Posts Tagged ‘restaurant

Why Can’t We Eat Like Grownups?

Now that I’m a parent, nights out are going to be very few and far between. Which means every evening my husband and I do get to spend out of the house needs to be pretty damn special. Of course, the food and wine should be excellent. But more than anything else, it needs to be an opportunity for me to feel like a bona fide adult. One who has made the effort to change out of spit-up covered yoga pants and, for a few hours at least, has no desire to discuss poopy diapers or sleep schedules or how expensive Enfamil is. (Very, by the way.) I have vivid memories of my mom at her vanity table, spraying Private Collection on her wrists and putting on her pearl and diamond earrings. This lady was getting ready for a night out. There would be drinking, there would be smoking, there would be adult conversation, there would be all kinds of grown up goings-on I wouldn’t understand. It was mysterious, and thrilling.

The thing is, if I wanted to have a night like that at a restaurant in New York City in 2011, I would have no idea where to go.
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Roman Holiday Finale

The exciting conclusion of Bene’s Roman adventure…
My final night in Rome, I treated myself to a blowout dinner. Not that I’d been restricting myself previously. But that day at lunch, I managed to only eat 2 pieces of pizza and a trapizzino, a pizza bianca sandwich stuffed with Roman fare like tripe, from a very cool slice joint in Testaccio called 00100. Before dinner, I took a walk through the old Jewish Ghetto to burn off a few calories and regain my appetite. The main thing my stroll accomplished was to remind me I hadn’t eaten fried artichokes alla Giudia this trip.

My final destination, the fish restaurant il Sanlorenzo, was another of my friend Giampaolo’s recommendations. I’d noticed it on a previous trip, all glass doors and stark decor smack dab in the middle of the historic center. Their fish arrives daily from Ponza, an island closer to Naples than Rome but part of Lazio, and Civitavecchia, a coastal town about an hour northwest of Rome. For fresher fish, you’d need to catch it yourself.

I’ve traveled a lot by myself, and I’ve noticed that solo diners often get the short end of the stick. Servers forget about you, and you’re restricted to a selection of wines by the glass unless you’re up for either drinking an entire bottle or paying for an entire bottle without finishing it. In Buenos Aires, a waiter actually whisked away the second chair at my table midway through the meal because another table needed it, leaving me feeling rather unloved and dejected. At il Sanlorenzo, instead, I was treated like a queen by co-owner Enrico Pierri, who runs the place with his wife Elena. The menu offered a tasting option that didn’t quite speak to me, a ton of other dishes that did, a substantial raw bar, and several specials. Indecision! The other problem of dining alone is that you have less to order and no one else’s dishes to taste; your decisions feel weightier. Enrico, who sent out a glass of Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs with the kitchen’s amuse bouche of fried anchovies and pancetta-cheese fritters, recognized my paralysis and offered to create a tasting menu just for me. And I said, yes, I want to go to there!

I began with a 2007 Luigi Maffini Pietraincatenata, a barrel-aged Fiano from Paestum that showed a lot more complexity than the usual Fianos from Avellino, and a trio of glistening crudi: cod, tuna, and amberjack, seasoned simply with a sprinkling of chives here, a chiffonade of basil there. My second course was a carpaccio of red shrimp, dressed with olive oil and lemon, which tasted like sweet butter of the sea. I made a mental note to get my cholesterol checked back home. My one request for my personalized tasting menu was sea urchin, and next arrived 6 perfect specimens on a bed of ice. Briny, sweet, with a bracing tinge of seaside metallic, they disappeared quickly.

The kitchen’s subsequent gift: a glass jar of squid, octopus, clams, mussels, and shrimp, which my server shook, gracefully emptied onto a plate with some basil, and dressed with a fruity olive oil. By this point I was drinking a 2009 Baroncino Chardonnay, a special mention winner at this year’s Vinitaly. Sea urchin returned with spaghetti, the sea creatures’ richness matching the nutty Chardonnay. Finally, out came a perfect fillet of spigola (that’s sea bass to you) served with lemon-scented potatoes topped with caviar, paired with a Bianco della Castellada, a “super-white” blend from one of Friuli’s most outstanding producers.
My two-course dessert consisted of cold strawberry soup surrounding an island of citrus panna cotta and a very grownup version of a kid’s Nutella sandwich: bread gelato (bizarrely delicious) and Gianduia gelato, served with a mini Nutella sandwich on a bread plate to the side. I wanted a dessert wine but instead wisely opted for a digestion aid in the form of Tre Soli Tre, a single-vineyard Nebbiolo grappa from Lombardy producer Berta. Sated, smiling, and even a little giddy from all that amazing food and wine, I was already planning where to eat on my next trip to Rome.

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Roman Holiday #2: A Visit with the Archangel

Bene’s next installment finds her visiting Ristorante L’Arcangelo. I’ll spare you puns about the food being heavenly, but I couldn’t resist thisFra Angelico fresco of The Annunciation. (The Archangel Gabriel — get it?)

When I moved to Rome in the mid-90s, I witnessed initial sparks of a food revolution. The Slow Food movement, which began in Italy’s Piedmont region, was making inroads, and a handful of restaurateurs were trying to wake the Eternal City up from its eternal reliance on tired trattorie. Fifteen years later, I found a really exciting culinary energy in the city, with more and more chefs successfully putting their own spin on Roman cuisine without ever abandoning old favorites completely. A great example of this was Ristorante L’Arcangelo, where chef Arcangelo Dandini breathes new life into the classic dishes, techniques, and ingredients of Rome and the surrounding area.

My companion, John, and I started with a glass of St. Paul’s Gewurztraminer and Casale Certosa Convenio Malvasia di Puntinata (again sticking to my “drink local” adage), respectively, as we admired our amuse bouche of lentils from the Lazio town of Onano, cooked simply in a dark, rich, tomato-based sauce. We split an incredible potato-cheese torte, smoky with mackerel and grilled rosemary, with marinated beets providing acidity and color, and also shared fried nuggets of rabbit with raisins, pine nuts, ramoracce, wild greens found in the Roman countryside, and croutons made from sweet fette biscottate, packaged crisp toasts that are a staple of the Italian breakfast table, such as it exists. During our starters, we moved into the bottle we’d selected, a 2006 Montevertine, a Sangiovese-Canaiolo blend I had way higher hopes for. It should have been complex with a long finish, but it never seemed to open up; it was just, well, okay. Maybe in a few years.

John and I shared one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten: thick spaghetti with aglio rosso (“red garlic”), grape must, and extra-aged Parmigiano. I have no idea what they did or how they did it, only that these three ingredients came together in an astoundingly delicious way. We went our separate ways with course #3, John choosing the pigeon special (evidently the mascot of the week), and me going with what was billed on the menu as an “aromatic torment,” which turned out to be small tasting portions of anchovies with butter, a brioche-like sweet bread, and a dusting of ground coffee; roast quail with lavender and cicerchie, a legume related to the chickpea; porchetta; and unctuous oxtail, another staple of Roman cooking. Our dark chocolate, turmeric-infused dessert was nicely paired with a highly-spiced, herbaceous Barolo Chinato from Teobaldo Cappellano, whose ancestor apparently invented the stuff.

Riding back to my hotel on the back of John’s moped, I reflected on the dinner, which was both totally Roman and one step removed. I felt like I’d seen an old friend who had gotten a great new haircut: same friend, just a little spruced up.

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Italian Wine Week: The Final Chapter

Italian Wine Week ended on a strong note. (It also ended a week ago, so I’m taking a very Italian approach to deadlines here. What can I tell you, it’s August.)

I rebounded from my disappointment with the Lupi Le Braje and cracked open a bottle of Lini Lambrusco ($14.99) Monday night. Full disclosure: I have had this wine before (“isn’t that cheating?” my husband asked with raised eyebrow as I popped the cork). Yes, OK, so sue me. I wanted a sure thing–and I wanted to smile. Because it’s impossible to drink this wine without smiling. A fizzy red with bright cherry and strawberry aromas, and more than a touch of earthiness, this wine is incredibly easy to like. The bubbles + substantial acidity have a way of working up one’s appetite, and I’m confident I could conquer even the most daunting plate of salumi with this Lini by my side. This is a terrific, casual red for summer.

Tuesday night I went in for a more refined, but no less satisfying, wine experience at dell’Anima.
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Hey, Sommelier–I’m Talking to You

Eric Asimov’s recent article about sommeliers who taste wine before serving  has sparked a lot of discussion in the wine blogo/Twittersphere. The practice doesn’t bother me, but the piece, and the reaction it provoked, got me thinking a lot about my sommelier pet peeves. First let me say that the majority of my encounters with sommeliers have been positive. I know it’s not an easy job, and I appreciate the effort, skill, and training required. But. There are some exceptions, and I’ve had my fair share of negative experiences. And when things do go bad, it usually plays out a little something like this:

Hi there. Yes, I’m talking to you, gangly guy in your early 30s with the interesting glasses on. Could I get a little help over here with the wine list? I have some questions. Yes, the woman at the table is ordering the wine! Crazy, I know. Yeah, I saw the look of surprise on your face when my husband handed me the wine list. Anyway, speaking of the wine list, you dropped the list off quickly, with a few perfunctory words, before rushing off to another table. Specifically, that table of guys sipping on their super-Tuscans, so I didn’t have time to ask you about your wine program. Do you feature wines from a certain region, or made from a certain variety, because the chef thinks they bring out the best in his food? Are you serving something new by the glass this week? I’d love to know. Actually, I’d love for you to tell me. The host, busboys, and servers have all been lovely so far, and your inattentiveness stands out like a sore thumb.

So. I wanted to ask you about this Sagrantino di Montefalco. I’ve had a few I’ve enjoyed, but I’m not familiar with this particular one. Can you tell me anything about it? Also, I’d love it if you could pronounce the name correctly. I’m not asking you to be fluent in Italian or even to have a decent accent, but if you could at least not add syllables that aren’t there, or omit ones that are, that would be great. If I dig this wine and want to order it again or purchase it at retail, I’d love to be able to say it right. And, I confess, another reason I’m asking about the Sagrantino is to telegraph that I know a little something about wine. That’s so you won’t automatically steer me towards a wine you think I’ll be comfortable with because it has a familiar name or a middle-of-the-road flavor profile.  Sure, I could tell you about my wine qualifications, but this is a date, not a job interview, and I’d rather engage you in a little conversation. Word to the wise: women are less likely to brag about their knowledge than men are. Yes, I know, it’s our responsbility to speak up. But the upside is, we’re much less apt to “demonstrate [our] hubris and wine knowledge like a rooster strutting before a cockfight.” So take a deep breath. Relaxed? Great. Now look me in the eye, smile, and try not to look bored.

And when I ask you to tell me about the wine, please lead with how it tastes and will match with the food. Right now, I don’t care about the yeast strain used, the history of winemaking in Umbria, or the producer’s stance on globalization. If I like what I hear, great–I’ll order it and then you can share a fun factoid or interesting story.  And if I’m not feeling it, let’s work together to find something else in the same price range. I promise to be specific about my likes and dislikes, if you promise not to just randomly point to a wine that’s $40 more expensive and say “that’s good, too.”

Once that fun is over, I’m sure you’ll do a competent job of presenting the wine to me, pouring it, and making sure our glasses are adequately filled throughout the meal. But I’m not sure that you’ll ask me how I like the wine, if it’s working well with what we’re eating, or see if I have any more questions. I understand that you don’t want to be intrusive, but the rest of the staff here manages to strike that perfect balance of warmth and professionalism–why can’t you? Did you miss that day? If I say I really like this wine, could you maybe write it down for me? Or even remove the label and give it to me at the end of the meal?* It’s the details and little courtesies that people remember. I can promise you that five years from now I won’t be able to recall what the food here tastes like, but if the server, say, brings us a second round of chocolates with our coffee because we couldn’t stop raving about them, I will never forget it.

I get it–your job is super-cool. You get to taste amazing wines and meet fascinating winemakers. You know what else you get to do? Serve me. Because, whether you like it or not, you are in the service profession. So stop treating me like  a nuisance you have to deal with between the fun stuff you get to do. Clearly you know a lot about wine and love it, but that’s not enough. You have to know something about people, too.

*I’ve had sommeliers do this for me a few times at Gramercy Tavern and 11 Madison Park, and this kind of stuff is why I frequent Danny Meyer’s restaurants as often as my budget allows.

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Dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barns

A few weeks ago Paul and I had the delightful opportunity to celebrate our anniversary at Blue Hill Stone Barns. We’ve wanted to check out this temple-to-all-things-local for years, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, BHSB exceeded our expectations on all accounts. The food was a great reminder that subtle flavors can still be fascinating. My favorite dish was a brioche made with red fife wheat topped with greens “marmalade” and ricotta. Nothing exotic–just beautifully executed food. We went whole hog with the 8-course tasting menu, complete with wine pairings. The 1991 López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Gran Reserva Rioja was stellar, offering earthy complexity and refreshment in equal measure. And mad props to the sommelier for selecting the luscious 2005 Macari Block E Sauvignon Blanc from Long Island to accompany our multiple berry desserts: a kind of blackberry parfait and a pseudo-cœur à la creme topped with raspberries.

One of the highlights of the evening was walking the grounds. We checked out the greenhouses and their neat rows of every leafy thing imaginable, and made some new furry and feathered friends (none of whom were featured on the menu). Here’s a little photographic tour, with pics courtesy of my better half:

Up close and personal with an actual Blue Hill Stone Barns chicken. Bet he’s all like “this backyard urban chicken trend is total BS. Country chicken livin’  is where it’s AT.”

We got into a staring contest with some sheep.

And woke up the sheepdog. Sorry, buddy.

Me, posing awkwardly in front of a greenhouse. Feel like I’m in that scene in Talladega Nights where Will Ferrell doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

Idyllic, no?

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France Restaurant Rundown

I’m about to turn 37 (yikes), and the older I get, the less tolerance I have for bullshit — especially when it comes to restaurants. Complicated “do you know how our menu works?” ordering regimes, the tiresome fetish for fatty pork parts cultivated by nearly every restaurant chef in New York City, rampant overuse of the word “sustainable” on menus…enough already. I was really looking forward to our trip to France as a return to restaurant sanity. Give me three well-prepared courses, served in a moderately comfortable environment by competent waitstaff — and of course accompanied by a good bottle of wine — and I’d be happy.

It was kind of a tale of two cities.
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