were given the obligatory tour of the cellars.  Our hostess for this producer spoke no English, so I was the official translator.

Unusually, Trinchero produces a few white wines in addition to the reds typical of the region.  We tasted one of these, the Palmé, a so-called “orange” wine, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes which are macerated with the seeds and skins for 12 days.

Palmé

It was perhaps more interesting than anything else.  We also tasted a range of their reds, one of which Johan pronounced corked, prompting a heated monologue from our hostess, with short pauses so I could translate, explaining that it was just the strong tannins.  Johan remains unconvinced.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Vianoce 56, 14041 Agliano Terme, Italy
Website: www.trinchero.it
Prices: More affordable – a quick internet search suggests bottles range from $18-$60.  But in this case you get what you pay for.

Combal.zero

the dining room

Combal.zero is a two-star Michelin restaurant and ranks 28 on the Pellegrino top 50 list for 2011, located in an old castle outside of Turin.  So naturally we set out from Alba with great expectations for our dinner.  I’ll spare you the suspense – it was one of the worst dining experiences of my life, as well as among the most expensive.  I will also thus spare you the agony of reading about each of the tasting menu’s eleven courses and skip to the high and low-lights.

Highlight #1: The wine (which Johan chose so it doesn’t really count, but it was really good).  We started with a 2007 Riesling from Clemens Busch in the Mosel Valley, then moved on to a Cavallotto Barolo Vignolo 1990.  Also, the sommelier was a very adorable, older Italian man.

a glass of Barolo

Highlight #2: The beef consommé that came with the breaded beef filet as the last dinner course.  The actual filet was also good, although by the time it arrived I was mostly full and somewhat out of patience.  When we told the chef, Davide, after dinner that the consommé was the best dish we’d had, he smiled and laughed. I’m not sure if he thought it was funny, or whether he was considering throwing us out.

beef

Highlight #3: The very last course, Cyber Elio Campari, which consisted of campari in a small plastic bag that you popped in your mouth, attached to a white helium-filled balloon and a bag of mini-M&Ms for weight.  More for the comic relief than anything else.

Johan & David: everyone look natural

Lowlight #1: The Empire State Building of Pepper.  Our waiter was very excited to serve us this dish, explaining that the name was due to the obvious resemblance of the rectangular plexiglass towers to the Empire State Building.  As a native New Yorker, the first thing that sprang to mind was “This looks nothing like the Empire State Building, it looks like a plain vanilla skyscraper, or maybe one of the Twin Towers if I’m feeling indulgent.”  I exercised restraint in the waiter’s presence however and did not point this out.

Exhibit A: The Empire State Building

Exhibit B: Peppers & Plexiglass

The dish consisted of six mouthfuls of pepper prepared in various ways.  The bottom one, involving foie gras, was okay, while the gray marshmallow cube dusted in red pepper and the bonbon with a kind of pepper filling were downright gross.  The rest were tolerable at best.

Lowlight #2: Service & Ambiance. In fact, most of the food was fine to mediocre, but what really colored the experience was the overall mood in the restaurant.  First of all, the dining room was empty.  This on its own is not a deal breaker, but it means the service needs to work that much harder to put you at ease, which the service here did not.  Overly stilted and largely absent, we had to walk back to the kitchen to ask for our coffee, after which the waitress arrived with the three silver pots and a serious glower.

Lowlight #3:  Everything was overdone.  There was a water menu with at least 15 kinds of H20, grouped by their level of minerality and effervescence.  We seriously considered ordering tap water just to see what would happen.   Then, there were three different bread options – homemade breadsticks (in the center of the table), cheesy bread straws (each person got their own personal serving), and small rolls (served one at a time from a passed basket).  And finally, at the end of the meal when all we really wanted was to leave, and were forced to walk to the kitchen to get our coffee, our request for three espressos was met with yet another special menu with ten different brews to choose from.

Additional pet peeve: As the lady, my menu had no prices on it.  Now, I am a great lover of chivalry and generally consider that I was born in the wrong decade, however, since I was instead born in the ’80s and am an independent woman paying my own way, I found this mildly insulting.  Thank you Berlusconi and Italian chauvinism.

Post dinner note: Like some restaurants give you a breakfast muffin for the next day, Combal.zero gave us each a “gift.”  It was a tin can with a custom paper label wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon.  We were told it was a “surprise.”  After successfully convincing airport security in Turin that there was no liquid and it was no danger for the plane, I opened it in London.  It was canned tomatoes.  Seriously.  Not even special canned tomatoes. Just average. I was furious.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Piazzale Mafalda di Savoia, Rivoli, Italy
Website: www.combal.org
Prices: 355€ each (yes, each) including (a rather paltry) tip

Lunch in Barolo

missed opportunity: the piscina (swimming pool) bar

And now to end on an up note, our lunch the following day at Brezza in Barolo was exceedingly simple and just delicious – the opposite of dinner the night before.  It was another hot day and we sat outside on the terrace overlooking the vineyards and town center.  There was no food menu.  They asked us what we wanted, we requested antipasti and pasta bolognese and they said fine.  To accompany, we chose a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello’s Dolcetto, which all the winemakers we visited described as a wine to drink every day.

ladybugs

The first bottle was corked, but when the second one was poured I interrupted the smelling, swirling, aerating wine ritual of my companions for a good old fashioned cheers.

Then the antipasti arrived – each plate with one thin slice of beef carpaccio topped with olive oil and lemon – so fresh it melted in my mouth; a small portion of fennel salad with mustard and sliced veal; and a roasted pepper wrapped around a ball of tunafish.

the antipasti

And finally our bowls of bolognese – hand cut, homemade noodles – again, a stunning yellow – topped with a hearty tomato and meat sauce.  Classic.

i ♥ carbs

We were too full for dessert, unfortunately, so we ordered three espressos and set out for Bra, where I was to catch the train to Turin for my flight back to London.  The perfect end to a whirlwind European trip, and closing of the London chapter of my life – at least for the time being.  This will thus be the last European post for a while – but get ready for some good New York picks in the future.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Via Lomondo, 2, 12060 Barolo Cuneo, Italy
Website: www.brezza.it
Prices: about 30€ each

Travel tips:

  • We stayed in the town of Alba at the Hotel Savona, which was very serviceable.  Low on charm but the price was right, and it was clean and convenient.  Terrible breakfast, but that’s par for the course in Italy.  It was easy to navigate from Alba to the neighboring small towns like Barolo, and handy to be in a larger town so we didn’t constantly have to drive a long way for dinner.  However, I did like the look of the Hotel Barolo where Ristorante Brezza was housed, and there were a few other cute places in the town that seemed like they would be good choices.
  • British Airways flies from London to Turin for relatively cheap, and, should you ever find yourself in this position, Air Berlin has competitive fares from Vienna to Milan.
  • If your goal is to visit Piemonte, Turin is the city to fly to, located about an hour from Alba.  Turin itself is fairly soulless so don’t recommend staying there.  Milan is two hours from Alba, so do-able, especially if you are flying transatlantic.
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Riverpark Restaurant & Farm

The first restaurant I planned to check out upon returning to New York a few weeks ago was Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark.  Riverpark restaurant is affiliated with Riverpark Farm, an urban farm located on the stalled building site of the Alexandria Life Sciences Center at 29th Street and the East River, right next to Bellevue Hospital.  The farm was set up by Sisha Ortúzar, former sous-chef for Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern (one of my all time New York faves) and co-founder of ‘wichcraft, a lunch staple for me in the food wasteland that is midtown Manhattan.  Sisha is also the chef and partner of Riverpark restaurant.

The thing that caught my eye at first about Riverpark, in the TastingTable coverage I read, was the urban farm aspect, because urban farms are way cool and I’m really excited about seeing more and more of them around New York.  Speaking of which – a college friend of mine is involved in a super cool urban farm project in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Grange Farm which is currently a finalist in the BBC World Challenge and thus a candidate to receive $20,000.  You can vote for them on the World Challenge website.

I imagine that the best and coolest way to experience Riverpark is at the chef’s table that is located actually in the farm.  It seats 12 and is available for private bookings only, for which Sisha will create a four-course meal and give you a tour plus a goody bag for each guest with produce grown on site.  But if that price tag (about $150 per person) is too steep, in the meantime you can enjoy the food in the regular restaurant setting, which is what we did.

My dining companion for the evening was Steph Kurz (check out her blog rabbitsnacks) and all the photos are courtesy of her and her superior iPhone 4, plus some serious photoshop skills since the restaurant was pretty dark.

On the night we visited, purely by coincidence, Riverpark was celebrating its first birthday.  (The restaurant, that is.  The farm has only been up and running for the past few months.)  This meant that every diner got a free glass of champagne to start the meal, always a good way to begin.

The food was fantastic – full report below – and as per above the concept is cool, but where Riverpark falls down is the ambiance.  Housed in the Alexandria Center itself, walking in you feel like you’ve gone back to college and are perhaps about to enter the cafeteria.  Except obviously when you round the corner it’s an upscale restaurant with sweeping views of the East River.  To go to the bathroom, you have to exit the restaurant space and go back into the sterile lobby to reach lavatories that, again, feel like university.  The juxtaposition is jarring.

To me, it seemed that they had really missed a trick not carrying through the farm-to-table aesthetic to the restaurant. What is the point of affiliating a restaurant with an urban farm (as per above, the epitome of cool) and designing it to be a conventional, conservative dining room?

Now that I know the restaurant preceded the farm, this makes more sense, but then I have the question why the restaurant is where it is at all.  But for the urban farm, I don’t really understand why one would choose to house a restaurant in the Alexandria center next to Bellevue hospital in Kips Bay.

At any rate, as I said, the food was outstanding, so the restaurant was largely saved.

We started with two raw fish dishes – avocado and hamachi salad with pickled red onion, radish and chiles.  It packed a punch and came with almost an entire avocado.

hamachi

We paired this with the salmon tartare, served with a white gazpacho, yuzu, cucumber and salmon roe.  I normally steer clear of fish tartare (I almost never want to see a tuna version on a menu again) simply because it has been done, over and over, and can we please move on?  But the gazpacho and yuzu intrigued me, and I was impressed with the result, whose citrus and tomato notes added a nice tang to the fish.

Next Stephanie had the mushroom consommé.  The plate arrived with a beautiful mound of fresh mushrooms and frisée, over which the broth was poured.  Rich and flavorful, it was a sophisticated, subtle dish.

For my main course I chose the cavatelli with braissed lamb and mint.  Pure comfort food, it was hearty and hit the spot.  Even Stephanie, a vegetarian for animal welfare reasons, felt compelled to have a bite.

cavatelli

Despite being rather full (are you noticing a trend here?) we decided to share the sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake which had the added bonus of being the only type of dairy Stephanie can eat.  It came with roasted figs and fresh figs, and oh my lord it was good.  Super creamy with a zing from the yogurt and sheep, it was sort of a cross between a dessert and cheese course.

dessert

On balance, a successful meal, though probably not a restaurant I will be frequenting again soon.  I will, however, put their outdoor terrace on my list of places to check out next summer, and keep tabs on the farm part of the equation.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 450 E 29th Street, New York, NY 10016
Subway: 6 at 28th Street and Park Avenue
Website: www.riverparknyc.com
Prices: $70 per person, including food, 2 glasses of wine and tip

Ferran Adrià and The Family Meal

A few weeks ago, I attended a book talk and signing with Ferran Adrià in London at Vinopolis.  He was promoting his brand new cookbook, The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, published by Phaidon Press – one of my most favorite book publishers, especially for cookbooks.  (Other favorites include Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini of Paris’s Rose Bakery; 1080 Recipes, an encyclopedia of classic Spanish recipes; and, not from Phaidon but still great, The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.)

The Family Meal is a total break from the series of elBulli cookbooks and contains recipes for the family meals that the staff at the restaurant ate (putting that in the past tense is extremely sad for me, since my friend Jessie and I have been dreaming and planning to eat at elBulli since we were about 15 years old, and now it is closed).  Ferran explained that a number of years ago he decided it was ridiculous that the staff at one of the top restaurants in the world did not eat well themselves.  So he set out to systematize the entire family meal process.  They developed a rotating menu of three course meals consisting of an appetizer, main and dessert.  And then, having done all this work, Ferran considered how to share the knowledge with others.  The obvious audience was other restaurants, but it became clear that the criteria for family meals – low cost, easy to prepare, nutritious – were much more widely applicable.

The book is divided into a few sections – each with stunning photography and beautiful layout, as one would expect from Phaidon – beginning with tips for professional kitchens and at-home cooks, including lists of kitchen essentials, then moving on to basic recipes for sauces and stocks, before getting to the crux of the matter: the meals themselves.  Each one is presented as its own menu, with a handy timeline that shows when you should begin each part of the preparation, and a list of ingredients/elements broken down by what to buy fresh, and what to do in advance.  You can also obviously mix and match the recipes on your own.

At the book talk, Ferran, who spoke via a translator, asked “Why is it that every cookbook provides recipes for four people?  By far the most common number to cook for is two, not four.”  Accordingly, each recipe in Family Meal includes quantities for 2, 6, 20 and 75 people, to accommodate both private and professional users.  In order to ensure that each recipe could be scaled down, and that each would be easily replicated no matter the location, Ferran and his team engaged in a rigorous research and refinement phase.  Every recipe was tested, and tested again, until the quantities and instructions were exactly right.  If any ingredient was deemed too local, and not easily found in supermarkets around the world, it was discarded.  And, the cost per head had to be about $2-3 (editor’s note: if you live in New York and shop at Whole Foods, this will not actually work out).

The first recipe I tried from Family Meal (and the only one so far, but stay tuned) was grilled lettuce hearts with a mint dressing.

Ingredients (for 2):

  • 2 lettuce hearts (such as Little Gem, but I used Romaine, and the recipe says you can also use endive)
  • 8 sprigs fresh mint
  • 1 tsp wholegrain mustard (my favorite is Maille)
  • 1 tbsp Sherry vinegar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 6 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

For the dressing, combine the mint, mustard, vinegar and egg yolk in a tall beaker or glass and add the olive oil while beating with a hand-held blender until the mint is finely chopped, then season with salt.  If you don’t have a hand held blender (like me), you can finely chop the mint before hand and use a whisk.

Cut the lettuce hearts in half lengthwise, and quickly grill in a skillet with a little oil and salt until crispy.  Top with dressing and serve immediately.

As per usual, my dinner was something of a last minute affair, so I did not have time to make the veal with red wine and mustard and chocolate mousse that accompany the lettuce in the book.  Instead, I paired it with an easy favorite from 1080 Recipes – Spanish tortilla, which is like a potato omelette, bought some good prosciutto, whipped up a cheese plate with a few items from Saxelby’s Cheesemongers and cracked open a bottle of white: Le Petit Saint Jacques from Pays d’Oc courtesy of my neighborhood go-to September Wines.  For dessert, we drank Hudson Bay Baby Bourbon from Tuthilltown Spirits and munched on yummy peanut-sea salt chocolate from Green & Black’s.

Et voilà.

dinner is served

Philadelphia Day Trip

My second weekend back in the US of A my friend Ghislaine and I decided to take a road trip to Philadelphia to check out Talula’s Garden, which was recently named the #6 best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit magazine. We made a day out of it and took the Bolt Bus arriving at 10:30, took a self guided walking tour of the downtown and historic districts and visited the Philadelphia Art Museum before hitting Talula for what turned out to be a delicious and highly enjoyable 4 hour dinner.

But before we get to that, I want to share two other culinary gems that we discovered on our wanderings.

First: Miel Pâtisserie where we grabbed a latte made with Stumptown beans and shared a ham and gruyere croissant. The croissant was really superb – nice and flaky with lots of melted aged gruyere and a healthy portion of ham. Thus fortified we set out to explore.

the patisserie

Vital Statistics:
Location: 204 South 17th Street, Philadelphia, PA
Website: www.mielpatisserie.com
Prices: a few dollars each for a coffee and croissant

Downtown Philly was at first a bit of a let down – think Daffy’s in the old Bonwit Teller building – mostly populated by chain stores and Starbucks.  But when we reached the Old Town things started looking up with a few beautiful architectural specimens (Christ Church and City Hall, among others), short, brick buildings and picturesque shops.

On a shady street lined with interior design and quirky clothing stores, we happened upon Wedge + Fig, a darling cheese store and cafe.  We took a seat in their back garden and ordered iced tea from Harney & Sons and two delicious sandwiches.

inside Wedge + Fig

We had planned to have a “light lunch” in order to save ourselves for dinner, but the menu got the better of us and we ordered the Blue Figs sandwich – fourne d’ambert blue cheese, fig spread and prosciutto on pretzel bread, toasted – with a side of “Modern Waldorf Salad” which featured a greek yogurt dressing and dates and figs in addition to the usual suspects, plus the Tamenend sandwich – turkey, brie, mango, arugula and walnut mustard aioli on brioche, again, toasted – with a side of truffled egg salad with capers.

light lunch

Oh, also a pickle, which Mike, the resident pickle expert, informed us came from Weaver’s Way Co-op.

Fun historical fact: the Tamenend sandwich is named after an Indian chief of a clan from the Lenni-Lenape nation of the Delaware Valley, purportedly because he was a prodigious turkey hunter.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 160 North 3rd Street, Philadelphia, PA
Website: www.wedgeandfig.com
Prices: $17 each for a sandwich, side salad and iced tea, including tip

To help work up our appetite for dinner we then set out for the Philadelphia Art Museum on the other side of town.  They have a fantastic permanent collection that ranges from contemporary to Renaissance, including some very nice period rooms and a cool ceiling installation by Sol LeWitt.

There is also a Zaha Hadid exhibit in their Perelman building, featuring two of her super cool chandeliers, a few sofas and even some plastic shoes.

view of the city from the Art Museum steps

And then at 4:30pm we caught the Phlash bus – an old wooden trolley car turned into a bus – back downtown for our 5pm reservation at Talula’s.

Located on the west side of leafy Washington Square, the real estate for Talula’s Garden is owned by Stephen Starr.  You enter through a small garden full of unruly plants and plastic deck chairs that lend an air of ramshackle southern homeliness.

the entrance

We had reserved for an early seating, thinking we’d get back to New York at a reasonable hour (so much for that idea, we stayed four hours and got back to the city at midnight) and when we arrived at 5pm the dining room was mostly empty.

the green dining room

We were seated at what we considered one of the best tables in the room, with a nice view of our fellow diners and in very close proximity to the – wait for it – dedicated cheese bar.

At Talula’s there is a separate menu for the cheese, featuring at least 20 varieties that are overwhelmingly domestic.

cheesemonger at work

Josh presides over this dairy extravaganza and indulged us in talking about his wares for a good half hour while we sipped grapefruit-elderflower champagne cocktails – called The Artist – and watched him compose artful cheese plates on slate slabs.

We asked Josh to design a custom cheese plate for us to eat after our meal, and returned to our table to turn our attention to the rest of the menu.  We also perused some of the cookbooks ranged on the shelves behind us – including this gem, “75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden” by Jack Staub.

So as to ensure stomach space for said cheese and be able to sample at least two desserts we opted for two appetizers and one main course to share.  We began with smoked sturgeon rilletes served with a bit of creme fraiche, a garnish salad and slices of crispy baguette and braised rabbit served with homemade handkerchief pasta, fava beans and shaved pecorino.  We decided to go with wine by the glass, and paired our first courses with a Grüner Veltliner from Austria – Schlosskellerei Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger” 2010.

rilletes

rabbit with handkerchief pasta

Both dishes were really well done.  The rilletes were lightly smokey and smooth – great on the crunchy baguette – and came with a super fresh wholegrain mustard that introduced a nice tang with a little heat.  The rabbit was juicy and gamey and the combination with the fava beans (a favorite food of mine), cheese and fresh pasta felt like a very grown up comfort food dish.

For the main course we chose eggplant-mascarpone agnolotti topped with a spicy almond romesco sauce and served with green and yellow patty pan squash.

the agnolotti

We paired the pasta with a side order of Swiss chard and braised leek gratinée, with crunchy bread crumbs on top.  Yum.

swiss chard & leeks

For the pasta, we chose “SOCab”, a California Cabernet Sauvignon from Eden Stuart, 2005.  As with all our courses, we were guided and somewhat indulged by our terrific waitress Marina who brought us tastes of various wines so we could choose our pairings, didn’t seem to mind our glacial dining pace one bit, and generally made us feel at home.

We chose well, but we did have some food envy when the couple next to us ordered the duck, which came two ways: rosy pink breast and a confit leg over chestnuts and pears with mustard greens. Ah well, something to come back for.

In any case we didn’t have much time to brood because our custom cheese plate arrived shortly thereafter.  It featured four American cheeses and one French, each paired with a yummy condiment:

  1. Homemade ricotta made from two day old cow’s milk with quince jam
  2. Vermont Butter and Cheese Company’s “Cremont”, made from a mix of goat and cow’s milk, accompanied by candied walnuts
  3. “Eden” – a hard cows milk cheese from Sprout Creek Farm served with dried apricots
  4. Our only foreign selection: Vacherin that came with candied bacon (=heaven) and guanciale (also delish but a bit overpowering for the cheese we found)
  5. And finally the fabulous, creamy “Crater Lake” blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon that came with pear two ways: fresh and puréed

zee fromage

Cheese side bar: many people do not know that there are really great artisanal American cheeses. Actually, in my opinion the best cheese on the market in the US are in fact domestic, although I must admit that this is partly due to the fact that the best stuff doesn’t leave Europe, or if it does it just isn’t the same after the transatlantic journey. Conversely, American cheeses don’t make their way across the pond either. Good luck exporting cheese to France, especially with the CAP, but that’s another story altogether. In any event, if you are in the US and a lover of cheese here are a few of my favorite dairies, many of whom also deliver:

  • Jasper Hill (you just can’t go wrong, but the Bayley Hazen Blue and Constant Bliss are really stellar)
  • Mecox Bay (the Mecox Sunrise is my personal fav)
  • Nettle Meadow (try the Kunik, a triple creme made with goat and cow’s milk)
  • Cypress Grove (goat’s milk cheese only – Humboldt Fog has a layer of vegetable ash down the center)

You can also get cheeses from these dairies around New York, including my neighborhood cheesemonger Anne Saxelby, as well as Murray’s Cheese.

AND, added bonus, October 2011 is the first annual American cheese month. $10 buys you a Cheese Passport which entitles the holder to 40% off the cheese of the day at a range of shops around town. Basically it pays for itself if you use it two or three times, plus you get to discover new fun cheeses. What’s not to love?

End cheese sidebar.

Because we had taken it easy on the “real food” we felt a) justified and b) hungry enough for two desserts. Although, who are we kidding, we probably would have ordered them anyway.  We decided on the steamed fig pudding with goat cheese ice cream and sherry syrup, and the dark chocolate cremeux with smokey chocolate crumble, marshmallow and bacon.

figgy pudding

chocolate cremeux

The winner was the fig pudding.  Served in a glass jar, it was warm and gingery, and the goat cheese ice cream added a refreshing, savory element. The chocolate was a bit too cloying for my taste – although the bacon and smoked bits added a nice crunch and were very interesting.

Four hours after beginning, we rounded off the evening with drinks at the bar – one old fashioned, one “Loner” (cranberry smash, rye, black walnut bitters) and one taste of a delicious aged bourbon courtesy of our barkeep who was excited about two blond girls drinking masculine drinks.

Altogether a highly successful day.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 210 West Washington Square, Philadelphia, PA
Website: www.talulasgarden.com
Prices: $175 for two people, including tip

48 Hours in Vienna

Der Naschmarkt

Pretty much the first thing I did in Vienna when I arrived was visit the Naschmarkt, a big open air market in the center city that sells all manner of food with a smattering of cafes thrown in selling mostly Asian and Middle Eastern food, like the falafel salad I had a few days later for lunch with my friend Georg.

But on this first day, with my local hosts Emily and Thomas, we hit up a small wine shop and ordered Sturm.

Sturm is wine before it fully ferments. It’s cloudy, smells like yeast and tastes like a cross between juice and wine, which pretty much it is. The pink one in the photo below is from the Schilcher grape, which is a varietal grown in Western Styria, and whose resulting rosé is surprisingly pale compared to the deep berry hue seen here, and is rarely found outside Austria.

sturm

Vital Statistics:
Location: Wienzeile, 1040 Vienna, Austria
Website: http://www.wienernaschmarkt.eu
Prices: most stalls and food stands are fairly cheap; our sturm was a few euros each

Dinner at Plachutta

After a walking tour of the center city around St Stephen’s Dom, the Hofburg palace, Museumsquartier and the Parliament, we sat down to a much deserved dinner at Plachutta.

das menu

When Emily had asked me what I wanted to do in Vienna, the thing at the top of my list, and let’s face it, the thing that is always top of my list when traveling, was to eat lots of good local food. I had the usual suspects on there – Sacher Torte, Wiener Schnitzel – but at Plachutta I was initiated into Austrian boiled beef.

everything tastes better in a copper pot

I will admit, boiled beef is not a dish that brings delicious things to mind – in fact when Emily suggested it, what came to mind was the height of stereotypical, overcooked, leathery English beef. However, she and Thomas told me it was a Viennese special so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and was very pleasantly surprised.

We all ordered Tafelspitz, which is beef shoulder (there is a handy diagram in the menu that shows you all the different cuts you can have).  The waiter brought two large heated silver trivets to the table first, then arrived with a large copper pot full of beef, broth and veggies; two smaller pots with potatoes and super creamy spinach; and two sauce boats with a chive-cream sauce and horseradish spiked apple sauce.

First we were served the broth and vegetables over crispy, thinly sliced noodles that Emily described as chopped up crepes.

die Suppe

I then fished out a piece of bone marrow from the pot and ate it with salt and pepper on rye toast.

When the soup and marrow were finished, our waiter returned and served us the main course from the copper pots.  We were so hungry and it was so good, that I didnt get to take a picture, so you will have to use your imaginations.

The beef was super tender and flavorful – fantastic with the horseradish apple sauce. And the spinach, one of my favorite foods, was almost a purée it was so creamy.  The potatoes were “rösti” – shredded and pan fried – YUM.

the dining room

After this feast we couldn’t quite face dessert yet so took a short walk to the tram and, feeling somewhat refreshed, had coffee, sweets and another Austrian specialty, Marillenbrand (apricot schnapps), at home.

Vital Statustics:
Location: Wollzeile 38, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Website: http://www.plachutta.at
Prices: €22 for Tafelspitz uncluding all sides, wine about €9-11 a glass

Lunch at Österreicher im MAK

MAK is the museum of applied art in Vienna. Apparently their permanent collection is fantastic, and they also have good rotating shows. But perhaps most importantly they have an excellent restaurant.

the entrance

That morning, After a few hours checking out the rest of the old city, we rented some municipal bikes and worked up an appetite cycling around the Ringstrasse out to the Prater and back. Like the rest of Europe, it has been an unseasonably warm weekend in Vienna and we were glad of the Sommer Garten when we arrived, ready for lunch, at the museum.

the summer (autumn?) garden

This was the opportunity for Schnitzel. Classic veal, it came accompanied by the requisite potato salad.

the schnitzel (no noodles)

Thomas explained that the mark of a good schnitzel is that the skin is all bubbly so that the meat, pounded thin, is almost floating in its crispy coating.  This one passed with flying colors. The potato salad was also quite good – served with a tangy, egg based dressing and a few mâche leaves.  I opted for the lingonberry sauce as well, which Thomas poo-pooed and said was not the Austrian way.  In the end, I didn’t think it added much so it went largely untouched.

I washed the schnitzel down with white Gemischter Satz – yet another local item made from grapes where different varietals are grown and harvested together. It was light and refreshing with an acidity and young taste – not a very high end wine experience, but lovely for lunch on a warm fall day.

As one might expect at a design museum, the bathrooms were very cool. Pink for the women, blue for the men, each stall was oval shaped with a luminous ceiling and the sink consisted of an open grate where a stream of water sprayed up from underneath for you to wash you hands.

The interior cafe is also very nice, lots of dark wood paneling, green leather banquettes and a very neat chandelier made of glass bottles. The museum shop also stocks a range of fun design items and gadgets.

bottle chandelier

Vital Statistics:
Location: Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Website: http://www.oesterreicherimmak.at
Prices: €123 for three people including starters, schnitzels and beverages.

Coffee and Cake at Demel’s

You should not leave Vienna without having coffee and cake at Demel’s, an institution in the heart of the Innere Stadt, or old city.

Inside the mood is frenetic and the service is some of the most typical Viennese you’ll find – that means mostly unpleasant, unhelpful and slow. But it’s all part of the charm.

our tea room

We were seated at a small sofa in a long salon in the upper floor. The walls were painted bright, cheery yellow with white figures on them, each named after a confection. For example the Contesse de l’Eclair was wearing what looked like a giant eclair dress. The Baroness Von Kipferl had the giant crescent shaped cookies in her hat, her dress and even around her neck.

I ordered an Einspänner – espresso topped with whipped cream.

einspanner

And we ordered a few cakes – including the requisite Sacher Torte – to share.

cake!

Added bonus: When you walk up the stairs you pass by the glassed in kitchen where all the delicacies are made.

where the magic happens

Vital Statistics:
Location: Kohlmarkt 14, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Website: www.demel.at
Prices: a few euros for each cake and coffee

Street Sausages & Cocktails

After an evening of high culture at the Wiener Staatsoper, there’s nothing quite like some bratwurst to round things off.  So after seeing a production of Handel’s Alcina, I headed across the street to this unassuming stand:

the sausage stand

Thomas quickly ordered some Semmel rolls plus two sausages – one veal and one with cheese inside, both served on paper plates with small plastic toothpick-forks.

dishing up dinner

We scarfed down the sausages and went in search of some quality cocktails at Dino’s American Bar, where they were playing jazz and mixing me up a nice Rye Sazerac.  Not very Viennese per se, but an excellent way to end the night.

Viennese Frühstück

My last morning in Vienna I was determined to sample a classic Viennese Breakfast, so I headed over to Café Schwarzenberg on the Ringstrasse.

Café Schwarzenberg

In my halting German I ordered the Schwarzenberg Frühstück – a Semmel roll with butter, two soft boiled eggs, peeled and served in a glass, orange juice and a “mélange” (coffee with milk) – plus a side of Bavarian ham for good measure.

frühstück

There is something very satisfying about sitting in the sun on a weekday morning, eating a luxurious breakfast at a leisurely pace at an institution like Café Schwarzenberg.  Makes one feel rather sophisticated, and provides just the right motivation and sustenance to start a day of sight seeing – especially with the Belevedere Museum, located a short 20 minute walk away, which houses an impressive collection of Klimts, including The Kiss, a contemporary art space, as well as beautiful gardens and a stunning view of Vienna.

view over Vienna from the Belevedere gardens

Vital Statistics:
Location: Kärntner Ring 17, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Website: http://www.cafe-schwarzenberg.at
Prices: about €15 including tip

Marylebone Faves: Nordic Bakery & La Fromagerie

Nordic Bakery

Off the main drag near Marylebone High Street, behind an unassuming facade with hardly even a sign, lies the second branch of the Nordic Bakery in London. (The first one is in Covent Garden.)

the boxes in the windows are rye flour

The window announces coffee, cinnamon buns and dark rye bread – all of which I heartily recommend.

I discovered it earlier this year while exploring my then new neighborhood and even though I wasn’t hungry ordered a cinnamon bun and a small brie and lingonberry jam sandwich on the signature dark rye bread because they looked too good to pass up. They were.

the sandwich

I have since popped in from time to time for breakfast or a snack and sampled various of their wares. My favorite remains the cinnamon bun but if they ever put the brie and lingonberry sandwich on there again it would be a close second.

latte, cinnamon bun and smoked salmon sandwich

Other highlights include the coffee, small smoked salmon and gravlax sandwiches, and for an afternoon snack the Boston cake which is made of the leftover cinnamon bun dough and topped with thinly sliced almonds. (No one could tell me why it was called Boston cake, though.)

The cinnamon buns are not what the average American (or Brit, for that matter) would expect.  Translation: they don’t look like the Pillsbury ones.  Instead they resemble pain au chocolats, but darker, and are made of thin dough rolled in many layers. They have that great spiced cinnamon flavor and are not too sweet. Recent experience also suggests that combined with a latte they are very effective for headaches after a Saturday night out.

another cinnamon bun, just for kicks

Fun related story: While visiting Fäviken in northern Sweden a few weeks ago, I met a Finnish chef, Sami Tallberg.  Over the course of the conversation he mentioned that he was a part owner in a bakery in London called, you guessed it, the Nordic Bakery. Naturally upon hearing this I exclaimed “Oh my God I love the Nordic Bakery!!” I’m not sure whether it was my enthusiasm or the fact that I knew it that surprised him more, but he and the two other guys in the room looked slightly startled.  Just goes to show the cinnamon buns really are that good.  Or maybe it’s that I’m obsessed.

inside

Vital Statistics:
Location: 37 New Cavendish Street, W1G 8JR, London
Tube: Bond Street
Website: http://www.nordicbakery.com/
Prices: £2 for a cinnamon bun or other cake, £4 for a sandwich

La Fromagerie

Another neighborhood fave of mine, conveniently located half a block from my apartment on Cramer Street, is a gem of place called La Fromagerie.

entrance on Moxon Street

As the name suggests, they specialize in cheese. However they also sell a range of gourmet items, prepared foods, gorgeous fruit and veg, all manner of artisanal dairy and other animal products, plus there is a great cafe that serves breakfast, lunch and tea. I particularly recommend their housemade goose rilletes.

summer fruit extravaganza

the fall (autumn) spread

When I went in recently for lunch with my family, I spotted these spiky chestnuts:

chestnuts

I am not sure what one does with them, but they looked amazing.

For all its many virtues, La Fromagerie is a classic example of a London restaurant that has not grasped the brunch concept. They only serve eggs until 12 and don’t start serving the main lunch menu until 12:30. I have often arrived at 12:05 only to be stuck in this awkward between meal limbo.

However, the food when they do serve it is delicious so they mostly get a pass. My recent lunch included a great roast pork with Charlotte potatoes and spinach, a delicious cannellini bean salad with tomatoes and roast peppers, and a nice confit of duck leg served with red onion marmalade.  All of which we washed down with some of their homemade elderflower cordial and fizzy water.

duck confit and cannellini bean salad

roast pork

Unfortunately we were too full for dessert, but we did take a tour of the cheese room.

i ♥ cheese

When you open the door of the cheese room, you are greeted by a wave of cool, humid air and a strong cheesy odor. They have just about any kind of cheese you can think of from the British Isles and across Europe and the very helpful and friendly staff are happy to recommend things for any palate.

Added bonus: right next door is the Ginger Pig, a really first class butchery and supplier of the pork for my pulled pork sandwiches earlier this summer.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 2-6 Moxon Street, W1U 4EW London
Tube: Bond Street or Baker Street
Website: http://www.lafromagerie.co.uk
Prices: Main courses in the cafe £8-10, the produce and other foodstuffs are on the pricey side but very high quality

Lunch in The City Part 2: Street Kitchen

Another bright spot on the City lunch scene is Street Kitchen. Their shiny aluminum tube of a van appeared one day a few months ago outside my office near Broadgate Circle and I lined up the very first day to check it out.

the van

I have since tried just about every dish they make and the main challenge these days is deciding which one to choose! Each day the menu changes and offers three options: one meat, one fish, one veg. Each one is served with a selection of salads like beets, potatoes, greens and kohlrabi. The star might be their take on a chicken Caesar – grilled chicken with nice crispy skin, served over greens and warm potatoes with croutons, bacon and a creamy dressing. But the grilled salmon, pork shoulder, roast lamb and the roast squash and aged Winchester salads are all solid choices.

chefs at work

Plus they make a mean dessert. Earlier in the summer it was Eton Mess with strawberries, and now they’re doing a yogurt mousse with rhubarb or plums and a crunchy crumble topping. It is delicious.

chicken caesar + eton mess

Street Kitchen was started by two London-based chefs – Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka – with vast and varied experience in top restaurants across the city.  Everything they serve (really, everything) is locally sourced from organic, sustainable sources, and they maintain direct relationships with all their suppliers.  Mark spent a year traveling around the UK to establish the supply chain and he has also founded The Food Initiative which aims to open a permanent restaurant this year that will further promote local, sustainable produce in the London market.

prepping the salads

Sole criticism: it’s a bit expensive. The vegetarian salad runs £5.50, the meat and fish options about £7.50, and the Eton Mess is £4. That said, it’s quality food and you know you’re supporting sustainable farming and local business.  Also, all the packaging and utensils are biodegradable, so you’re being extra friendly to the environment.

Added bonus: the other day as I went to grab some napkins, I coudn’t help but exclaim over the funny looking purple vegetable acting as a paperweight.  “Is that a purple kohlrabi?!”  They were so excited someone had finally recognized it, I got a free Elderflower pressé.  Who knew vegetable knowledge would come in so handy?

the kohlrabi

Vital statistics:
Location: in or around Broadgate circle
Tube: Liverpool Street
Website: http://streetkitchen.co.uk
Prices: about £10 for a salad plus drink or dessert

the menu

Check out Lunch in The City Part 1: Verde & Co.