The Power of Pairing: Le Chateaubriand in Paris

I have had the pleasure of experiencing meals where the food was fantastic, and I have also had my share of phenomenal wines – sometimes even at the same time. But never has the art of the pairing been so apparent to me as on my recent visit to Le Chateaubriand in Paris.

I’d heard a lot about the restaurant, as well as Basque chef Inaki Aizpitarte, and I’d seen this crazy video so I knew I was in for something special. But I was completely blown away by the incredible, unusual and innovative way the staff paired the prix-fixe tasting menu with a variety of beverages, ranging from hard cider to Champagne to fino sherry to tomato liqueur. On their own, the individual pieces would have been delicious, but the combination took things to a whole new level.

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Here’s a transcription of the menu, with my translation and embellishment from the French:


Menu for Tuesday, October 14

Gougeres with black sesame seeds
Easy Cider, 2012 Cyril Zang

Avocado Ceviche
Liqueur de Tomates, L. Cazzotte

Crispy shrimps dusted with tamarind powder
Sea bream with salsa verde, greens and crispy pork skin
BB2, 2013 (Macabeo) Terra Alta, Laureano Serres

Saint Jacques Scallops, celery root, seaweed, oysters, hazelnuts
Sapience, 2006 (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier), Champagne 1er Cru, Benoit Marguet

Bonito from Saint de Luz, figs, red cabbage, “juice from the wine merchant”
Les Damodes, 2011 Nuits-St-George, Frederic Cossard

Veal sweetbreads tandoori, nasturtium leaves tossed in lemon cream sauce, red currants
Fuori del Tempo, 2000 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc) Venezia Giulia, Radikon

Buttermilk ice cream with elderflower
Sake Kaze No Mori, Songe d’une nuit d’été (sparkling sake)

“Tocino de Cielo”
Fino (Palomino) La Bota Equipa Navazos (sherry)


Highlights

Tomato Liqueur & Avocado Ceviche: Some crazy Frenchman is making liqueurs and eaux de vie from all kinds of wacky ingredients, including tomatoes. 72 (!!!) different kinds of tomato went into this specific bottling. It smelled like essence of tomato – that smell of dead ripe ones in summer, including the vines – with a kind of earthy hay quality as well. The ceviche arrived in small round bowls each holding a few tablespoons of pink liquid with a small square of avocado floating on the top. The juice tasted of fresh fish and bright limey citrus. The combination was incredibly improbably, and incredibly delicious.

Sea Bream & Macabeo: My mother was deeply skeptical when this dish arrived, announcing that she “doesn’t like raw fish.” But she had been totally converted by the first bite. Sea bream is not so commonly seen in the US, but is fairly common in France. It was almost sweet, the crispy pork adding texture and saltiness. With the Macabeo from Tarragona in Spain, it really brought out the fruitiness in the wine. I have never been such a fan of Macabeo frankly, but this wine changed my mind. It was expressive and exciting.

Tocino de Cielo & Fino Sherry: Fino sherry is a dry sherry most often served as an aperitif, with a taste of almonds, apples and citrus. It tends towards the savory end of the spectrum rather than being overtly fruity. One of the “rules” of wine pairing is that the wine should always be sweeter than the food, otherwise the wine will taste “flat”, it will be robbed of its flavors. Therefore, pairing a dry sherry with dessert is a highly unusual choice. However, this was also a highly unusual dessert. Tocino de Cielo is a traditionally Spanish dessert made from egg yolks, water & sugar. It looks like flan. It literally means “Bacon of Heaven”, but there is no bacon involved. Chef Inaki made his with a raw egg yolk, nestled on top of a bed of dacquoise (a nutty meringue) and a dusting of what tasted like toasted  marshmallow dust. The egg yolk was room temperature and it may have been raw, but it seemed like it had been lightly heated in some way because it had none of the slimy, egg texture one might imagine. In fact, looking at it on the plate we didn’t even know it was egg yolk until we ate it. It was incredibly dense with sticky protein and had a decadent, thick mouthfeel. With the sherry, it was incredible.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 129 Avenue Parmentier, 75011 Paris
Metro: 11 to Goncourt
Website: www.lechateaubriand.net
Prices: 65€ for dinner, 130€ with wine pairings

Hello, Napa!

Photo Jul 07, 14 54 42

In about two weeks, I will begin the Accelerated Wine & Beverage Program at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) at Greystone in the Napa Valley.  The program lasts 8 months and is designed to prepare students to pass the Certified Sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Photo Jul 06, 12 40 35

Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies: aka my classroom

Needless to say, I will be tasting A LOT of wine over the next year or so, and I plan to blog about all of it right here.  I will also be on hand at my boyfriend’s vineyard, Arkenstone, during harvest, so make sure to follow them on Twitter for lots of fun photos.  (I’ll also try to post some of them here.)

My first assignment for school is to read “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by Tom Standage.  The premise is that beverages have played a significant role in shaping civilization, with a focus on six of them: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea & soda.  He explains how beer developed as part of the shift to sedentary, organized agriculture from hunting & gathering; wine was central to Greek & Roman society, as well as early Christianity; distilled spirits were able to travel well during the Age of Exploration; coffee fueled the Age of Reason; tea was an integral part of the United Kingdom’s rise to dominance in the 19th Century; and, finally, Coca Cola has been the hallmark of the rise of the United States’ consumer capitalism in the 20th Century.

It promises to be an interesting and fun read.

Cheers!
Adrienne

me with my boyfriend Jake in the vineyards at Arkenstone

me with my boyfriend Jake in the vineyards at Arkenstone

Barrel Tasting at Arkenstone Vineyards


I was fortunate in my relationship choices of 2012, which have led me to the sunny slopes of Napa Valley (currently 75 degrees in mid February – sweet!!) and an incredible family-owned winery called Arkenstone on Howell Mountain.

arkentone_vineyard_howell_mountain_napa_valley

View over Arkenstone Vineyards

With 15 acres under vine on the estate, they currently grow primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc & Syrah, with a smattering of Semillon and other varietals that go into their flagship Cabernet “Obsidian” blend.

The 2012 vintage is now in barrel and yesterday I was privileged to accompany Jake – my boyfriend & estate director here at Arkenstone – and winemaker Sam Kaplan on a little tasting excursion in the cave.

We started with rosé, which they bottle under a second label called Loupe.  Now, I was raised on French rosé which we used to buy at Monoprix in Nice to drink on the beach, and my standing tenets of rosé buying heretofore were to almost always buy the cheapest one and the one palest in color.  So when Jake first showed me the 2011 Loupe, which is a rich dark pink and retails at $26 a bottle, I was skeptical. But I have now been thoroughly converted. Unlike some other darker rosés, Loupe is bone dry with beautiful fruit & floral notes and a little oak to round it out.

arkenstone_vineyard_loupe_rose

Winemaker Sam Kaplan tastes the 2012 rosé

The 2012 Loupe will be paler in color – which Sam explained is a function of the grapes & this year’s harvest, versus any wine making technique.  It’s very young, but you can still start to taste the elements that will develop into what I plan to be drinking all summer.

Next up was Cabernet Sauvignon that will be used for one of their non-estate wines (eg, the grapes come from a different vineyard), called Coliseum Block, which is a 100% Cabernet.  You can feel the tannins dry out the inside of your mouth when you take the first sip, but it’s not so overpowering that you can’t taste anything else, and there’s a lot of potential for it to develop over the next 3 years before it’s released.  This contrasts sharply with my last barrel tasting experience in Piedmont, Italy in fall of 2011, where the wines are so tannic even for the first few years that you feel like the enamel may have just been completely eroded from your teeth and it’s hard to distinguish any flavor at all, at least for an amateur like me.

arkenstone_vineyard_howell_mountain_napa_valley_wine_thief

Thiefing wine

I’ll take a time out here and explain how one goes about barrel tasting.  Each wine barrel is plugged on top with a small hole a few inches in diameter.  You take out this plug and insert a glass “wine thief”, which is a rather phallic curved glass vial.  You hold your thumb over the top of it and then drip a small taste of wine into your glass.  If you’re tasting a lot – like we were – and you have to go back to work afterwards, you mostly spit into the drains that dot the cave after swirling the wine around your mouth and sucking air through it to make that weird gurgling noise wine people make.

Last but not least we tasted the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, which they age in a combination of French oak & cement eggs.  The latter basically look like giant gray dinosaur eggs and due to their shape have a natural convection effect on the wine.  The concrete is porous, like wood, but doesn’t impart any flavor so you get the textural effects of barrel aging, without the oak taste.  The wine had just recently been stirred so it was very cloudy.  For me the overwhelming component on the nose was melon with a little bit of peach, but there is also a lot of minerality.

arkenstone_vineyard_sauvignon_blanc_2012

2012 Sauvignon Blanc

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which is what we’re drinking now, pairs phenomenally with food, and can stand up to heartier fare such as pork chops or substantial poultry dishes.  It’s made in an old world style, so if you think New Zealand when you think Sauv Blanc, this is very different.  Where NZ SB is often very tropical fruit-forward – think lychee – or, as  wine writer Jancis Robinson says “cat pee on gooseberry bushes” (let us know if you test that one out in real life), Arkentone’s SB is more melon & lemon with floral notes and minerals.

Stay tuned for more thoughts & notes on Arkenstone and Napa Valley in the next few weeks!

Okryu-Gwan: Financing Kim Jong-il’s Caviar Habit

This post was written by a dear friend of mine about a year ago on a trip to Dubai.  He shared it with me recently and I thought it an excellent story of a food adventure, and topical considering the recent succession and nuclear negotiations.  If I disappear shortly hereafter never to be heard from again, you’ll know why – I’ve been kidnapped by Kim Jong-Un to write his private food blog, just like the South Korean movie director and actress.  Some names and details have been changed to protect the author.

———————————————————————————————————

I have discovered a new definition of globalization, and it is “An American speaking Mandarin to a North Korean in Dubai.”

One of the joys of Dubai is that you find the tragic, the comic, and the purely random. Like signs that say “Binladen Construction Group”. Anyway, I saw a random NPR article on the opening of a North Korean restaurant in Dubai. Since I was going to be in Dubai, I resolved it had to be investigated… at all costs.

The Okyru-Gwan is a bit of a strange beast. It’s apparently the best restaurant in North Korea. And aside from arms trafficking and money laundering (and apparently Japanese pachinko machines), it is one of Kim Jong-il’s main sources of foreign hard currency. About half the North Korean embassy in Beijing has been converted to an Okryu-Gwan — apparently lines go out the door at lunch. Then there’s ones in Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Russia  and other parts of the world with obsessive predilections with hammers and sickles.

Finding the restaurant was damn-nigh impossible. There is no address anywhere. And the one telephone you find associated with it (in the Dubai business register) doesn’t seem to work. All we knew was that it was near “Deira”, which is a seedy part of old Dubai full of bazaars and cheap storefronts. Asking a Chinese shoe merchant in Deira where his fraternal socialist comrades had set up shop elicited a blank look.

Further frantic googling located that it was near the “Deira clock tower”, and so my intrepid band of students went to investigate. We found the clock tower, and then navigating by the color schemes of the one picture we had, found the restaurant.

There were North Korean girls standing outside wearing North Korean costumes. We were quickly ushered inside and seated. It was empty. So we got the massive table in the middle. Here’s how protocol seemed to work:

§  There were 3 quite attractive North Korean girls whose job it was apparently to cater to our every whim. They surrounded our table and stared at us foreign water buffalo. Since I, Harold the Banker, am a banker, I communicate most efficiently through bullet points.

§  They were wearing little North Korean flag pins on their uniforms. Other than that, there was no political paraphernalia inside. No portraits of either Kims, as is de rigueur in the DPRK. Instead, natural scenery. But there was a large LCD screen showing… fish swimming back and forth. Very garish.

§  There was a stern-looking “NO PHOTO” sign inside. So apologies for lack of photos.

§  The girl at the head of the table’s job was apparently to banter with us and make lighthearted conversation. Her English wasn’t terribly serviceable, but she was trying very hard. I tried Mandarin, to no avail either. So I finally pulled out my BlackBerry and we communicated via Google Translate.

§  I’ve encountered her mode of communication before in Asia. It’s known as “Asian waitress giggle-talk”. How it works is that everything she says, even if it’s “Would you like some tea?” has to be preceded, interrupted, and appended by giggles.

§  There were three other North Korean girls who were standing in the corners watching the three who were watching us. Someone in some office in Pyongyang somewhere is probably also watching them.

§  Apparently, she wasn’t doing such a good job bantering with us, or maybe she was too friendly? One of the girls in the corner barked something at her in Korean, and she immediately backed off… to be replaced with the next giggle-talker.

§  Anyway, the food was absolutely amazing. Pyongyang buckwheat cold noodles is a signature of the Okryu-gwan and of Pyongyang. We all got that. Someone got something which in the menu was translated as “Okryu-gwan Hot Dish” which appeared to be a rice cake topped with a pancake topped with mushrooms over which hot water is poured. The resulting mishmash was absolutely divine.

§  Overall, North Korean food is very different from South Korean food by taste and texture. Not nearly as spicy or as pungent.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, but here is a reasonably accurate depiction of the cold buckwheat noodles that I found floating around the Internet:

Oh, and ABBA’s Dancing Queen was playing in the background on a synthesizer.

We were invited to come back and told that at 8 PM, the girls would sing and dance, and play the guitar, piano, and drums. Apparently, this is true. They play old ABBA songs on the guitar and piano according to the reviews. I can honestly say that never before have I gone and dined with this combination of interest, apprehension, and well, fear. Or eaten lunch with this overpowering feeling that you’re being watched. Or that your overpriced (if delicious) meal is going to support Kim Jong-il.

Once outside, I snapped a quick photo of the girls standing out front, which made them completely freak out. Who knew.

Later that night, I somehow had to urge to come back, so I returned with my friend for a late dinner. This time, I got the Okryu-Gwan Hot Dish while he wolfed down the cold noodles. Fortunately, the general manager was there this time. She was this plump little adorable Asian woman who frankly reminded me of my grandmother, complete with nagging Asian grandmother insistence that we eat. She actually spoke pretty good Mandarin! (“I studied at Pyongyang Foreign Languages College!”)

Although she was embarrassed as all hell, since we were supposed to be bantering with her pretty waitresses, and not with her plump, adorable, Asian-grandmotherliness, we found out, in conversation with her:

§  Business has been “pretty good”, mostly South Korean and Chinese businessmen though, but could be better.

§  She was curious as to how we found this place, and blown away that it would be mentioned on the “English Internet”

§  Here’s the kicker — I was going out of my way to not mention South Korea, which North Korea does not recognize, and can seriously offend them, but she was actually pretty open minded, and mentioned the name “Han Guo”, which is completely taboo with the North Koreans.

§  The key difference between North Korean and South Korean food is that North Korean food does not go overboard with spices. She said the South Koreans use so much spice and fermentation with their kimchee and everything else, that it completely obscures the taste of food.

§  All the staff at Okryu-Gwan Dubai were top performers at the Okryu-Gwan Pyongyang and had worked there for several years before being chosen to go overseas.

§  I asked her if she had ever seen North Korea’s state leaders like Kim Jong-il before — she said “Well, they come to Okryu-Gwan all the time, but we ordinary people cannot just look at them!!”

When we left, she gave me a hug, and also a VIP Poster (10% discount on future visits!) Did I mention she was plump and sweet and adorable and reminded me of my grandmother? Only she’s from a horrible totalitarian regime. But at least the food was awesome?

Because it was awesome.

So, there you have it. I have directly financed the North Korean regime and the Dear Leader’s caviar habit to the tune of 130 UAE dirhams.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Google Maps says it is here: Al Rigga – Dubai – United Arab Emirates but as Harold the Banker says, just look for the clock tower.
Website: are you kidding?
Prices: about 130 UAE dirhams (about US $35)

Good Spirits/Edible Manhattan

This Tuesday Edible Manhattan sponsored a fantastic event dubbed Good Spirits.  Designed to encourage “liquid symbiosis” between some of New York’s (and other local) chefs, mixologists, distillers and other food artisans.  The line up was impressive and included some of the leading lights of our city’s locavore trend.  And, at $45 a pop tickets for the all you can eat and drink event were a steal.

Most of the 50+ hospitality groups in attendance were paired off into one liquor, one food couples.  Here are the highlights, which make up a pretty good “best of” the current New York food and drink scene of the moment.

the punch from Hudson Whisky

Favorite All-Around Pair: Jo’s – that Nolita standby – was next door to Tuthilltown Spirits serving, respectively, falling-off-the-bone pork shoulder winter stew and a punch of Baby Bourbon, Averna and homemade pomegranate bitters.

BK Gin
filling eggs

Best Brooklyn Representation: The New York Distilling Company, who make Dorothy Parker American Gin and Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin based in Brooklyn on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.  They are one of the only distilleries in New York State to have a bar attached to the distillery – it’s called The Shanty.  Two bartenders in colorful attire were mixing up samples of the Brother-in-Law made with apricot liqueur, lemon juice and the Dorothy Parker (I had two).  They were paired with Fort Defiance, another BK gem from Red Hook, who were whipping up delicious deviled eggs.

Best diner food: Pierogies from Veselka – that late night drunk food bastion (not that I would know of course…) of the East Village – made with Vermont cheddar cheese and topped with the requisite apple sauce and creme fraiche.

Best gimmick: A couple of places – including RubirosaSalumeria Rosi and Cadaques – had whole ham legs as well that they were generously carving up.

ham from Salumeria Rosi
White Pike Whisky

Most interesting discovery: White Pike Whisky, a white whisky made in upstate NY from a blend of corn, spelt and malted wheat that was mixed with orange juice, red pepper juice (yes, really) and peach-sassafras bitters.  It was surprisingly smooth and worked well with the citrus and savory pepper.

Best food/beverage pairing: Compass Box Whisky’s Oak Cross blend with a duck escabeche (excellently done) from The Beagle.  Surprisingly complementary, it was truly one of the best pairs on offer.

Best non-alcoholic beverage: Brooklyn Soda Works who had a more standard apple-ginger soda and an off-the-wall totally awesome grapefruit-jalapeño-honey.  Very cool, totally yum.  Runner up to Bruce Cost Ginger Ale – which is a great spicy soft drink and comes in a few different flavors in addition to the original like passionfruit, pomegranate and Jasmine tea.

Overall – a great event with some stand-out vendors, and enough food (and drink) for thought to keep me busy for at least a few weeks, trekking to the far reaches of BK (ok, Williamsburg might not be that far) and closer to home to visit their permanent shops.

Tuthilltown Spirits: A Field Trip

Tuthilltown's Spirits

The first distillery in New York state since prohibition looks a lot like a converted garage where some mad scientist has rigged up all sorts of contraptions for his experiments. And in fact, that might not be too far off the mark.

the garage

Ralph Erenzo started Tuthilltown Spirits back in 2001, the year New York finally amended its Prohibition era regulations on small distilleries, taking the annual permit fee down from $10,000 to $1,250.  Completely self taught, and with a background in rock climbing, he partnered with a former-television-tech-whiz-turned-aspiring-bread-baker (after all, whiskey is a lot like bread, just without the oven) and together they started distilling vodka from the apples grown nearby.  Soon, thank goodness, they added grain to their repertoire, and have recently launched a cassis liqueur, rum and their own line of bitters.  (Read more about the team and their history.)

I visited Tuthilltown on a sunny, crisp Saturday in December. After brunching at Main Street Bistro in nearby New Paltz, a good local spot for all manner of eggs, sandwiches and chili, we drove off towards what looked increasing like nowhere. In fact we were still a little unsure we were in the right place even when we pulled into the gravel driveway.

aging bourbon

We were greeted by Cordell, an actor-turned-chicken-farmer-turned-whiskey-tour-guide, and, along with some other Manhattan types, were soon being lectured on the history of Tuthilltown and the fermentation process of grain.  One of the first things we covered was that, contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky or Tennessee.  In fact there are six criteria that must be met in order for a spirit to be classified as bourbon, and the only geographical one is that it be made in the United States.  That’s right, any one of the fifty. (Sorry Guam and Puerto Rico).

The other five are:

  1. It must be at least 51% corn
  2. It must be aged in a first-use white oak barrel
  3. Nothing else may be added to the barrel (such as extra wood chips or flavorings)
  4. It must be at least 80% alcohol coming off the still
  5. and 62.5% going into the barrel

The second of these at first posed rather a challenge to the aspiring distillers, since they didn’t have the resources to carry a large quantity of liquor through a lengthy aging process.  The solution?  Use smaller barrels so the spirits age faster and are ready sooner.  From whence Tuthilltown’s first aged spirit, the Baby Bourbon, a beautiful, smooth and lighter whiskey which was my first encounter with the brand.  The Baby is still one of my favorites, but I am also a fan of the Manhattan Rye and the Four-Grain Bourbon, which is made from corn, rye, wheat and malted barley and is spicier and stronger than Baby. (See their full product line here.)

Then it was time to see the process in action.  Upon entering the glorified garage, we were first faced with a large vat that was busily churning corn with yeast before being transferred to big plastic buckets for fermentation. We were invited to sample the liquid with our fingers – and as promised it did in fact taste kind of sweet and like bread. We did not try the brew in the fermentation buckets in the next room, but if smell is any indicator it was pretty rancid.

the vat of corn & yeast

corn fermenting in a plastic bucket

Upstairs they have just installed a brand new beautiful copper still. It’s so tall they they had to build a cupola on the roof to accommodate it (see picture of garage above).  Here, we were instructed in some of the basics of the distilling process.

the still

The raw liquor is heated and as it evaporates the steam rises through a pipe with various metal discs. The first liquids to evaporate are known as the “heads” – basically acetone aka nail polish remover – you don’t want to drink it. Next come the “hearts”, which is the good stuff. As the liquor pours off the still, an alcohol monitor (like a weight buoy that measures the density of the liquid) tells the staff what stage they are at.  After the hearts come the “tails” which are likewise toxic and not to be consumed. The tails get tipped back into the still with the next batch, which allows Tuthilltown to extract more good stuff from them, and also serves to develop the signature taste of their whiskeys over time.

bottles ready for labeling

Next up was the bottling room.  It looked like something out of the I Love Lucy episode when Lucy works in a chocolate factory.  Old school conveyor belt contraption and everything, including a hand dipping station for the wax that coats the tops of the bottles.  And if I worked there for a day I’d probably end up just like Lucy, but drunk and covered in booze instead of chocolates.

 

Thank the Lord

 

Apparently they are due for an upgrade in the bottling room, in part due to a new partnership with William Grant & Sons, who own, among other brands, Glenfiddich and Hendrick’s.  Also a result of their agreement, Tuthilltown spirits will soon be making their way across the pond: Europe, get ready, Prohibition is over!

 

And finally, the highlight of the trip: the tasting.  We were strictly admonished that we were to have only three samples each, and no sharing.  I sampled the rum – not bad – but settled on a bottle of Manhattan Rye to add to my Baby Bourbon at home, as well as some bourbon barrel aged maple syrup.  By far the best find of the trip, however, is their cocktail aging bottle.  That’s right, a cocktail aging bottle.  In case you are not up on your cocktail trends, this is the latest fad (I heard it here first, last summer).  And now, instead of coughing up for a large barrel, you can buy a small bottle with a piece of barrel inside it, and age your own small batches of Manhattans, Negronis, etc at home.  Stay tuned for adventures on this score coming soon….

 

a whiskey barrel is an excellent place for a nap

Vital Statistics:
Location: 14 Grist Mill Lane, Gardiner, NY 12525
Website: www.tuthilltown.com
Prices: $15 per person for a tour and tasting.  Whiskeys are $40 each onsite, and average $45 at retail locations in New York City.  Cocktail Aging Bottle is $10.

Making Cheese @ Mecox Bay

the barn

I have long been a fan of Mecox Bay Dairy cheese, which I first tasted at the farmers market in Westhampton in the summertime a few years ago. Since I am (somewhat of) a food fanatic it didn’t take me long to become a regular and befriend Peter, whose father Art Ludlow runs the family farm.  (Here is a great video on YouTube of Art talking about the farm and his cheese.)

It took me a few years, however, to finally screw up my courage and ask if I could come out and help make cheese. I guess all those farmers market purchases paid off because my request was met with an affirmative.  And so it was that at 5am on the Monday after Thanksgiving I hopped into a Zipcar (a Prius – see, I am offsetting my carbon footprint!) and drove out to Bridgehampton to, if not help, at least participate in the fun.

Mecox Bay Dairy makes 5 cheeses – 6 if you count the blue cheddar as distinct from the regular cheddar:

les fromages!

  1. Atlantic Mist: a camembert style, soft cheese (also my favorite)
  2. Farmhouse Cheddar: self explanatory
  3. Blue Cheddar: the above, with some blue mold mixed in
  4. Sigit: a gruyere style cheese
  5. Shawondasee: natural rind tomme
  6. Mecox Sunrise: washed rind tomme (stinky and delicious!)

They work with all raw milk from a herd of 9 Jersey cows, whose high-fat content milk is ideal for cheese making.  Because the milk is raw (=unpasteurized), the State of New York requires that the cheeses must be aged at least 60 days.  The Atlantic Mist is best when very young (60 days or close to), but the cheddars, gruyere and tommes are often aged upwards of 6 months.

straining the curds

On Monday I helped make the cheddar, and there was also some gruyere action going on.  Upon arrival I was given a piece of sheet plastic with some string tied on it to wear as an apron.  I had been told to wear waterproof shoes and short sleeves and it was good that I had followed instructions since soon I was shoulder deep in curds and whey.  That’s right, not elbows, shoulders.  The milk for the cheddar had been sitting in a big steel vat for a few hours with the cultures and had congealed into a big white-jello like mass.  The first step was to “cut the curd” with a metal and wire contraption that made first vertical, then horizontal cuts.  And then we stuck our hands in and started mashing it up with our fingers, into as small pieces as possible.  It felt sort of like warm jelly, or maybe very loose panna cotta (which makes sense – cooked cream and solidifying milk), and occasionally we’d come across a particularly large bit that was hot inside.  I felt like a kid playing with something very messy and fun to play with.  Soon, in spite of the plastic apron I was pretty well covered in whey.

cheddar draining

Having spent an hour or two separating the curd, it was then time to pack it all back together again in the cheddaring process.  This began by scooping the curds out of the whey with a large strainer, and dumping it out onto a stainless steel counter, slightly graded to let the liquid run off into a plastic bucket.  Once all the curd was out, we let it sit a few minutes, then cut it into large blocks and flipped each one over to the opposite end of the counter.  Let sit fifteen minutes.  Repeat four or five times, then do a final dicing into 1-1.5 inch cubes with a big double-handed curved knife, salt liberally, pack into molds lined with cheese cloth, cover and stack so the curds get weighed down and pack together. For the blue cheddar, we sprinkled a bit of blue bacteria over the cubes before packing.

After about half an hour, you flip what is now starting to be a wheel of cheese, and put back in the mold.  Later that day, the wheels are removed from the molds and left on shelves in the aging room (a cool, dark, pungent, delicious place).

in the molds

I departed with a nice wheel of Atlantic Mist, some Sigit and a piece of Mecox Sunrise.  Not bad for a morning’s work!

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.

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