Archive for the ‘Eats’ category

France Dining Recap

June 12, 2019


Since becoming such an enthusiast of wine in my mid 20s, it’s been a dream of mine to visit Bordeaux, a region which I believe produces the greatest wines in the world. Instead of home-basing out of downtown Bordeaux, I decided to focus on one specific region- St. Emilion on the right bank of the Gironde River. The easiest way to access Bordeaux is in and out of Paris, as high-speed trains travel between the two cities several times daily, and rental cars are easily available at the Bordeaux train station. One of the best parts of visiting France is enjoying the food, so my Sidekick Courtney (who would soon become my fiance) and I focused on authentic bistro style meals in both regions. The results of our culinary adventures follow below, and played a big part in making this a trip we will never forget. We can recommend dining at each of these destinations.


L’Envers du Decor- Bright, bustling and authentic bistro features a chalkboard menu as dishes change daily, and in English to boot. I opted for a rich appetizer of rabbit liver followed by a perfectly cooked and substantial filet of beef. We were dining here among the locals as news of the Notre Dame fire spread throughout the restaurant.




La Terrasse Rouge- The restaurant at La Dominique vineyard offers an affordable three course tasting menu (€39, additional €25 for a three glass wine pairing) combined with expansive vineyard views that look north towards Pomerol. Adjacent first growth Cheval Blanc is visible as well. Lunch consisted of goat cheese ravioli and a succulent roasted breast of duck. Terrace seating is available in warmer months, but the main dining room smells incredible, and the views are the same.




Lard et Bouchon- The entire St. Emilion region is defined by its limestone plateau, so dining inside of one of its quarries is a magical and mandatory experience. The food here was arguably the most flavor-intense of our entire trip. Innovative dishes like poached eggs in Bordelaise sauce with foie gras and duck breast topped with a foie gras cutlet in Perigeux sauce really hit the bull’s-eye.




Atelier de Candale-The intimate restaurant at Chateau Candale offers a bargain prix fixe menu at lunch time (€26) in a gorgeous countryside vineyard setting. A crab meat and lobster bisque was followed by a perfectly medium-rare cooked and richly prepared filet of beef. Outdoor seating is available in warmer months, and the dining room features floor to ceiling windows to soak in the views.




Les Delices Du Roy- This small and casual bistro is famous for its duck burger, so that’s what you order here. This is not ground duck, as you can plainly see, but instead consists of sliced duck breast and foie gras cutlets doused in a rich green peppercorn sauce. Knife and fork are advisable when consuming this juicy dish. An appetizer of rabbit terrine was the perfect prelude.


La Table de Plaisance- This Michelin two star restaurant provided a unique and romantic ambiance to both execute a proposal and celebrate an engagement. The terrace looks out upon the Monolithic church with the city square and medieval town below. At €72 per person for three courses and two glasses of wine, this is a bargain special occasion lunch for such a highly acclaimed establishment. Highlights included a white asparagus soup and monkfish soaked in beets and wrapped in bacon.





Chai Pascal- Cozy and laid back wine bar was the perfect finale to our St. Emilion adventure, as the friendly servers delivered substantial portions of rustic bistro classics at affordable prices. My starter of pork terrine could have been a meal in itself, but I made room to finish the crispy, gamey confit leg of duck.





Le Procope- Always a lively destination for a late night dinner on Rue l’Ancienne Comedie, Paris’ oldest cafe is always a mandatory stop when visiting the city, specifically for its famous Coq Au Vin served in a cauldron.



Les Deux Magots- No cafe crawl can be considered complete without a trip to this famous literary rendez-vous next to the Saint-Germain des Pres church. It served as the perfect first meal off the plane for weary travelers as the confit duck leg served with crispy potatoes really hit the spot.



Polidor- Hemingway’s favorite establishment still draws a packed house in a noisy, bustling setting. They go to extreme measures to maintain the antique quality of the place; for example, the restroom consists of a single hole in the ground behind a door (not pictured). The service is friendly, if a bit frantic and inattentive, but the Beef Bourguignon with mashed potatoes lived up to its billing.



Le Petit Pontoise- A charming little restaurant off the south bank of the Seine that provides a €23 two course lunch menu along with friendly service. We sat outside on a narrow sidewalk as I started with a pork mousse terrine followed by a sliced duck breast in peppercorn sauce served with roasted potatoes and carrots.




Le Trumilou- Finding decent dining in the touristy area around the Notre Dame can be challenging, but you could do worse than this location set just north of the Seine. They offer a two course lunch for €20, which culminated in a simply prepared roast beef .


Cafe Pont Neuf- We enjoyed an impromptu and leisurely Easter brunch here at this centrally located spot before heading to the airport, and I finally got my leg of lamb.


Au Revoir!



The 10 Best Pork Dishes in Chicago

February 20, 2018

I live in Chicago. I love pork. There are lots of great pork dishes in Chicago, and that makes me very happy. Here are the ten best, in alphabetical order!

AVEC: Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder (Tuscan kale, gigante bean ribolitta, apple and pecorino cheese)


BELLY Q: Roasted Pork Butt (curry bbq, Asian giardiniera)

belly q

ENTENTE: Berkshire Pork (savoy, mustards, pastrami spiced pork belly, smoked rye)


GILT BAR: Slow Roasted Pork Belly (grits, cider jus, parsley)


GIRL AND THE GOAT: Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face (sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine maple, potato stix)

pig face

PROXI: Slagel Farm Pork Porterhouse (mushroom escabeche, coal roasted onion soubise)

proxi pic (20)

THE PUBLICAN: Slagel Farm Porchetta (paprika broth, Nicoise olive, pecorino and breadcrumb)


THE PURPLE PIG: Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder (mashed potatoes, puffed farro)


ROISTER: Pork Butt (dark and stormy glaze, red peas, fried pecans)


SMOQUE: Smoked Pulled Pork (baked beans, cole slaw)


Positano Town and Dining Recap

May 13, 2013

Hotel: Villa Franca

The main draw to Villa Franca is its location up and away from the hectic tourist bustle of the Marina Grande beach. The hotel is situated at the top of the “vertical village” of Positano, and offers spectacular views of the town and the sea below from its rooms’ terraces, its dining areas, and especially its panoramic rooftop pool. Aside from being a potential home base for various day trips around the Amalfi coast, there isn’t a lot to do in Positano besides eat, drink and enjoy the surrounding beauty, and we found Villa Franca to be a luxurious option for that.

Its positioning away from the beach necessitates an atmosphere that can be enjoyed independently, and luckily we were able to spend many hours simply enjoying the pool, our terrace and the hotel lobby. If the atmosphere of the hotel itself was any less enjoyable, it could potentially be a problem, as getting down to the beach can be a bit of an ordeal, especially with a stroller. The hotel does offer shuttle service to and from a spot in the city center, but not always promptly and not at the most convenient times. Perhaps the greatest help that the hotel provided was talking me out of taking the ferry from Salerno to Positano (which would have been impossible) and ponying up for a €120 private transfer instead, which was well worth the money for the convenience. While we enjoyed our stay here very much, it came not without its fair share of kinks.


The good: For a reasonable €220 a night, we enjoyed a lovely (if small) room with a beautiful balcony overlooking the sea and the Fornillo Beach (Above). We kept the doors wide open every night and fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing into the rocks below. The room itself is very up to date and the flat screen TV offers several hundred digital channels- my wife was even able to find Nickelodean Jr. in Italian, which kept our son occupied. In terms of amenities, the spa and workout facility provided a bit more leisure than our previous experience in Montalcino, and were decent enough considering that Positano is again, a very small town. Included in the rate is a full scale breakfast including bacon and eggs, pizza, fruit, pastries and coffee that was well worth taking advantage of, and in a couple of cases resulted in us not needing anything for lunch. The lobby, bar and restaurant area are all elegantly appointed and offer lovely scenic views of the hotel’s incredible surroundings. One particular bartender, Mateo, was one of the friendliest people we came across during our entire trip. But, as mentioned before, the real draw for this place is the amazing rooftop pool. (Below). We were lucky enough to have a few very warm days with which to enjoy it. I entered the pool on two occasions and took our son swimming for the first time in his life. I can only hope he wasn’t turned off from swimming altogether, as the pool temperature was approaching what I like to refer to as “Lake Michigan Cold.”


The bad: While the overall ambiance of the hotel lends comfort and relaxation and tends to overcome its less than ideal position relative to the city, the dining options leave much to be desired (which makes taking advantage of breakfast and loading up even more important). The fine dining establishment is not family friendly and appeared incredibly overpriced relative to even some of the better restaurants in the area, while the pool bar bordered on absurdity (€18 for a sandwich of lox on wonderbread, €16 for a well done burger sloppily presented, €7 for a beer).

This wouldn’t normally be a problem except for the combination of the fact that the staff doesn’t seem to be incredibly helpful in terms of assisting with more suitable dining options and that the town itself is quite difficult to navigate without said assistance. When I tried to confirm a reservation at Donna Rosa for dinner the morning of, I was informed by the lady at the desk that they can confirm our reservation but that the restaurant no longer offered a shuttle service to and from its premises. Since the place was a good distance away and I didn’t really want to deal with cabs after dark, this was a dealbreaker for me, so we made other plans, only to learn later that the shuttle did indeed come to pick us up. Unfortunately we were not there. When I tried to reschedule the reservation, the restaurant was understandably upset and refused to come to pick us up again, so we did not get to dine there. This was a major communication breakdown at the front desk.

It was also interesting to me, given that the staff could clearly see that we were traveling with a baby in a stroller, that every time I asked for directions anywhere, the answer always involved stairs. Indeed, the shortest route from Point A to Point B usually results from climbing up and down the town’s steep stair systems that create a straight line between points. However, did it not ever occur to them that I might be willing to take a slightly longer route in order to save myself the fatigue and moderate danger of climbing up and down hundreds of stairs with a baby and a stroller? I kid you not, it took me the full five days we were there to discover that by simply winding around down the single street the hotel was on, we could get all the way down to the beach. Perhaps that is on me, but I definitely got the feeling that the staff was actively attempting to dissuade me from leaving the hotel.

Another incredibly bizarre aspect of a hotel this seemingly luxurious was their general attitude towards the consumption of outside beverages anywhere on the premises. I can understand opposition to drinking my own wine at the bar or at the pool, but to go out of their way to make it difficult for me to drink bottles of wine I had bought in Italy on the comfort of my terrace that I was paying handsomely for left a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, there was no corkscrew in our room. I was told it should be in the mini-bar, and when I informed the front desk that it was not, no one ever came to my room to provide one. I was subjected to bringing my bottles down to the bar, one by one on a nightly basis, to Mateo, who happily opened them for me free of charge. Worse yet was when the lady at the desk informed me that I had to use the “plastic glasses” in the room to drink my wine and that I could not bring actual glassware there as it was “too dangerous for them.”

Too dangerous for YOU? Did something get lost in translation there? Look lady. I’ve got four bottles of Brunello that I just brought down here from Tuscany. I’m not drinking them out of a freaking plastic cup. You can bet after I ordered a glass of wine at the bar that night that I took the empty glass upstairs and kept it safely hidden for the duration of my stay. And that’s just silly. It shouldn’t be that way at a resort on this level of otherwise very high quality.


I think I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything quite like Positano. In terms of terrain, it’s most similar to the villages of the Cinque Terre on the northeastern coast of the country, with its steep cliffs and colorful houses hanging off the edges. But the Cinque Terre towns are quiet and peaceful. We were shocked at how busy, even before the high season, the roads in Positano were.

In terms of pure beauty, Positano probably has the edge on the Cinque Terre towns just by nature of its pure grandeur. The cliffs are steeper, the views higher elevated, the encompassing areas more vast. It takes on an especially unique beauty at dusk (Below). The town seemed bigger and livelier than I had expected. Winding down to the beach, you find more sets of stairs leading to boutique shops and the only three ATM machines in the entire town. We even killed some time at a little cafe called Bar Mulino Verde and received very friendly service while we waited for our shuttle. The Marina Grande Beach area itself is full of little bars and restaurants that always appeared packed whenever we went down there. The beaches are a bit dirty and look painful to lay on, with crushed rock rather than fine sand, but that isn’t atypical compared to a lot of what we’ve seen in Europe on the coast, and shouldn’t be surprising considering how rugged the terrain here is. The Marina Grande is linked to the Fornillo Beach by a convenient ramp that is worth hiking up at least once.


Due to the overall difficulty of getting all the way down to the beach, we never rode the ferry boats and opted instead to catch the SITA bus for our daytrip to Ravello (I was again told to go up the stairs, but instead took about a five minute winding uphill walk on the road). To say this was an experience would be an understatement. When the bus comes, the people waiting to get on rush towards the open doors in a frantic attempt to attain a seat while demonstrating a reckless disregard for humanity. We were lucky enough to attain a seat (I think a few people helped us because they saw we were with a young child), but the bus was packed with travelers forced to stand who hovered over us. It was difficult to enjoy the lovely views that this drive offered, but we did our best as it took 90 minutes to travel from Positano to Amalfi to catch another bus to Ravello. The return trip was even more daunting, as there isn’t really a bus “stop” in Amalfi, but instead globs of people surrounding random buses trying to guess which one they need to board. I nearly suffocated attempting to get on.

Even so, I don’t regret making the trip there. Ravello is truly one of the prettiest places that I have ever seen in my life. The lively square and and authentic cobblestone streets only add to the intrigue of this tiny town perched hundreds of meters above the sea. There are two main garden attractions in Ravello, the Villa Rufolo, which is conveniently situated right on the square, and the Villa Cimbrone, which requires a bit more of an uphill hike, but is not to be missed, especially after making the considerable effort to get there. From this high vantage point, I found most striking the relative calm of the water below. Besides possibly Santorini, Greece, I’ve never seen anything like it. Like that island, this is a place I could see coming to later in life just to relax for a week or so. –




Since the breakfast at Villa Franca was so substantial, we ended up having only five sit down meals during our time in Positano. Each one had its own unique, generally amazing view, and unlike many tourist towns, these places didn’t use their view as an excuse to serve subpar food. Every meal we had was exceptional. Since we were eating while looking at the water, I reverted to my general rule of seafood and white wine, a dramatic shift from my dining style while in Tuscany.


After walking down to the Marina Grande Beach, we took a ramp up about 400m to Fornillo Beach and over to the Hotel Pupetto. We received very friendly service here and enjoyed a table right on the beach, where the sound of the waves crashing into the sand served as the soundtrack for our meal (Below).


We shared an appetizer of Fritto Misto, or fresh fried fish, which included squid, prawns and a local fish that tasted to me like sardines (Below). It was evident from the flavor that it was remarkably fresh, probably caught that morning.


For my main course, I enjoyed a large dish of spaghetti con vongole (clams), simply seasoned with tomatoes and herbs (Below). This dish is pretty straightforward but isn’t flashy by nature, but was quite substantial for the price.


Villa Gabrisa

We stumbled upon this hotel restaurant when wandering around down the hill from our hotel, and made a point to head back to it on one of our open nights. The unique positioning of its outdoor dining area sits looking over a massive cliff down to the sea below, and also offers a spectacular view of the hills to the east (Below). We were served by the daughter of the hotel’s owners and she was very friendly to us.


Since the combination of the table and the view were so perfect, we decided to go for it all here, and ordered a large appetizer spread of bruschetta and calamari, followed by fresh cod (which came with the head still attached, Below), sea bass with green olives garnished with orange (Below), and lemon pound cake, a specialty of the region. This was among the very best meals we had in all of Italy, and we enjoyed a bottle of local white wine that paired perfectly with the food, as well as the sunset.



Da Salvatore

On our third day on the Amalfi Coast, we took the aforementioned SITA bus ride to Ravello, and ended up at this magnificent lunch spot upon our arrival. For all the great dining views we had while staying in Positano, this one probably topped them all (Below).


The menu at this restaurant is bursting with imagination and innovative dishes. I only wish that we could have had full blown dinner here as so many of the options interested me. If I ever make it back to Ravello, which I hope to do someday, you can be this place will be at the top of my list. I ordered a single course, the ricotta gnocchi in orange peel with walnuts next to veal cheek braised in red wine (Below). The gnocchi, having been made from from cheese rather than potatoes, was remarkably soft yet rich, and the contrasts of other flavors resulted in one of the more exciting dishes I tasted on this trip.


La Pergola

Looking for a family friendly spot among the restaurants that line the Marina Grande Beach following our long day trip to Positano, we landed upon this spot after a brief amount of deliberation. We spotted a table right on the boardwalk, and the friendly servers didn’t seem to mind as our son ran all around the restaurant. I decided to keep it simple since we’d had a long day, and just ordered a single course of seafood risotto , which was simply enormous.


Da Vincenzo

For our final dinner, I saved the best for last. Situated down the winding street of Ville Pasitea, Da Vincenzo offers outdoor tables with a fantastic vantage point overlooking the hills to the east (Below). This ended up being our most expensive meal of the entire trip, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Positano.


For a first course, I tried the highly recommended homemade ravioli with ricotta, sweet cherry, tomato and fresh basil (Below). The sauce created by the local tomato and basil was simply stunning. We wiped up the leftover sauce with our bread and were in awe of the flavors.


For my main course, I was going to order a simple grilled sea bass, but I let the waiter talk me into getting the parmesan encrusted sea bass for a 5 Euro upcharge. He was so insistent and friendly about it, like he wanted to make sure I was getting the best possible dish for my last meal on the Amalfi Coast, so I certainly wasn’t going to quabble over a slightly higher expense. Bring it on. And I was so glad I did. The presentation alone (Below) was simply beyond words. I also really enjoyed the addition of orange slices to sea bass in particular, as this was the second time in Positano that I recieved this presentaion. This is definitely something I will be trying at home this summer, as it is in stark contrast to the typical lemon or lime garnish that I am accustomed to with fish in general. Yum.


And so it ended, my dream trip to Italy, a trip that I planned for over half a decade with countless rewrites of itineraties, hotels, restaurants and traveling strategies. In the end, we kept it as simple as we could have, spending the bulk of our time in the two vastly different cities of Montalcino and Positano. Having our nearly two year old son with us certainly presented its challenges at times, but it is something that we will always remember as a family, and in all honesty, there wasn’t a single thing on my list of things to do on this trip that we didn’t end up doing. Interestingly, this was the longest vacation I have taken (14 days) since after I graduated college in 2002 and I backpacked across Europe (15 days) with my best friend before I moved to Chicago and entered the real world. All things considered, this trip was perfect. Now, if I can just get an IU Hoops NCAA Basketball Title and a Cubs World Series win, I can die a happy man…after a few more trips back to Italy, of course.

Montalcino Town and Dining Recap

May 10, 2013

Hotel: Il Giglio

The Hotel Il Giglio is a small, family run establishment right on the main stretch of Montalcino a few hundred feet from the Piazza Popolo and Piazza Garibaldi. The old and rustic ambiance of the hotel fits the nature of the town perfectly, and we were very happy with the overall cleanliness and standards of the room. For being stuck in a tiny medieval town that seems almost frozen in time, Il Giglio offers free wifi, flat screen television with English channels, and an up to date bathroom with a glass-door shower (although no work out facility, as I was frequently reminded by my wife). The lobby is warm and inviting, and almost gives off the feeling that you are a guest in an old Italian home. (Below).


The owners Anna and Mario were very friendly to us, especially given that it became quickly apparent that the hotel is not generally used to accommodating young children. However, they happily re-arranged our room to make his baby crib fit comfortably and generally put up with him running around and causing chaos in the lobby. Even after he knocked over a ceramic vase in the lobby, breaking it upon impact, the owners remained cordial (it may have helped that we offered to reimburse the vase to the tune of €100). I was surprised at how well they spoke English, especially Anna, although I tried to speak Italian to them as often as I could. Their son, Michele, also works at the hotel and speaks perfect English. He was helpful in setting up restaurant reservations and answering general questions about the area.

The parking situation is a bit dicey, but in a town this small, the free parking lot offered by Il Giglio is certainly helpful. By the end of our six day stay there I think I finally had it figured out. The owners would park the car in the lot for us upon our return, but then it was up to us to retrieve the car from the lot when we needed to use it again, which for us was on a daily basis. The lot itself is down a hill from the hotel and shut behind a locked gate that you have to reach in and unlock from the outside in order to get in. After you figure that out (I didn’t on my first trip down the hill), there is an automatic wooden gate that you have to open. Wait for it to open completely, because if you drive too close to it while it is still in the process of opening, it will stop. I learned this the hard way but was pleased when I ran back up the hill to inquire about the gate and learned that indeed my car wasn’t stuck inside a broken gate, but that I merely needed to back it up and press the button again. The left turn you have to make in order to exit the lot requires several three point turns thanks to the narrow street, but I managed it. You quickly get an understanding as to why most people in this town use smart cars or motorcycles as their vehicle of choice.

We reserved Room #1 for the modest rate of €145, which is the only room in the hotel with a terrace. And oh what a terrace it is (Below). The terrace itself was nearly the same size as our entire room, and we certainly took advantage of it. I had basically planned our entire trip around staying in this particular room, so I was very pleased that there were no issues in receiving it. Breakfast is included in the rate, and includes basic cheeses, hams, cereals and yogurt as well as homemade cakes from Anna’s kitchen (although no hot food such as eggs or bacon). Since our little guy became quite a terror in the dining room, we enjoyed breakfast on our remarkable terrace instead.



One of the most immediately striking things about Montalcino is how truly small it is. In about five minutes you can walk from one end of the town center to the other and in another five minutes you can walk up through Piazza Garibaldi to the fortress (Below). By the end of six days we felt like everyone in town knew who we were. I will always vividly remember one morning I went out looking for milk, and there was none to be found at any grocery store in town; it had sold out. We literally had to wait for the milk man to come and make a delivery.


Still, even with such concision, this is a very serious wine town. The main streets are all lined with wine stores and wine tasting rooms, which pretty much makes it an ideal place for me. Our favorite was Enoteca di Piazza which is right next to the hotel, and offers over 100 tastes of wine, including such high end names as Casanova di Neri, Biondi Santi and Mastrojanni, using automated dispensers. I received friendly service and visited nearly every day I was there. My tastings were discounted significantly any time I bought a bottle from the store’s vast, reasonably priced selection. Any time that I ordered a glass of wine at a restaurant or cafe, it was accompanied by a circular card around the edge of the glass that stated the name of the producer and the vintage. Coming from a world where restaurants sometimes fail to even include vintages on their menus, it was eye-opening to see a town so unified in their passion for their local wine.

Montalcino is not a town for the clubbing crowd, and it turns quite sleepy at night. A typical day for us there consisted of sleeping in, having a late breakfast, grabbing the car around 11 or 12 to hit a winery or two and have lunch, and then returning around 4 or 5 for a pre-dinner siesta. For us, that meant me sitting on the terrace sipping wine and soaking in the view while my wife and son napped. A stroll through town at dusk on the way to dinner at one of the many quality restaurants really reveals Montalcino’s charm (Below). One thing I will never forget about this place is how it smells, especially in the evening. There always seems to be someone nearby with a massive fire burning, which fills the air with the smell of campfire and crackling wood. This wonderful aroma combines with all of the smoked meat and game being cooked at the various dining establishments, and the entire aroma of the place is just heavenly.



All of our meals in Montalcino were fantastic, and all of them were reasonably priced. Typically, appetizers run in the €6-10 range, pasta courses cost about €12-15, and main courses cost about €15-20. Rather than try to assemble a ranking of all the places we went to, which would be impossible, I’ll simply break down each meal individually in the order in which we ate them.

Il Giglio

This is as authentic a home cooked Tuscan meal as you will find, as hotel owner Anna literally cooks every order from scratch herself as the guests come in, while husband Mario and son Michele work the tables. Since we were staying at the hotel, we took advantage and had dinner here on our first night in Montalcino. The dining room is small and quiet and maintains an ambiance of elegance which wasn’t ideal for our son’s mood that night; luckily we were able to get him to sleep upstairs so we could enjoy our meal in the dining room. The first course of tagliatelle with wild hare ragu was rich and gamey, if a bit skimpy on the hare. The main course of Veal brasied in Brunello was incredibly tender and flavorful (Below).


Boccon Divino

For lunch on our second day, we made the short drive here. We had hoped to sit outside but the temperature was just a bit lower than typical for that time of the year, and they were not seating outside. No matter, the window seat inside served our purposes just fine. This place is worth a stop for the view alone (Below), but I also found the service to be very friendly and accommodating and the food to be innovative and flavorful.


I ordered a course of gnocchi in a sausage sugo with pine nutes, truffles and herbs to hold me over for lunch (Below). The portion was pretty small, but was rich and flavorful enough to get the job done.


Re di Mecchia

I made the trip next door to this tiny kitchen by myself on our second night, as the time change was still causing issues in my wife and son’s sleeping patterns. They missed perhaps the single best meal of the entire trip while catching up on those z’s. The whole place consists of maybe five tables, and if it feels like you are dining in someone’s living room while they cook in their kitchen, that’s because you are (Below).


My waiter recommended after I ordered the pinci pasta with wild boar ragu that I abstain from adding parmesan to it, so I happily complied. The dish was amazing. Homemade pinci pasta is a big thing in Montalcino- it’s basically a thicker version of spaghetti, and the gamey flavors of the boar really came through along side it (Below).


Since I was in the mood to demolish some hairy pig, I went with the stewed boar for my entree, which was as intensely flavored and perfectly cooked as anything I’ve ever tasted in Italy (Below).


Since I was by myself, I went for it all and ordered a delicious slice of tiramisu cake for my dessert. The presentation was terrific, and even being one who is not usually a dessert eater, I must admit it melted in my mouth and was quite delicious (Below).



This is really a wine bar that has transformed itself into one of Montalcino’s more elegant eateries, boasting probably the very best view over the hills of Tuscany through its large windows. We made a reservation at the earliest possible time in order to secure a window seat which I highly advise, as the ambiance isn’t as spectacular after the sun goes down. The owner Tullio is a very friendly guy, and really knows his wines. I paid up for the tasting flight of three Brunellos, which Tullio hand selects on a daily basis for a modest charge of €14.50. Trust him. In terms of food, the menu leaned a bit towards the vegetarian side of things, but I was able to find a dish of thick spaghetti in a bacon ragu served with pecorino cheese that went well with my three Brunellos. This seemed to be more of a place to pair food with wine than the other way around.


Taverna dei Barbi

This was another lunch stop where I had hoped to dine outside, but this was our on/off rainy day in Montalcino, so we hid inside a tiny private room in the back. Barbi is a winery, so I took advantage of the modest pricing and ordered a half bottle of their 2007 Brunello (91 Points) to have with my lunch. To start, I ordered tagliatelle ragu, which was flavorful enough, but the ragu was a bit thin and watery for my liking (Below).


For my main, I ordered the wild boar stew, which was a big, hearty dish that came off like a gamey pot roast (Below).


With some time to kill and the sun peaking out, we ordered another drink and got to spend some time on the terrace after all following our lunch (Below).


Taverna Grappolo Blu

Situated down the steps off the main road in Montalcino, this was one of the more modestly priced dining establishments we visited and has a very down-to-earth vibe thanks to its very friendly owner. My pasta dish of pinci al ragu di carne really hit the spot, and might have been the heartiest portion of pasta I ate all week (Below).


After some deliberation, I went with a main course of diced veal braised in balsamic, which was rich and tender, and gave me some cooking ideas to try out now that I’m back home (Below). After seeing the restaurant’s owner the next morning at the pharmacy, my theory that we were equivalent to locals in town at that point in our stay had become a corollary.


San Giorgio:

This place has a beautiful interior and tries to act like it is more elegant than it is; we got some dirty looks from some patrons as our son was acting up a bit, but in reality this is one of the most casual spots in town, which is evident from the pricing, which is about half of what you see elsewhere. We were pleasantly surprised, and simply split a sausage-gorgonzola pizza as well as a pepperoni pizza, and I ordered a veal osso bucco cooked with peas that was a surprisingly large portion for its price point, and was well-cooked and flavorful (Below).


The bottle of Fattoria dei Barbi Rosso we bought for €12 was also very modestly priced and went well with our food choices. This is certainly a good, filling option for dining on a budget, or with children.

Taverna Banfi

We enjoyed perhaps our longest meal here, ordering a bottle of the Belnero 2010 (92 Points, Below) and laboring over two courses and coffee after our son fell asleep in his stroller, a rare occasion for us indeed. This is a very nice restaurant with high ceilings that fills up completely on a daily basis, and as a result has a noisy buzz that creates a very casual ambiance.


I went with the wild boar pasta yet again here, and it was served in a far different style, with the sauce made from ground boar into more of a dark brown gravy (Below).


For my main course, I went for it all and got the pancetta arrosto, a roasted pork belly rolled with peppercorns in a Brunello au jus (Below).


Il Pozzo

We made a visit to the quiet, sleepy town of Sant Angelo en Colle for the sole purpose at dining at this well-regarded restaurant, which is run by two friendly sisters. We killed some time at a small grocery/ cafe store, and ran across a terrific sunset (Below) before securing our outdoor table when the restaurant opened.


It was worth the wait. A jug of delicious house wine washed down my final pinci pasta with meat ragu (Below).


I had planned to order osso bucco here as well, but it wasn’t on the menu, so I’m glad I ended up ordering some the night before. Instead, I turned towards my old standby, and went with the stewed wild boar. Again, this was a fantastic dish (Below). There is so much more complexity of flavor going on with boar than with a typical piece of pork.



Bar Alle Logge

This was a great place to drop in, and we ended up eating here a couple of times, as my wife really enjoyed the salad of  tuna and beans, and we were able to get our son to eat a grilled cheese sandwich. There is a wide selection of wines by the glass, which can be enjoyed while sitting outside under the bell tower on Piazza Popolo. A little known fact- I ordered my first of 3 wild boar pasta dishes here for lunch immediately after we arrived in town.

Bar Le Potazzine

This is another great outdoor dining spot on the Piazza Garibaldi, which sits above Piazza Popolo just below the fortress. It is essentially the enoteca of Tenuta Le Potazzine, who is a pretty well-regarded wine producer in the area. I kept it simple for lunch and ordered what else, a pasta dish with a meat ragu, to get me through the day.

All in all, it was a great six days in this lovely Tuscan town. I would most certainly go back someday if the opportunity presented itself.


France Dining Recap

May 12, 2012

It’s taken me awhile to get around to this but while the restaurant experiences I enjoyed in France are still fresh in my mind, I wanted to get this posted. While spending ten days in France, we ate at nearly twenty places, and it is hard to go wrong with any of them. For the sake of time, I decided to break up this recap into my five favorite spots where we dined in Paris and in the south while we visited Provence and the Riviera.


1. Cafe Le Procope, open daily 10:30 am-1:00 am

We first visited this famous cafe on our trip in 2009, and I insisted on a repeat trip for my “Coq Au Vin” Saturday. Tucked  away on Rue De L’Ancienne Comedie, one of the quaintest cobblestone streets in St. Germain, the restaurant has been serving hearty French classics since 1686, and the old world ambiance is warm and inviting. The Coq Au Vin here (above) is still tops in the city, served in a giant cauldron with a rich, dark red wine sauce. The rooster meat is tender and gamey, and the pieces of baked potato and loads of chives make for an incredibly substantial and fulfilling meal, all for a very reasonable 22 Euros. Our server was very friendly and provided us with an English menu.

2. Allard, open daily 12:00-2:30 pm, 7:30-11:00 pm

Allard appears to be a bit more hit and miss than I realize, as Frommer’s has recently taken it off its recommendations and the restaurant has its fair share of negative recent reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. It’s likely that you need to know when to come. Although it may be an expensive dinner choice, Allard serves a two course fixed price lunch daily for a very reasonable 24 Euros. Of note, they serve Coq Au Vin on Saturday (above) and Cassoulet Toulousian on Mondays, and both are spectacular. After picking away at some pestro-drenched escargots, I began my Coq Au Vin day here for lunch, and while the dish fell short of the version at Le Procope, it is still well worth the price of admission. My favorite thing about this place is how you walk in right past the kitchen into the tiny dining room, and the whole place feels like  you are dining in an old French home. That ambiance makes up for the somewhat snotty service. Very little English is spoken here, and at least one waiter was not pleased by the presence of our stroller.

3. Drouant, open daily 12:00 am- 12:00 pm

Drouant was an elegant way to spend our Easter dinner nearby our hotel, the famous Hotel Intercontinental Le Grand in the Vendome area. The service was very friendly even though we took it easy and ordered just a plat each. The suckling lamb confit here (above) was delicious, and the menu, while a bit confusing has an impressively wide variety of meat and fish dishes, each served with four vegetable sides. We felt we’d had more than enough food using this strategy and enjoyed the ambiance at what was probably our most upscale dinner in Paris. Plats run in the 30 Euro range.

4. Chez Savy, open Monday-Friday 12:00-2:30 pm, 7:30-11:00 pm

It’s rare to find such an authentic bistro tucked away from the idyllic but slightly touristy Champs d’Elysees, but weeknight dinners at Chez Savy are well worth seeking out. Sure, they tend to shuffle the English speakers towards the back, but the portions are huge and affordable, and the service is friendly, if a bit rushed. We started with an enormous charcuterie platter that had us drinking water the rest of the night, and shared an enormous duck confit (above) for our plat, which was juicy and tender beyond belief. The combination of its authentic ambience and prices in the 15-20 Euro range for plats makes Chez Savy a winner, but be sure to have a reservation as the place is tiny.

5. Pinxo, open daily 12:15-2:30 pm, 7:15-11:30 pm

Tucked into the Plaza Vendome Hotel, Pinxo brings a bit of southwestern and Spanish influence to the mighty Paris dining scene. We were greeted by friendly service and enjoyed a wonderful lunch here; the restaurant offers a fixed price menu for 21 Euros and several creative dishes in that price range a la carte. I opted for the baby squid stuffed with pigs’ feet served with porcini mushrooms and cocoa beans (above), a rich, innovative dish that was just what I needed after a long plane flight.


1. La Brouette de Grand Mere, Cannes, daily 7:30-10:00 pm

I am a sucker for this type of restaurant, possibly because it so far removed from anything that you would ever find in America. One waitress serves a dining room of about twenty tables, but there is no menu. For a fixed price of 35 Euros, you get to choose from a limited selection of entrees, but the rest of your courses are served family style and are brought out to you without any choice. Upon being seated, we were served an aperitif of champagne along with an entree of salad, salami and terrine of rabbit (above). Before our plat, a smoked salmon course was served with a chilled shot of vodka. An entire bottle of red or white wine is also included in the price. I opted for the rack of lamb for my plat and we shared a delicious chocolate soufflé for dessert. This was a long, filling, boozy meal, but the cozy ambiance and friendly company made it the highlight of our dining adventures in the south of France.

2. L’Escalinada, Nice, daily 12:00-2:30 pm and 7:00-11:00 pm

After a long, winding walk through the quaint streets of Old Town Nice, we finally found our destination, and it was every bit the quintessential outdoor lunch experience that I had hoped for. Set upon a tight but lively square, this small restaurant has a no-frills ambiance and several outdoor tables, one of which we were lucky enough to commandeer. We received a delicious chick pea salad and two glasses or kir on the house before diving in to an appetizer platter of the restaurant’s specialties, which included fresh sardines, roasted bell peppers, calamari, and fried zucchini flowers. My entree choice at this meal may have been the most spectacular of my entire trip (above), as the Pochetta Cochon de Lait Farci was an absolute explosion of flavors, a suckling pig rolled into various layers of meat. I can still taste it as I type this. They also brought our half liter of house wine out in a cute little clay jug. It is worth using the restroom here just to climb the old, tightly wound staircase to the top.

3. La Vielle Fountaine, Avignon, open Tuesday-Sunday 7:30-11:00 pm

As we were staying at the amazing Hotel D’Europe in Avignon as a home base for our wine tasting tour, we couldn’t resist dining here for our only Michelin star experience of the trip. We used to eat these kinds of meals all the time, but even with a very well-behaved ten-month old who discovered his love for bread this night, it isn’t quite in our comfort zone. The service was a bit spotty as we seemed to have several waiters, all unaware of who had taken which aspect of our order. They offer a very reasonable fixed price dinner menu for 48 Euros which consists of three courses. I opted for the green asparagus and egg cream followed by crispy, perfectly cooked sea bass and finished it off with a crusty raspberry tart puff pastry. We had some extenuating baby-related circumstances during this meal that apparently rendered us unable to capture it via photograph.

4. Le Restaurant Armenien, Cannes, daily 7:30-10:30 pm

Unique for its Mediterranean flair in this region, this unorthodox restaurant is run by Armenian chef Lucie Panossian and her husband Christian. For a set price of 48 Euros, we received two courses of about twenty different samplings each, ranging from hummus and eggplant to dolma and kebob. After that, a large selection of desserts came out. All of these dishes are presumably prepared solely by Lucie and then run out to the tables while Christian works the room. The servings, while plentiful, may have been a bit light on the meat and heavy on the vegetables, but it was certainly an entertaining and different manner of having a meal. We did feel a bit oversold into a large bottle of water, but the affordable and impressive wine list made up for it, and this was a fun way to end our trip, and expressive of the diversity of the Cannes dining scene.

5. Verger des Papes, Chateauneuf du Pape, open daily for lunch and dinner

While tasting wine in the Southern Rhone, a stop at the famous village of Chateauneuf du Pape is pretty much mandatory. At the very top of the town lies this restaurant, which offers amazing views of the Rhone River and valley below from both outdoor and indoor vantage points. A hearty Provencal lunch is served for a very reasonable fixed price of 18 Euros. I enjoyed a salad with fresh tomatoes and whitefish, a massive boneless pork loin, dessert and glasses of highly acclaimed red wine for a price that would be incomprehensible in America. After lunch, it is well worth the trip down into the cave for some history and some additional tastes of wine.

Other Notable Meals:

Brasserie Balzar, Paris- A true locals joint in the Latin Quarter, with tight quarters, no English spoken and a sausage stuffed with tripe for Easter brunch.

Les Palmiers, Villefranche-Sur-Mer- Huge portions of fresh seafood on the relaxing plaza by the sea, with covered and outdoor seating.

Pizzeria Monegasque, Monaco- A warm, cozy diversion from the generally culture devoid city, this place serves oven-fired pizzas and lasagnas with friendly service.

Le Festival, Cannes- Worth a stop for lunch if only for the people watching on the famous Boulevard de Croisette, the seafood here is actually quite delicious even for the price.

Cote Jardin, Cannes- Very inviting garden ambiance and well-made food, but we were the lone diners in the establishment the night we dined here.

Dining Recap- Paris and London

October 28, 2009

I spent eight nights across the pond this October, and as you might imagine, I planned our days around the best and most authentic restaurants I could find in both Paris and London. I will highlight my two favorite meals in each city with vivid detail, but beforehand I thought I’d post a few pictures and notes at some other establishments that I also highly recommend.



Lauderee- Famous for its pastries, specifically macaroons, we enjoyed quite a nice lunch outside on the Champs Elysees. I opted for the roast duck which was quite good.

IMG_2952Chez Andre- Staying in the 8th Arrondisement close to our hotel on our first night in Paris, we were quite pleased with the food and service at this lively bistro, and were lucky to sit outside on the street again as the weather was uncharacteristically warm. I ordered foie gras and the loin of lamb with a nice Cotes du Rhone.

IMG_3038Le Precope- This is the oldest cafe in Paris, perfect for a long, leisurely lunch featuring authentic French classics and offering reasonable prices. I couldn’t pass up the Coq Au Vin, a rooster stew cooked with potatoes in a thick broth. It came out in a giant pot, and was to die for.

IMG_3102Au Pied de Cochon- Another famous bistro, the name of this restaurant literally means “the foot of the pig.” While I didn’t feel like being quite that adventurous, I did order a shin of pork, which was tender and gamey pink meat and quite a change of pace. Beforehand, we both enjoyed some of the best onion soup we’ve ever tasted.

IMG_3269La Petite Chaise- We enjoyed perhaps the best service we had anywhere in Paris at the bistro level, as our friendly waiters welcomed us early into this country style dining room. I ordered a rabbit loin in a cream sauce from a very reasonably priced three course prix fixe dinner menu.

The Top Two Meals in Paris:



My choice for our most extravagant meal of the trip went to this lovely, modern French restaurant which sits just off the Champs Elysee in the Hotel Balzac. They offer a lunch tasting menu for 105 Euros, which seemed a bit more reasonable than some of the 250-plus Euro dinner tasting menus at other highly acclaimed establishments such as Le Cinq or L’Astrance. Still, Pierre Gagnaire boasts three Michelin stars and is the most highly ranked restaurant in Paris (#9 in the world in 2009, down from #3 in 2008, but we won’t get too picky).

As with any restaurant in this category, the service was virtually flawless. This was probably the only place at which we ate that I didn’t even attempt to speak French, as the waiters were fluent in English and more than happy to speak to us that way for the duration of the meal. The timing of the courses was executed to perfection, and we even enjoyed friendly conversation with our extensive wait staff; everything about the experience reminded us of the down-t0-earth but strictly professional attitude of the staff at our favorite restaurant, Gary Danko in San Francisco. Added benefits included meeting the proprietor Gagnaire himself, as well as getting a tour of the kitchen.

We began with a complex combination of amuse bouches, including a turnip ice cream in horseradish sauce, lobster, cucumber jelly with cod, infusion of leek and veal liver, and clams. The presentation was immaculate, and we followed the instruction to eat these appetizers in the proper order. All were amazing (below).

IMG_3295Our primary appetizer was an exquisite mushroom pasta with mussels. This initially disappointed me when I saw the menu, but the incredible concentration and balance of flavors in this dish rendered that reaction absurd.

IMG_3297The main course consisted of four perfectly cooked pieces of pork loin. Two of these pieces were light meat and tasted like the juiciest, most intensely flavored pork chop ever created, while the other two were darker and more tender, with a gamey nuance that I preferred above the lighter cut. I would come to learn that the lighter piece came from a French pig, while the darker cut was that of a Spanish pig- very interesting indeed! The meat was drizzled in a hazelnut sauce and accompanied by eggplant cannelloni and a red onion marmalade. On the side, a rich black pudding added additional complexities, and just as had been the case throughout the entire meal, I noticed an intense amount of focus on the balance between flavors.

IMG_3300As is often the case at the end of meals like these, the desserts seem to never end, and I rarely have the energy to take too many mental notes on them, and instead try to enjoy them for what they are. Simply said, the final three desserts posted below were mind-blowing, and finished the meal on a perfect note as we made our way through a St. Emilion Bordeaux and soaked up the elegant atmosphere of this fantastic restaurant.






While this tiny bistro which is tucked away off the beaten path behind the Notre Dame is certainly not in the same league as Pierre Gagnaire, this was easily my favorite of our many experiences with authentic old French cuisine. For lunch, they offer a 22 Euro two course menu that is plenty substantial and solely based on French classics. I loved the ambiance of this place, as diners walk right through the bursting aromas of the small kitchen area on the way to the very tiny but unique dining room. The service was quite polite and attentive as the staff tolerated my limited French-speaking abilities, and the food was out of this world.

I considered this to be the most truly authentic French menu I saw during my trip, and that being the case, I decided to go all out. For an appetizer, I ordered escargots, which arrived at the table steaming hot in a delicious pesto sauce.

IMG_3221The two main course specials of the day were both classic French dishes, Cassoulet Toulousain and Boeuf Bourguignon, and we each ordered one for our entrees. The Cassoulet, a rich stew of goose and duck meat and fava beans, arrived in a scalding cauldron, and was loaded with flavor. The Boeuf was as tender and flavorful as could be, like an immaculate pot roast. This was real French food without any frills.





Porter’s English Restaurant- We went here for lunch on our first full day to get a feel for what real “British” cuisine really tastes like. Porter’s is famous for their pies, so I ordered one stuffed with steak, mushroom and Guinness, and ordered a pint of the latter for good measure. An Englishman nearby was able to talk my adventurous wife into ordering the ham pudding, which she enjoyed, but found very odd. It was all quite tasty and the portions were large for the reasonable price (about 10 pounds for each entree).

The Library at The Rubens at the Palace- We ate dinner here at our hotel’s fine dining room and were very pleased by the quality of the food and the service. After starting with a divine appetizer of red mullet, we both tried the sea bass entree (below), which was rich, lemony and cooked to perfection with just the right amount of crispiness on top.


Fifteen- We made our way up to the Shoreditch neighborhood for dinner with a friend at this well-known foodie favorite, and ate in the restaurant’s Trattoria. My three course meal was delicious, as I started with a shaved pork appetizer before moving on to a delicious lamb ravioli and a crispy, flavorful belly of pork. We had such a good time that we forgot to take pictures, but this place is highly recommended, as the price is reasonable as well (about 10-15 pounds of appetizers and primi, about 20 pounds for secondi).

The Top Two Meals In London:



Chef Fergus Henderson has been highly acclaimed for encouraging the offal movement and the use of all animal parts through a method he describes as “nose to tail cooking.” If this sounds scary, just close your eyes and take in the exquisite smells of this place as you walk up the stairs to the warehouse-like minimalism of the dining room, and your fears will dissipate in a matter of seconds. The restaurant is small but bustling for dinner, and the kitchen sits within plain view of the diners (we were witness to a a full suckling pig on the barbie, as you can see in the distance of the picture above). A foodie friend of ours joined us and we had a great time experimenting with new foods. Be warned: while there are a few “normal” dishes on the menu each night, if you aren’t in a little bit of an adventurous mood when you arrive, you should probably turn around. However, if you take pleasure in indulging in cutting edge, innovative cooking, the experience here, complete with fantastic and efficient service, is highly recommended. Reservations begin from four weeks prior to your dinner date, and they fill up fast since the buzz is at an all-time high for this restaurant after it was elevated to the #14 ranked restaurant in the world for 2009. Prices are reasonable as well, running from about 10-15 pounds for appetizers and 20-30 pounds for entrees. The menu changes daily.

The roast bone marrow course here is legendary, so we ordered one for the table to share (below). I had never tasted such a thing, but interestingly enough it tasted about how I expected it would, rich, creamy and milky with an almost nutty, tapioca flavor lingering long. It made for a great pre-appetizer for us, although my wife was too afraid to touch it.


For our appetizers, my wife kept it safe and ordered the shrimp salad, which she found to be just average. I went in between and had the crabmeat on toast, which came out as a huge portion and was shockingly rich, salty and difficult to finish in one sitting (below, top). My friend hit it out of the park with his appetizer, the rabbit offal (below, bottom), which sounded scary, but was really mostly liver and was outstanding (thankfully, I was able to share a few bites!)



The highlight of my meal was my main course, the venison with beetroot, which was prepared completely differently than any venison I have ever tasted. It seemed almost dry aged, with an intensity of flavor that was incredible; it took me what seemed like forever to finish my four delectable pieces. The finish of the peppery spice went on for minutes and was truly amazing. My friend went with the grouse, a full roasted bird with a gamey flavor that was also unlike anything I was previously familiar with. My wife ordered the plaice fish with chips and tartare sauce, and was of the opinion that she might as well try fish and chips at one of the world’s best restaurants. All of us were very pleased with out selections. I didn’t eat much dessert because I wanted the flavor of my venison to stay in my mouth until I went to sleep and had to brush my teeth!





IMG_3865This was probably my favorite meal of the entire trip from the standpoint of ambiance and pure overall quality of food. The restaurant features Chef Jason Atherton’s small but focused tapas style dishes, and everything I tasted here blew me away. The room itself is very upbeat and chic, with its darkly lit dining room adjacent to a large marble bar. Unfortunately, the service at Maze left a bit to be desired. This is one of those restaurants where you never know exactly who your waiter is, and between the five or six different servers that attended to us, it was quite clear that there was a breakdown somewhere in the communication process. All of our food arrived, but the lack of smoothness from beginning to end made it difficult to relax at times. I suppose this is what kept the restaurant down at a still impressive #91 in the world this year, because from the standpoint of the cuisine itself, this might have been the best meal I had in all of 2009. Maze is still relatively new, so I’m hoping they will work out the kinks, and either way, I would definitely return. Aside from the six course chef’s tasting menu for 60 pounds, Maze offers appetizers a la carte for 9-10 pounds each and entrees for 10-13 pounds each. Given that the price difference in ordering five courses doesn’t differ much from the tasting menu option, we decided we would rather be more flexible, and ordered a la carte.

Between my wife and I and the couple we dined with, we ordered way too many courses to cover completely, so I’ll try to focus on what I had to eat. I began with a Jerusalem artichoke veloute soup with duck ragout and Lincolnshire field mushrooms on olive toast. I was stunned by the complexities and foaminess of the soup.


For my next course, I ordered the roasted sea scallops with textures of apples, butterscotch and bacon. I am a enormous fan of scallops, so it is no small deal when I say that this was probably the best scallop dish I have ever had anywhere. When I cook scallops I always attempt to balance the texture of the course with sweet flavors, and the preparation used here was an essay in that regard.


Moving on, I couldn’t pass on the Cornish red mullet with cuttlefish garlic puree and rabbit bolognese. Yes, I said fish with rabbit bolognese. Self-explanatory I think.


An intriguing menu option that caught my eye was the Scottish red-leg partridge with cob nuts in haggis sauce. Lightly gamey, tender and juicy, this really hit the spot.


As good as all of that was, the clear highlight of my meal was my last entree, the Cornish lamb and tongue with salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie and mint jelly. The lamb chop was thick, juicy and bursting with flavor and balance, but I would argue that the shepherd’s pie actually stole the show, and I didn’t think that was even possible–but I suppose that is what happens when you make shepherd’s pie with lamb meat at one of the world’s greatest restaurants.




Spain- Fine Dining Recap

May 14, 2008

While in Spain, we had the privilege of dining at two of the world’s greatest restaurants. El Celler De Can Roca, located just north of the city center of Girona, is renowned as one of the hottest culinary spots on the planet. It was ranked as highly as #11 in the world in Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 list for 2007 (I believe it fell to #26 on the 2008 list, but we won’t get picky). We made the short day trip to Girona from our base in Barcelona mostly for our lunch reservation here, although I will say that the town is quite charming and would recommend the day trip regardless. After that, we headed for San Sebastian, which is widely regarded as the current culinary capital of the world. Boasting more Michelin starts that any other city in the world (that’s right, including London and Paris) and posting three in the aforementioned top 50 list (and two in the top ten), we headed here solely for the beach and the cuisine. We only had two nights to spend in San Sebastian and decided to devote one night (and most of our food budget) to a world-class dining experience at the famous Arzak restaurant, which currently ranks as the #8 restaurant in the world. Chef Jean Mari Arzak is credited with the innovation of modern Spanish cuisine, and the restaurant has continued its domaince in the culinary world since his daughter Elena has assumed the head chef duties. Earlier in the trip, we also dined at Cal Pep in Barcelona, which is worth a mention as well due to its unique upscale tapas-style dining and nearly perfect cuisine. It also has had its turn in the Top 50, earning “Best Value” honors back in 2005 when it ranked as highly as #31. Here’s a brief recap of our experiences. (Prices in Euros, with one bottle of wine).

El Celler De Can Roca, Girona, Spain: 175 Euros (four-course classic menu 65 Euros)

After spending a relaxing morning exploring the inner-workings of the quaint city of Girona, we made our way through Devasa Park. The restaurant was an easy half-hour walk through park and across the river. El Celler De Can Roca is the creation of the Roca family, composed of head chef Joan Roca, dessert chef Jordi Roca, and sommelier Josep Roca. The restaurant has recently moved to a new location, and the fresh decor was immediately inviting. The contemporary dining room has a non-pretentious feel, with simple white table cloths and a beautiful garden of trees en glassed in the middle of the restaurant below a sunroof which allows a good amount of light to enter during the day. We were seated immediately despite being about a half hour early for our 2 p.m. lunch reservation, and an English speaking waiter and sommelier were provided for us without a second thought. I was quickly excited as the sommelier brought over the wine list on a rolling apparatus! The list was so large that it was separated into large red, white and dessert wine books and placed on the easel-like structure (below). I’d certainly never seen this before. We ended up going with the Finca Sandoval Syrah Manchuela 2005.

A few amuse bouche arrived, including a very salty cod-chip creation and a delicious chocolate bon bon. We of course decided to go with the four-course tasting menu which seemed reasonable enough for lunch. The first course was duck liver covered in a carmelized vanilla, and it was absolutely mind-blowing. The sweetness and crunchiness of the carmelized top layer blended amazingly with the rich, delicate nature of the liver. Lisa couldn’t finish it all because it was so rich, so I gladly helped her out against my better judgment simply because I couldn’t stop eating it. The richness of this dish was beyond measure! The consistency and intensity of flavors reminded me of creme brulee. (below)

The second course was a succulent lobster in a mushroom sauce above mashed potatoes. The lobster was rich, tender and fresh, with a classic salty flavor that left no doubt that this creature had been swimming in the ocean earlier than morning. And of course, any use of mashed potatoes at a fine-dining establishment makes the course a sure winner in my book. It was utterly delicious. (below)

Having consumed two incredibly impressive courses, we readied ourselves for the meat course of roasted suckling pig. We’d enjoyed this Spanish specialty earlier in the week at the world famous Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, and it was great, but something told me this baby pig had potential to be spectacular, and I wasn’t incorrect. The pig was incredibly tender and had a perfectly roasted layer of pig skin that added a delicious crunch to the tender, flavorful meat. (below)

For our final course, an intensely flavorful chocolate souffle arrived wrapped in a ginger paper and served with ginger ice cream. This was a truly interesting and innovative combination that balanced wonderfully. (below) After just four courses, wow, we were full!

The food, the service and the ambiance at El Celler De Can Roca made it a truly memorable experience. Most notably, I thought the price was incredibly reasonable for the quality of the food not to mention the stature of the place. My only complaint was that after we’d finished, the staff pretty much ignored us and let us enjoy ourselves without ever asking if we needed anything else. If they had, I’d have told them that I needed the check! But I suppose you can’t fault a place for not pushing you out the door, especially in Europe. If I’m ever near Girona again, you can bet I’ll be making a stop here!

Arzak, San Sebastian: 380 Euros ( six course tasting menu 150 Euros)

I should preface by noting that my entire vacation was nearly ruined when I woke up with food poisoning the morning of my 9:00 p.m. Arzak reservation. I couldn’t keep anything down for hours and was horrified that I’d have to cancel the reservation that I’d made six months ago and had essentially planned the trip around. Luckily, by about 6:00 p.m. I started to feel as though I could make a run at the tasting menu. Fortunately, food this good quickly makes you forget about anything that might be ailing you.

Again we arrived a bit earlier than our reservation was made for, but trust me when I say that if you choose to eat dinner at 8:45 anywhere in Spain on a Saturday night, you’ll have the place to yourself for a good while. We arrived and were seated immediately, and to my surprise were greeted by a friendly young captain who spoke English impressively (being in Basque country, I was very concerned about the possible language barrier at this restaurant, but the staff eased those fears right off the bat). I was surprised by how elegant the decor was; I guess I was expecting more of an old country style, but instead the restaurant was predominantly sleek and black. And while I admit that paying the equivalent $250 a person for a tasting menu is a bit of a ridiculous proposition, (especially when, in my case, you’ve been throwing up all day) we were at one of the best restaurants in the world, and a splurge was well within reason. I ordered a bottle of the Finca Valpiedra Rioja Reserva 2001 and we braced ourselves for a barrage of food.

The amuse bouche were nearly a meal in themselves. Our friendly server, dressed in a simple kitchen apron, succeeded admirably in her English explanation of our five mini-courses. Our favorites included a roasted chicken with pear, a delicate bite of stone crab, some escargot and an interesting gazpacho soup topped with a strong cheese. (below) It was evident that this place was serious about its food.

We decided to sample as much food as we could, so we ordered different choices at each tasting point and shared. The first of our choices to come out was a carmelized escalloped apple topped with foie gras, which was sweet and delicate with the slightest hint of crunch. (below)

I enjoyed a soft and refreshing oyster course by myself. The presentation continued to amaze us as they brought to our table an out-of-this-world lobster dish. The lobster was drenched in an amazing sauce which our server brought out from the kitchen after making an additional trip. The dish itself was incredibly rich and flavorful and cooked to perfection, not chewy in the least bit. (below)

The next course took imagination to a whole new level. It was a poached egg surrounded by peas, mushrooms and ham, which combined beautifully to create a soft, delicate breakfast dish in the middle of our meal. The yoke spilled out and mixed with the vegetables and meat. Lisa was a huge fan of this course. (below)

I was nearly full by this point, but the fish and meat courses were still to come, and since we had split our orders, that meant that I had four courses yet to sample. We absolutely loved the sole dish, which came in a sweet, creamy sauce and was perfectly tender. The balance of flavors was perhaps displayed best in this course, which was far from “fishy” and tasted more like dessert! (below, top) The monkfish came wrapped in a crust of bronze! (below, bottom) It was also very tasty, although we both enjoyed the sole the most of the two, which says a lot more for the sole than it takes away from the monkfish.

Perhaps my favorite course of the night among so much amazing food was the lamb loin, which came served medium rare in an au jus and the perfect amount of subtle mint. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, gamey and packed with flavor, cooked to utter perfection. (below, top) Lisa ordered the beef course, and the small bite that I had was fantastic. (below, bottom) I noticed well-concentrated flavors including a tasty hazelnut character.

I was beyond stuffed by this point, but that didn’t stop what seemed like a never-ending string of dessert courses from finding their way to our table. First there were chocolates, including jelly-like chocolate balls (below, top) and another course of creamier mint balls filled with dark chocolate. Wow did these go well with the subtle chocolate undertones of our delicious Rioja! The next set of desserts included an amazing “champagne ravioli” as well as dry ice of pineapple along with a steaming hot creme de cocoa that oozed onto the dish (below, bottom), all again with careful design and presentation.

My highlight came shortly after, as Jean Mari Arzak himself came over to our table to thank us for coming to his restaurant! In his limited English, he asked us “Where from?” When we told him Chicago, he replied, “Oh, Charlie Trotter!” Small world, I suppose. He was even nice enough to pose for a picture with us at our table.

Overall, we found the service to be spotless, incredibly unpretentious, welcoming and accommodating. The food was obviously inventive and approaching perfection, using an impressive combination of innovation and mastery of classic cuisine to create a tasting menu with great balance. Our friendly server made us souvenir copies of our menu selections, which of course are unintelligible since they are written in Basque. After perhaps the most expensive dinner of our lives (it has to be at least tied with The French Laundry) we left incredibly satisfied, which is always such a wonderful feeling after such a splurge. I don’t think we could have asked for anything more, and this is certainly in our top five dining experiences ever.

Cal Pep, Barcelona: 110 Euros, 6 Courses

What an exciting and lively experience it was to dine at Cal Pep. After searching some of the narrow streets of Barcelona’s gothic quarter looking for the restaurant, we ended up finding it in a much more wide-open area than we had anticipated thanks to a long line already formed at the door. It was 8:10 p.m., a full twenty minutes before the famous restaurant was supposed to open, so we took our place in line in hopes of attaining one of the twenty-some seats at the bar of the tiny place. Unfortunately, we ended up about three or four back in the line after all of the seats were occupied, so we were forced to wait for other patrons to finish before we could have a seat. However, what could have been a frustrating experience actually turned out to be a lot of fun, as we were able to get a feel for the chaotic nature of the place while watching what other people were eating and while the staff served us Rioja on the house.

The best way to describe the atmosphere at Cal Pep would be to call it organized chaos. Pep, the owner and chef, barks out orders with what seems to be a damaged voice box, while waiters and cooks scramble to prepare the large tapas portions for their guests in the tiny kitchen that is placed wide open inside of the bar. Needless to say, when we got our seats after a very reasonable 45-minute wait, I was all excitement. Our waiter poured us some more wine and asked us what we wanted to eat. That’s simple enough, I thought! After explaining that I wanted to leave it up to him with the exception that Lisa wanted to avoid shellfish, he offered some suggestions, and away we went.

The first course was a tuna tartare, which was impossibly tender and flavorful while still modest in its own right. It was served simply with sesame seeds which added a nice crunch, but the attraction in this course was the sheer flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture of the jello-esque tuna. (below)

The next course was a lightly fried baby squid which was served similarly to how we eat calamari in America, except without any marinara or cocktail dipping sauces. (below) Luckily, no dipping sauces were necessary for this dish, as it contained a freshness and saltiness of flavor that was plenty satisfying.

In Spain, especially near the sea, they are all about the squid. I found this out the hard way later in the trip when I may have gotten food poisoning from a lightly sauteed octopus that I decided to eat. But my favorite squid-related dish of the whole trip was our next dish at Cal Pep, the grilled calamari, and it really wasn’t even close. This dish was served hot in an impressively simple and delicious tomato and onion broth. The calamari was cooked perfectly and wasn’t the least bit chewy as calamari can often be when grilled instead of fried.

Finally, the monkfish course arrived. Ah, monkfish. Is there a better combination of steakiness and mildness out there in that giant ocean than these specimen? Cal Pep knew how to take advantage of the possibilities, and after deboning a generous portion of monkfish (below), we dug into a perfect example of this fantastic fish. It was steaky without being fishy or overly rich, and was prepared simply with olive oil and garlic, which were perfect complements. Anything more would have been overdoing it. Probably the best piece of monkfish that I’ve ever had.

It really was entertaining to just sit back and watch the action as Pep frantically gave orders to his workers with his strange voice and bright red glasses. We soaked it in and decided that we weren’t ready to leave yet. The courses had been so good that we decided we couldn’t leave without trying a meat dish, so we ordered the “beef”, which turned out to be medium-rare pieces of filet that melted in our mouths with an amazing intensity of flavor. (below) This turned out to be the best course of our night, and pulled the meal together wonderfully by showcasing the wide range of food that this place can absolutely knock out.

I suppose if there were any negatives at Cal Pep, the desserts didn’t seem quite as inspired as the courses. Of course, at that point I was about to order another helping of the beef so I might not have been giving the dessert the full attention that it deserved. I ordered a glass of Noval Tawny port to close the evening as we picked away at a bizarre lemon-flavored whipped cream along with a chocolate napolean which was like a pastry on the outside with intense dark chocolate on the inside. Satisfied, we forced ourselves to give up our seat at the bar to other eager (and hungry) patrons, but not before yelling “Pep!” as the man walked past us, briefly startling him in an attempt to thank him for such a memorable meal. For an exciting night of what seemed like bottomless food and wine, not to mention the quality of all of the above and the rowdy atmosphere, the “Best Value” tag that this restaurant earned is still well-deserved.