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

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Falling in love with Mosel Riesling

Today I fell in love with Mosel Riesling.  For months I’ve been hearing about its exquisite balance, its electricity on the palate, the fruit, the minerality.  I tasted some back in January, and I thought they were nice.  But today I finally got it.

vineyards in the Mosel

This afternoon a group of my classmates and I gathered after school for a tasting of one of Mosel’s premiere producers, Clemens Busch.  Johannes Busch – whose family has owned the winery since 1802 – is visiting California, and was kind enough to share his wines.

At the first sip, all the words I had heard about Mosel Riesling came to mind.  The wines had a honeyed aroma to them, along with varying levels of peach, apricot, sweet orange, magnolia, lemon, spice and lots of slate.

Slate is the predominant soil type in the Mosel (where it comes in three colors: blue, red and gray), and is commonly used to describe Rieslings from that region.  You might wonder how something can smell or taste like a rock, but next time you come across a slate paving stone (or one of those trendy cheese boards), try putting a few drops of water on it and smelling it.  It really does smell!  And you can taste it in the wine.

the Clemens Busch Marienburg Rothenpfad Riesling

The wines also had elevated levels of acidity.  Think of acid levels as you would think about lemonade, ranging from cloyingly sweet to undrinkably tart.  In this case, there was just enough fruity sweetness to balance the acid in each wine, so you get the refreshing tartness, but also the delicious fruit flavors.

I have heard great Riesling described as “walking a tightrope between acid, minerality and fruit”, and that pretty much sums up these wines.  They seem alive on the palate.

Here’s a run down of what we tasted:

  • 2011 Clemens Busch Grosses Gewächs Marienburg Rothenpfad Trocken Riesling
  • 2011 Clemens Busch Grosses Gewächs Marienburg Fahrlay Trocken Riesling
  • 2008 Clemens Busch Marienburg Falkenlay Trocken Riesling
  • 2010 Clemens Busch Marienburg Felsterrasse Riesling

You’ll notice that all the wines except the last one are labeled Trocken, which is German for dry.  This is because 2010 was a very cold year, which means the acids in the grapes were very high, so leaving a bit more sugar actually serves to balance it out – just like the lemonade example above.

The other thing to point out are the words “Grosses Gewächs” which literally mean “Great Growths” and are Germany’s equivalent to France’s Grand Cru, meaning the very top quality vineyards.

Many NYC wine stores seem to have Clemens Busch in stock, and if you live in California, you can order directly from their distributor here, Dee Vine Wines.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Riesling PSA

As you have probably gathered from the above, not all Riesling is sweet.  A lot of Rieslings – including most of the ones we tried – are dry.  The way Germans label their wines is not very helpful in figuring out whether a wine is dry or sweet from the label, so here are some tips:

  • If the wine says “Trocken” on it, it is dry (trocken is German for dry)
  • Wines labeled Kabinett are usually dry
  • Wines labeled Spatlese can be dry or somewhat sweet
  • Wines labeled Auslese, Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese are increasing degrees of sweet
  • Some wines have a handy scale on the back label, where they rate where their wine falls on a spectrum from dry to sweet

Confused?  I know, and I agree, but unfortunately, for now, that’s the way things are.  When in doubt ask your server, sommelier or salesperson.

an example of the IRF Riesling Scale, sometimes found on the back label of wine bottles

 

Le Grand Pan

le Grand Pan

The New York Times article described the location as “the most boring part of the 15th arrondissement” in Paris, which turned out to be a pretty accurate statement. In addition it is also something of a hike from the nearest Metro stop. So here’s hoping these two factors keep the tourist hordes away (present company excluded, of course) because Le Grand Pan has made it onto my list of Parisian favorites.

The ambiance is neighborhood brasserie, full of locals, with about 40 covers max and a beautiful selection of meat, the specials written out in script on the blackboard.  It is unmistakably Parisian, and at the same time a member of that endangered species – The Typical French Bistro – that is being squeezed out by fancier and more modern places.

The Times recommended the côte de boeuf for two, to which we duly succumbed, in addition to one of the best foie gras maison I have ever had. We rounded this out with a cheese plate that included a nice selection from across France and a mille feuille with prunes soaked in aged rum.

Oh, did I mention the hand cut double fried french fries?  Heaven.

Vital statistics:
Location: 20 rue Rosenwald 75015 Paris
Metro: Convention or Plaisance
Website: N/A
Prices: 139€ for two people, including aperitif and a bottle of wine; most main courses were in the 35-45€ range

Le Dauphin

Only in Paris can you go to one of the trendy hot spot bar-restaurants of the moment and sit next to a father having dinner with his two children under 4, just a normal Tuesday dinner, and another couple who are slipping their dog treats under the table.

glass & marble

Oh, and it’s in an immigrant neighborhood off an avenue lined with Chinese restaurants and the equivalent of dollar stores.

Did I mention the interior is designed by Rem Koolhaas and the chef is Inaki Aizpitarte of neighboring Chateaubriand fame?

I parked myself at the bar at Le Dauphin on a glacial Tuesday evening in February.  I had heard of Le Chateaubriand but dining alone decided sitting at a bar would be more convivial.  My overall takeaway is that the food is fantastic but the service is seriously lacking.  Ok, maybe it was an off night, but it’s a good thing the waitresses in France don’t depend on tips for their income.

The menu at Le Dauphin is “tapas” style small plates. I had 4 plus dessert which was about right, and I will say that in general the waitress’ suggestions were on point.

poulpe tandoori

I started with the Poulpe Tandoori – slices of crispy squid in olive oil with “light” spices. It was perfectly cooked and very good, but I could have gone for a bit more spice – as it was I could barely taste the tandoori at all.

This was followed by grilled ravioli which I would have better described as dumplings. They were stuffed with ground up foie de volailles (liver of fowl), cumin and spices, which seemed to me to include lemongrass, and served with the “sauce maison” which is a secret. They were exquisite.

Next came pork belly with daikon radish, spinach and, again, the special sauce, which was pink and tasted of lemon, maybe some red wine vinegar, maybe grapefruit and shallots, with a consistency like very chunky mignonette. (Go figure the truth will probably be none of those things but this is the impression I had.)  The radish was served two ways: a few thin slices lightly cooked, but still with the spicy radish flavor and their purple skins on, and two long, paper thin slices raw.  It was a delicious combination of spicy, crunchy radish, falling apart pork belly with a crispy top, and the acidic sauce.

Next I had the St Jacques scallops with shaved turnips and mandarin orange. Two beautiful scallops, seared, arrived with two small sections of citrus and perfect rounds of thin turnip.

I ended with the Dacquoise with pear and celery filling. I found the biscuit a little cloying, but the cream filling with chunks of raw pear and celery was very original.

Final frustration, it was FREEZING cold inside.  Half the patrons were wearing their puffy down jackets and scarves.  It’s time to turn up the heat, or at least invest in a curtain to cover the door.

Vital Statistics:
Location: 131 Avenue Parmentier 75011 Paris
Metro: Goncourt
Website: N/A (yes, really)
Prices: 57€ including two glasses of wine and tip

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.

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

24 Hours in Stockholm: Adventures in Scandinavia Part 2

Lunch

Saluhall entrance

I landed in Stockholm at 12:40pm on Saturday, September 10th, after a my sojourn at Fäviken in northern Sweden.  After checking into The Grand Hotel, I made a beeline for the Östermalms Saluhall, a giant food hall founded in 1888 where you can buy and eat all manner of Swedish produce, fish, cheese, prepared foods and coffee, among others.

the hall

Lisa's Fish

I gawked for awhile at the incredible display, lamenting the fact that I couldn’t buy any of it (fish doesn’t travel so well in a suitcase….), and then sat down at Nybroe for a glass of Chardonnay and a a smoked salmon and asparagus smørrobrød (open face sandwich) with crème, salmon roe and dill.

smørrobrød at Nybroe

Feeling thus fortified, I was then ready to face the afternoon in a new city, and set out to explore.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Nybrogatan 31, Östermalm, Stockholm
Website: http://www.saluhallen.com/
Prices: one sandwich + glass of wine at Nybroe came to about US$25 with tip

Dinner

After a few hours walking the city and a relaxing sauna session at the hotel, I dressed for dinner and set out for Restaurang Volt.

The night before, upon hearing that I had no reservations for dinner on Saturday night in Stockholm and furthermore no idea where to go, a look of slight horror had come over Johan’s (the manager/sommelier at Fäviken) face, and I was told it would be tricky since it was Saturday after all, but he would do his best.

Volt, Kommendörsgatan 16, Östermalm

Johan’s (of Fäviken) friend Johan (Bengtsson) is the maître d’hotel and a co-owner of Volt and he greeted me when I arrived with a glass of champagne while I waited for my table.

The menu informed me that “We are at our best when you choose a menu of several dishes” and so, to make sure I didn’t miss anything important, I went for 5: two first courses, one main, cheese and dessert.

the menu

After I had ordered, I was served a plate of still-hot bread (delicious – and not hard, why do not more restaurants do this?) served with a whipped sheep’s milk cheese spread and butter from Jämtland, which the bus boy excitedly told me was where Fäviken is.  It was good butter, but it’s got nothing on “The Good Butter” I had had that morning. However, the cheese spread was really delicious.

fresh bread

For my first first course, I ordered “Broccoli, served with oysters, sea plants and algae.”

Broccoli

I’m not sure where the oysters were from, but they were much smaller than what we usually get in the US, with a very strong sea-taste, reinforced by the sea plants and algae.

Next was “Carrot, rabbit, carraway, rice.”

carrot & rabbit

The dish consisted of slices of lightly pickled carrot, carrot purée, roast rabbit, and bits of a sort of rabbit terrine, topped with puffed rice and caraway seeds.  A really interesting mix of textures (smooth purée, crunchy carrots, meaty rabbit, crispy rice) and flavors (pickled carrots, sweet carrots, gamey rabbit, the bite of carraway).

plaice

For my main course I had plaice with peas, yogurt, spruce and butter lettuce.  The spruce was a really interesting touch.  With this Johan paired a sauvignon blanc from Touraine, which my tasting notes tell me “tasted like buttah.”

It was a delicate dish – but I had slight food envy for the steak that arrived at the table next to me …

The cheese, a spiced Gouda-style from even further northern Sweden than Fäviken, came with cucumber and mustard seed and was not only spiced but spicey.

hard cheese from Jokkmokk

And finally dessert.

Corn: parfait, caramel, salt

Corn pudding with caramel in the center, dried corn and something that tasted sort of like corn nougat.  It was perhaps not my favorite – very much on the sweet side – but I was forewarned so share part of the blame.  In the end I was so full already I really could have done without dessert altogether.

I ordered an infusion to help start digesting, and what arrived at the table were two mint and lemon verbena plants, artfully potted in shiny tin cans.

the infusion

Johan clipped a few pieces of each, deposited them into a small glass teapot and instructed me to let them infuse for a few minutes.  The perfect end to the meal.

Added bonus: the bathroom at Volt has some of the coolest wallpaper of all time:

the loo paper

Vital Statistics:
Location: Kommendörsgatan 16, Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden
Website: http://restaurangvolt.se/
Prices: US$190 for five courses + wine pairings for one

Breakfast

Stockholm in the morning

Armed with my Lonely Planet guide I set out the next morning (Sunday) in search of cinnamon buns. It was 8am, and the city was just waking up as I walked up Birger Jarlsgatan towards Café Saturnus, which Lonely Planet describes as having the “biggest and dare we say best cinnamon buns” in town.  I can’t say for certain, but they were pretty damn good, and also enormous.

Cafe Saturnus

I ordered a bun and a latte for take away and left with a huge paper wrapped parcel to find a park bench.

the buns

A short walk found me in nearby Humlegården listening to church bells ringing and looking at a statue of Carl von Linné.

I sat down and unwrapped my parcel. The cinnamon bun was about as big as my face.  I ate about a third, drank my coffee, put the remaining bun in my purse and set out for a walk on Djurgården and a visit to the Vasa Museet before heading to the airport to fly to Copenhagen.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Eriksbergsgatan 6, Östermalm, Stockholm, Sweden
Website: http://www.cafesaturnus.se
Prices: about US$5 for a latte and cinammon bun

Stockholm travel tips:

  • Hotels are much cheaper on weekends (even up to 50%) and many have less expensive single rooms, some with no windows that are fine if you plan on spending little to no time in them.  The Grand also has a “prepaid” option where if you pay up front you get a cheaper rate.

my single room at The Grand

  • Guidebooks: Phaidon Press’s Wallpaper Guide for cool, upscale hotels, bars and shopping, plus great architecture highlights + Lonely Planet Stockholm City Guide for more basic needs like maps, classic tourist destinations and cheaper dining and drinking options
  • The Arlanda Express train to the airport is easy and fast (about 20 minutes)
  • If you fit the demographic, make sure to ask about youth fares for everything (usually for the under 25 set)
  • The Vasa Museet is really cool, featuring a warship that sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628 and was raised in 1961
  • I didn’t get to go there, but I have it on good authority that for a nice, quiet spot for a fantastic view of the city, go to Mariatorget in Södermalm and walk up towards the top of the hill

Fäviken: Adventures in Scandinavia Part 1

“In the old grain store runs a different restaurant. A kitchen unlike most others.”

It all began in mid July with the Summer Food Special magazine in the weekend edition of the Financial Times.  On my Monday morning commute in the claustrophobic London tube, sandwiched between various sweaty people, I read Nick Lander’s review of a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in northern Sweden.  I decided immediately that I had to go, and upon arriving at work 20 minutes later, promptly made a reservation at Fäviken Magasinet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it proved difficult – or rather, impossible – to convince anyone to journey to the Nordic hinterlands with me, and so I, undeterred, decided to go alone.

Two months later in early September, after a series of debacles including: a missed flight; some rather incredulous conversations (“You’re going where? To do what?”); the initial confusion of how to turn on my rental car (there was no key, you just put the key chain in a port on the dashboard and press the On button); a brief spell driving on the left hand side of the road until oncoming traffic reminded me I was no longer in the British Isles; as well as numerous turns that took me farther and farther from anything remotely resembling civilization, by some miracle and The Grace of God I arrived at Fäviken at about 2:00pm on Friday, September 2, 2011.

Sommelier, manager, maitre d’hotel, general jack of all trades Johan Agrell greeted me when I arrived and offered to fix me a “simple lunch.”  Now, when I think simple lunch, I think ham sandwich – maybe a meat and cheese board, if I’m lucky.  But everything’s relative, so what arrived at Fäviken was a beautiful omelette with chanterelle mushrooms, accompanied by crisp bread made with local flour, hard cow’s milk cheese and some of the best butter I have ever tasted.  Oh, and of course a glass of wine – a lovely Beaujolais.  (Okay, maybe two glasses of Beaujolais.)

the omelette

cheese & butter – yum!

So there I was, feeling pretty pleased with myself, sitting in what amounts to a hunting lodge in a room with double height ceilings, walls adorned with stuffed animal heads, a giant Snooker table, and a roaring fire.  What a contrast to a normal Friday lunch in The City of London, eating a sad sandwich from Pret a Manger.

not all of these are from Sweden….

antlers make good light fixtures

The Snooker Table

To work up an appetite for dinner, I went for a walk around the Fäviken estate.  The grounds are in fact privately owned by the Brummer family, and the main house on the property is the family residence.  There had been a restaurant on the premises for a number of years – but it was more hunting lodge convenience than haute cuisine.  The family decided they wanted something different, and engaged Chef Magnus Nilsson to come up and run the place a few years ago.

trees

Lake Kalljön

sheep!

Dinner began at 7pm and was announced by a bonfire lit outside the barn.  The guests for the evening – nine in total the night I was there – were ushered into a windowless room on the ground floor.  A fire burned in a stone fireplace in one corner, and each party was seated at a separate group of low sofas and coffee tables for an aperitif and our four (4) amuse bouches.

There is no menu at Fäviken.  Magnus decides what to cook each day based on what is available and in season, and what he feels like.  For the wines, there is a bit more choice – Yes or No to the pairings.  But frankly, when is that answer ever No?

And so I sat waiting, like a child at Christmas, for the culinary adventure to begin.

The first dish of the evening was “a little lump of very fresh cheese served in warm whey, lavender.” It was served in a small white china bowl and slurped down all in one.  It was like eating solid milk, with just a hint of lavender – reminiscent of drinking warm milk before bed.  And, as with every course we were served throughout the evening, after each guest had been presented with his or her dish, Magnus explained it and instructed us in how to eat it.

the little lump of very fresh cheese

(Sidenote: If any food experience made me wish I had a halfway decent camera, this was it.  So if you really can’t stand my iPhone shots, I refer you to various other blogs and reviews with far superior quality food porn: Financial Times, Bon Appetit, Food Snob.  The Food Snob post also includes a fairly comprehensive biography of Magnus, who, among other things, started out at l’Astrance in Paris in the early 2000’s.)

Amuse #2 was “wild trout’s roe served in a crust of dried pig’s blood.”

the roe

When I have described this to people since, invariably the reaction has been less than favorable.  But when sitting at Fäviken, you don’t even pause to consider the idea of pig’s blood congealing in small molds – and certainly not how it might have been extracted in the first place – you just smile and nod and think it’s the most natural thing you’ve ever heard, before popping the entire thing into your mouth.  And a very good thing that is too, because if you did stop to consider those things, you might not be able to eat it, and that would be a real travesty, because it is, indeed, delicious.  The medium sized bubbles of roe popped satisfactorily, releasing their sweet, salty, oil, while the crumbly crust complemented the texture nicely and added a bit of earthiness to the dish.

Amuse #3: Crispy Lichens.  Yes, lichens, like the ones that grow on trees and rocks.  All of the products used at Fäviken are local, and many of them are foraged on a daily basis from Magnus’s walks.

crispy lichens

The lichens were topped with grated, dried roe and accompanied by a garlic cream.  They were a little bit salty and felt like eating crispy lace.  They almost reminded me of potato chips, except obviously much more delicate, and not tasting like potato.  The next chic bagged snack, perhaps?  Veggie chips and gourmet popcorn watch out….

And finally Amuse #4, dried trout shavings which had been cured in very good sea salt.

dried trout

All this was accompanied by a glass of Bereche et Fils champagne – the first of Johan’s six expert pairings.

After the amuses, we were led upstairs, one by one, to the main dining room.  On the way we passed a 100-year old fur coat hanging on the wall under a spotlight (excellent photo of Magnus wearing said fur coat on the Bon Appetit website here.)

The dining room is almost windowless – a few small portholes stud one wall through which the darkening sky was just visible.  In winter when it’s dark at 3pm, I’m sure it’s nice to be cozily ensconced in a warm, wooden room, forgetful of the big dark expanse outside.  When I was there, it would have been nice to be able to enjoy the view across the fields, but one can’t have everything I suppose.  In any case, the closed-in, self-contained quality of the room added to the feeling that Fäviken is a world away, removed from the everyday, and certainly it helped us to focus on the task at hand – namely, dinner.

the dining room

The above photo was taken from my table, and as you can see I have the best seat in the house with a view across the entire dining room, and therefore was able to survey all the goings on of the evening – very key when dining alone.

The first course upstairs was “Scallop ‘i skalet ur elden’ cooked over burning Juniper branches.”  And it arrived on a bed of moss and small branches, accompanied by a few smoldering Juniper embers.

The Scallop

Magnus explained that the scallop is slowly roasted over the branches, and when it’s just cooked, the inedible bits are scraped out, strained, and the natural juices then poured back in.  We were further instructed to eat it with our hands, and then to drink the juice from the shell.

Now I, like any good American, love finger good.  (I have never quite gotten used to eating pizza and hamburgers with a knife and fork in continental Europe.)  And this was doubly exciting because, really, when was the last time someone told you the right way to eat something as upscale as a scallop was with your hands?

the inside

It was a consistency like no other scallop I have ever eaten (nor am likely to eat again, unless I return to Fäviken) – very firm, barely cooked, and tasted incredibly fresh – which no doubt it was.

The scallop was paired with mead, specially made for Fäviken by a local producer, and fermented in the bottle.

Fäviken Ljust Mjöd, Bengt-Johnny & Jan Anders, Öster-Övsjö

This was my first experience with mead – and a very positive one.  The liquid was golden and slightly cloudy, with a slight tang and a savoriness that complemented the sea-sweet scallop.

Then came “grilled monkfish, kale, green Juniper and alcoholic vinegar.”  The monkfish was slowly cooked – during service, we were later told – over an open fire of birch branches.  Like the scallop, it too was only very lightly cooked – just enough to not be raw.  The outside was blackened and infused with a wonderful smoke flavor.  The single leaf of kale was also smoked with a satisfying crunch, and the green Juniper seeds and alcoholic vinegar added a jolt, without overpowering the delicate fish.  This wonderful juxtaposition of flavors and textures was a trend that continued throughout the meal.

monkfish and kale

The monkfish was accompanied by a glass of 2007 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru Les Sentiers du Clou, Sylvie Boyer, Côte d’Or – a beautiful white from Burgundy that was very fresh, a little citrus and minerals.  Like all the other pairings a perfect companion to the food.

Our third seafood course was a “raw mussel and wild pea pie.”  It was a tiny, slimy mouthful, topped with edible flowers (foraged by Magnus, natch), and nested in a crunchy mini pie crust.  It tasted like the sea.

the raw mussel

Next up: potatoes

Is that a pile of leaves?

Yes. With tiny new potatoes hidden inside.  The official description (on the printed menu we were given the next morning) is “potatoes harvested some hours ago then boiled with autumn leaves.”  This, Magnus explained, was because new potatoes quickly lose their flavor after being picked.  Thus, they are extracted at the last possible moment, and then, to even further reinforce the flavor, they are cooked with last year’s autumn leaves (that have been decomposing since the spring).  We were told to pick them out with our hands, squash them and dip them in the “good butter” provided.  Speaking of butter – it probably deserves a post of its own – it was so creamy, salty, delicious – you could eat it plain (in fact I think I did).

The potatoes were followed by “steamed leeks, sheep’s cream whisked with vinegar fermented beer, grated cod’s roe.”

The Leek

If you are wondering where the cod’s roe is – it’s the brown shavings to the right of the leek.  The leek itself was softly crunchy; the cream had a wonderful barnyard sheep flavor, with a small sting of vinegar and beer; topped off by the salty, crunchy roe. I never knew leeks could be so interesting.

The final vegetable dish was a small salad of “mushrooms, stone brambles and very fresh peas”.  There were a few different types of mushrooms – including chanterelles – lightly cooked; some of the biggest (and exceedingly fresh) peas I have ever eaten, served raw; and stone bramble fruit, which are the small, red berries in the picture.  They were acidic with a large stone in the center, and popped when I bit them.  In texture, they reminded me of pomegranate seeds, but were not sweet. (Sidebar: Wikipedia, source of all real and true knowledge, states that some sources claim eating stone brambles with alcohol can be dangerous and cause allergic reactions.  Luckily no one in the restaurant seemed to have this problem.)

mushrooms, stone brambles & very fresh peas

The whole thing was a wonderful combination of flavors and textures – the mushrooms were woodsy and soft, the peas were crunchy, fresh and sweet, and the brambles added an acidic pop.

Somewhere along the way between the monkfish and the mushrooms, we switched to a new wine – the 2008 Scharzhof Riesling, Egon Müller, Mosel – a light style Riesling.

After the latest round of dishes had been cleared (the service was at all times impeccable), and our next wine – a hearty Barbaresco (2005 Barbaresco Montestefano, Theobaldo Rivella, Piemonte) – had been poured, Magnus and one of his kitchen staff appeared with a saw.  With no fanfare or announcement, they moved a wooden block with a cow’s leg to the center of the room and began cutting it in half. (I did not get a good action shot of the sawing, but this one from Food Snob pretty well captures it.)

He then took the two pieces of leg over to the large table set up on one side of the dining room and proceeded to scoop out the marrow directly into the bowls of our next course which, in addition to the above, included “dices of raw [cow] heart, grey pea flowers, toasts and herb salt”.

marrow & heart

It was epic.

I have had marrow before, but only in a Parisian brasserie (Claude Sainlouis, which is a very fine establishment and by far my favorite in that city), where it bore little to no resemblance to what now lay before me.  At Fäviken, it was soft and slimy – but in a good way – and the raw heart was firm and rich – real essence of cow.

This extravaganza was followed by “grouse fried in the good butter and served with sauce of its offal”.

Grouse & Matsutake

We got the head (including the brain), breast and leg of grouse – artistically plated as you can see.  The brain was kind of smushy and strong (even for an adventurer like me, perhaps not my favorite part), and the breast and leg were deliciously gamey.

The bird was served not only with offal sauce, but with a delicious slice of Matsutake, or pine mushroom.  Matsutake are highly prized by the Japanese, and most of the Nordic crop is exported, but an eccentric scientist nearby to Fäviken doesn’t trust the local exporter and provides them to the restaurant instead.  The best ones are served as above, or similar, the less attractive ones they preserve, and the really yucky ones they infuse into a housemade, pungent vodka that I sampled after dinner.

True to their English common name, Matsutake have a strong pine taste, and the flesh is white and meaty.

The grouse was followed by “fermented lingonberries, thick cream, sugar, raspberries ice”  which was served in two beautiful wooden spoons.  We were instructed to eat the raspberry ice first.

fermented lingonberries & raspberry ice

The ice was tart and refreshing – while the lingonberries’ sourness was slightly tempered by the cream.

With this palate cleanser came our last wine of the evening – a 2003 Vouvray Moelleux Réserve, Philippe Foreau, Loire.

Next came the “cheese” course, which wasn’t really cheese, but took it’s place on the menu: “Pine bark cake, pudding of cream, acidic herbs and frozen buttermilk, lavender mushroom.”

pine bark cake

The cake was sort of a cracker – savory and, as one might expect, piney – and the frozen buttermilk added a cold, tangy punch to the cream and herbs.

And finally, the dessert dessert, “raspberries jam, whisked duck eggs, sorbet of milk” which reminded me of a zabaglione, but fresher and lighter.

dessert

The raspberries were a sort of jam on the bottom of the dish – tart, not too sweet, and with the whole berries still intact – the duck egg was room temperature, soft and with that unique flavor that is more wild and farm-y than chicken eggs, and the milk sorbet was a little ball of coldness on top.

The sorbet was finished off in the dining room by one of the sous chefs in a 100 year old barrel.

making sorbet

Now three hours later, we were shown back downstairs and reseated on the low sofas with coffee tables for infusions, coffee and candies.  There was a selection of dried blueberries, lingonberries, hard meadowsweet candy and tar pastilles.

after dinner

After the other parties had departed or retired, I was left with two fellow diners, a Finnish chef and sommelier, and together we were given a tour of the kitchens.  We saw the open grill where the monkfish is made, as well as 20 or so beautiful game birds, including a few capercaillies – dead – strung up by their feet on a rack in the middle of the room.  They were stunning, with incredible plumage and as Magnus handled them and I tentatively stroked their feathers, they seemed more like works of art than dead animals.

Finally we rounded out the night finishing off the bottle of Barbaresco in front of the fire in the game lodge, before dragging ourselves to our rooms and collapsing into bed.

my room in the Logementet

You may find it hard to believe, after the epic food journey the night before, that anyone could have room for breakfast the next day.  But of course I did – and it was amazing, in a totally different way from dinner.

the unique breakfast

Served in the almost-windowless-dining-room, it included, clockwise from left: a very thick homemade yogurt, a soft boiled egg (the most perfectly cooked soft boiled egg I think I have ever had), fresh honey, smoked trout, hard cheese, liver pâté, a “reindeer salami thing” (technical term), rilletes, raspberry juice made specially for Fäviken, fresh milk, raspberry jam, granola, fresh bread, the good butter and boiled Swedish coffee (served from a big copper pot).

Off to the right there also arrived a delicious short bread type cookie with raspberry jam in the middle “to go with my coffee.”  YUM.

honey in a nest

Of course I had to try everything, and couldn’t bear to actually leave, so it was a mad dash collecting my suitcase, driving an hour or so to the airport, and boarding the plane to Stockholm for the next leg of my Scandinavian Adventure (post forthcoming).

As I left, Johan joked that if I got lost and missed my flight, I could have a second night at Fäviken.  I seriously considered getting lost on purpose …

Vital Statistics:
Location: Fäviken 216, 83005 Järpen, Sweden
Website: http://favikenmagasinet.se
Prices: total for one person including lunch, dinner, wine, breakfast and lodging was about US$530 (£345)

Travel itinerary:

  • SAS flight 1530 London Heathrow to Stockholm Arlanda 7:15-10:40am
  • SAS flight 72 Stockholm Arlanda to Östersund 11:15am-12:15pm (this is a very tight connection – only recommended if, like me, you miss your flight out of London the night before.)
  • Hertz rent-a-car and drive approximately 1 hour (if you need an automatic, make sure to book in advance)
  • Or you can get a taxi which runs about 1,500 SEK (about US$218, or £140)
  • SAS flight 73 Östersund to Stockholm Arlanda 11:40am-12:40pm
  • Fäviken’s website also provides good directions and information about getting there.
  • Tip: SAS offers really good deals on youth fares for 25-and-unders

Eating in Italy

This past weekend, I went to Lake Como in Northern Italy (Ketan, the map is for you) with 4 friends.  We rented a house lakeside, tooled around on a motor boat one day, and generally ate our way through the weekend.

Here are some highlights:

Dinner at Bilacus in Bellagio.

Bilacus means Two Lakes in Latin, which is the ancient name for Bellagio, a town that sits between Lago di Como and Lago di Lecco.  It was a wonderful meal, especially following our Carte d’Or out-of-a-frozen-plastic-container dessert experience the preceding evening at the Tre Rose Hotel in our little town of Nesso.

The scene is a rooftop garden in Bellagio, overlooking a steep cobblestone street, up from the main lakefront promenade.  It started with prosciutto e melone – the melon served in a glass bowl over ice, and the prosciutto sliced paper thin at room temperature.  The combination is exactly what that appetizer is meant to be – a juxtaposition of taste, temperature and texture.  The melon is sweet, crisp and fresh, the prosciutto salty and soft.

The melon rinds also looked particularly artistic after I had polished off every last bite:

This was followed by spaghetti alle vongole (clams), one of my favorite dishes ever.

It was served in a simple, light tomato sauce with fresh clams.  Delicious.

For dessert, scarred as we were from the night before, and full as we were from our delicious meal, we ordered tiramisu to share.  But when it arrived I took one bite and ordered my own.

Tiramisu is already one of my favorite desserts, and this one ranks pretty well towards the top of the list.  Super creamy, lady finger cookies falling apart soaked in coffee and liquor, cocoa powder on top.  Heaven.

 

 

Another highlight was lunch in Lezzeno at Aurora’s, a small town between Nesso and Bellagio.  The Aurora is a hotel with a large terrace restaurant overlooking the lake.  We had a prime spot right by the railing from which we could enjoy the view of the lake, plus laugh at the children playing on the floating trampoline.  Sadly, they rushed us to order as the kitchen was closing, and I was thus out-ordered by my fellow diners, notably by this enourmous dish of mussels, which, if you can believe it, in this photo has already been picked over by two people:

There was also an Aperol spritz – inspired by my trip to Venice in May where everyone drinks them:

Note the two large, blue straws.  Very important for efficient consumption.

 

But perhaps the best meal was homemade breakfast on our final day which included french toast (admittedly not very Italian), salumi, cheese, apricots and little green plums.  All washed down with some strong Italian coffee expertly brewed by my housemates.  It was difficult to leave a few hours later, to return to England’s green (and cold and wet) land.

 

A picture of the view from our house, for good measure:

Lunch at Oxalys, Val Thorens, France, 9 March 2011

With Stephanie Lyndon

Back in March, Stephanie and I went skiing in the Alps.  One of the highlights of the trip was lunch at Oxalys, the highest (as in altitude) starred Michelin restaurant in the world.  I’ll get to the actual food in a second, but the lead up is a story in and of itself.  It took us all morning to ski there, and after meticulously scoping out the location (on the side of the mountain) we set off for another run.  Except we miscalculated our timing and ended up, 15 minutes before our reservation, down the hill from restaurant.

What to do?

Most people (although surely no one I know), might have skied down, taken the lift back up, and then skied down the correct trail – almost certainly arriving 15 minutes late.

But not us.  Intrepid skiers and ladies who lunch that we are, we snapped out of our skis right there, swung them over our shoulders and hiked up the hill, to the general amusement and bewilderment of  everyone else skiing down it.  I reflected at various points in this trajectory that there are few things that would induce me to climb up a hill in ski boots with skis over my shoulders, but apparently lunch is one of them.

In the end we arrived, switched out our ski goggles for some chic sunglasses, and proceeded on to the deck for lunch.  We were seated in full sunshine with a panoramic view of the mountains.  I promptly ordered a Kir Royal.  And the tasting menu.

The View

The first thing to arrive was the aperitif – a small parmesan cracker with peas and watercress.  Followed by the amuse bouche, a trio to be eaten left to right:

1.    a goat cheese sandwich with gooey oh-so-soft cheese between two crisp, layered crackers
2.    a small pot of crab with grapefruit jelly
3.    a smoked egg with asparagus veloute served in the eggshell – kind of like a souffle (or heaven, take your pick)

The Amuse

Then the first course: Papin oysters poached in Jerusalem artichoke and foie gras veloute with walnuts and “vin jaune” (yellow wine, but don’t ask me what that means).  It was creamy and rich, while at the same time light as a feather, with the silkiness of the oysters and the veloute perfectly complemented by the crunchy bits of walnut.

The Veloute

Second course: I had trout, perfectly cooked and nice and pink on the inside, with a watercress puree sauce and fresh watercress on top.  Stephanie had the homard bleu (blue lobster) with a curcuma sauce and beetroot.

The Trout       

Third course: we both had the filet of beef, mine cooked rare (the only way to eat meat, really), with a sarrasin (buckwheat) puree and spring onion.

The Meat

Then the cheese tray arrived.

Le Fromage

All sourced from Savoie, we chose 8 different kinds including three varieties of Reblochon, the local specialty, one classic, one smoked in pine and one that was ½ goats milk ½ cows milk.  We also tried a yummy hard goat’s milk cheese with fennel.  Did I mention I love cheese?

Oh, you thought it was over?  Think again.  In comes the palate cleanser (sorry, no photo, we at it too fast).  Followed by (drum roll please) the real dessert: La Pomme.  The house specialty, La Pomme is a meringue shell enclosing small bits of green apple in a sort of creme anglaise (but better).  You eat it by cracking the meringue and eating it all together kind of like Eton Mess (link for the Americans).

La Pomme Avant          La Pomme Apres

At this point we had run out of wine (both half bottles of it) and so naturally ordered two glasses of pink champagne.  We topped it off with an espresso.

The Aftermath

Sidebar: I got up to go to the toilettes before the cheese course and missed the visit from the chef – Jean Sulpice.  Stephanie, not speaking French, was able to say it was delicious but couldn’t get out anything else.  When I got back, I was of course devastated to hear I had missed this and so asked the waitress if he could come back, which he eventually did, at which point, in addition to telling him how amazing everything was, I also regaled him with the story of how we had hiked up the hill so as not to miss our reservation.  He looked at us like two crazy Americans (not unfounded, given the circumstances), and laughed.

It was 4pm by the time we finished, having outlasted every other table there.  A little bit tipsy, we somehow managed to get down to the chairlift and then onto the gondola home.  We skied down – trails completely in shadow and starting to ice up, but thankfully nothing too steep.  Thankfully, because skiing through an almost completely flat stretch, with no ice patch, bump or other obstacle in sight, I managed to fall spectacularly, throw both skis and end up caught in the orange plastic netting on the side of the trail, designed of course to keep people like me from falling down into the trees below.  I was duly hauled out by a nice, if slightly bemused, woman and her husband.  It was a miracle both my skis were still on the trail and not down in the woods.  I was unhurt, mostly embarrassed, but not even much of that as I was still rather drunk.

And so concludes another food adventure, beginning with strenuous phyiscal labor, and ending in a near death experience.  So worth it.