May 30, 2014
“The food’s so hot!” said the people at the Washington bookstore, Politics and Prose, when I told them I was heading to dinner at Little Serow. “And you’ll have to wait forever; they don’t take reservations.”
It was late when I got there. A cold rain was falling too, which may be why there was no line. As for heat – after dining at scruffy raucous Night + Market in L.A., and the even more intense Kin Khao in S.F., this D.C. restaurant seemed positively tame and rather elegant. The food is also completely delicious, the flavors fresh and distinct, so if the rumors have been keeping you away, don’t hesitate another second. There is not, I don’t think, another restaurant quite like this one.
Spare, modern, understated, the dining room is a kind of subterranean bunker with the kitchen at one end. A communal table dominates the center of the room. Earnest young women in vintage dresses lean across the table to eagerly explain every nuance of the Northern Thai menu as they set out baskets of sticky rice and huge bowls of vegetables arranged as lovingly as flowers.
The set menu is served family style. It changes weekly and offers no substitutions. You probably won’t want them.
I love that the nam priks – or what are called jaeows in Laos – are finally getting their moment in American restaurants. The complex pounded chile pastes I learned to make in Laos are served wtih huge baskets of sticky rice. In Luang Prabang they’re the staple food, eaten three times a day, often with nothing else. The ones I had there were fiery hot, as if they're trying to convince you that you've had more to eat than you actually did. The nam prik at Little Serow, served with great puffs of pork skin, was more salty than hot, with electric jolts of tamarind and anchovy runninng through the vegetable.
This soup uses snakehead fish – the invasive species that is worrying the fishermen of the Potomac. The smoothly sedate soup has notes of wild ginger and lime leaf.
Pork cheek, springy fresh noodles, rice powder.
Catfish cooked with the spices of the Lanna people (they live up north near Chiang Rai), topped with mountains of fried shallots. You use the cabbage on the side is to scoop up this delicious mixture.
Tofu, cilantro root (classic Thai usage), peanuts.
Duck, duck egg, mountains of basil.
Pork ribs in Thai whisky with the suprising addition of dill.
Coconut milk, sticky rice. An elegant parting gesture. The petit four of this Thai menu.
May 29, 2014
One of the great joys of being on book tour is the chance to eat in fantastic restaurants across the country. Sometimes I did it with friends, but often I just went out by myself, sat at the bar, and made new ones. Meeting all those new people made every city more exciting..
Now that I'm back home, I'm still finding new friends in restaurants. I might even get the chance to share a a meal with you. McNally Jackson booksellers run a great program that brings authors and readers together to enjoy good food, good wine – and each other. Please join me! June 8th at Contrada restaurant.
May 27, 2014
It didn't sound like much. Bar Buca. Didn't look like much either: the bottom of a highrise building with a sign so small you barely know the place is there. Inside it doesn't exactly trumpet its greatness; a coffee bar, an open kitchen, tall stools clustered around raised tables.
Then I looked at the menu. And looked again. I've heard of most of these dishes, but I've never seen most of them outside of Italy. I wanted to try everything.
Gamberetti. As fried shrimp go, these don't look promising. They look like they spent too long in the fryer. Looks are deceiving: the crust is crisp and greaseless, the shrimp inside juicy and barely cooked. The color of the batter comes from the n'duja that's been folded in, giving them a strong meaty jolt of heat. The black powder on the plate? Rosemary ash.
Tigelle. The menu calls these "Bolognese skillet buns," but I know them as a classic snack from Modena. Inside the crisp little slices is cunza, lardo whipped with rosemary and oil until it's nothing but a fluff of flavor.
Sardella calabrese, a Calabrian dish that was once known as "poor man's caviar." It used to be made with infant anchovies or sardines that were left to ferment in the sun, then mixed with chiles into a salty, addictive substance. To protect the fishery the use of sardines and anchovies has been prohibited since 2010, and now sardella's made with smelt. I couldn't tell the difference. The burrata and olive oil on top temper the flavors, softening the impact of the salt.
Stigghiole is another classic dish, this time from Palermo. Lamb caul and scallion are wrapped inside intenstine. I wish I could say that I loved it, but I had a hard time eating it in Sicily, and this one struck me as absolutely authentic.
Raw artichoke salad with buffalo yogurt, bottarga, horseradish. It tastes as fresh and lovely as it looks.
Dandelion and blood orange in a pungent Caesar-like dressing, topped with a fragile lacy crisp of bread.
Fennel salad, puffed veal tendon, red onion, olives, cheese. A salad with character.
Arrosticini: Ewe’s meat, aged ricotta, grilled lemon. Rare, tender, completely delicious.
Afterward we had the most delicious macchiatos. They were made with buffalo milk. Of course.
And did I mention that Bar Buca is open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.? Good thing I don't live in Toronto; I'd probably live there.
open 7 am. to 2 am.
May 26, 2014
I sat there, looking down at this plate, thinking, "I'm eating dirt." Except, of course, they call it soil. Sounds so much better.
It would be easy to make fun of Actinolite, a small earnest Toronto restaurant. Until, that is, you taste Justin Cournoyer's food. It is unique. Thought-provoking. Delicious. If you approach it with an open mind, suspend disbelief and simply eat what's on the plate, munching upon herbs and leaves, grass and hay, you will discover an entirely new range of flavors. You eat the roots, you eat the stems, you find that dirt is very tasty.
Cournoyer has named his restaurant for the small northern town where he grew up, hunting, fishing and foraging. Proud of his heritage, he puts it right onto the plate. This, he seems to be saying, is what Canadian food can be. Dining in this small, spare restaurant was, for me, like entering a dream, a place where all my senses were heightened. A few impressions.
Bread. Olive oil. Butter infused with hay. As a first offering this trio is a statement. Pay attention, it tells you. Nothing here is unimportant.
"Radish," they call the dish at the top. Carrots. Soil. Grass. Eating it with my fingers I am a child again, crouching in the garden, devouring everything I find. When I was small I loved the scent of new-mown grass and always ate it, hoping it would taste the way it smelled. Now I'm eating grass again, and this time it tastes wonderful. I'm acutely aware of each distinct flavor. And for just a moment I am back in Laos, where everything that can be eaten, is.
The asparagus is sturdy, almost crisp, and yet entirely tender. The puddle of nettle – so subtle. The lovely bright green spruce tips, a leap of flavor. The taste of the flowers: colt’s foot, an intense, almost sunny flavor, and the delicacy of violets. A little dollop of soured cream.
Not surf and turf, but soil and turf. Bright orange sea urchins are enfolded in cucumber peel, which works a bit like seaweed. The interior of the cucumber, dehydrated, rehydrated, completely reimagined, lays along the side. The dusting of buttermilk powder is a jolt: it is ice cold.
The egg has been cooked at 63.5 degrees for an hour and a half, until it is perfect, the yolk trembling inside the barely solid container of the whites. Touched with a fork it becomes an instant sauce for an entire bouqet of foraged flavors: ramps, lovage, something minty. Eating this I suddenly imagine myself running through a forest.
What a wonderful fish! Firm. Tight flesh. Its sweetness underlined by the pleasant bitterness of wild watercress, the slightly citric taste of knotweed. Hovering over it all the delicate surprise of maple.
So gently cooked they're like condensed clouds floating above a landscape of sturdy greens.
Curds and Whey.
More gesture than food. A humorous nod to dessert. A light tangle of textures. The kitchen's wave goodbye.
May 24, 2014
More notes from the road. I ate my way around the West Coast, in between book appearances. Some nights I had no time to grab a meal, and simply went sneaking off for snacks at random moments. These are some of the flavors I most enjoyed:
Uni pasta, sitting at the bar at Osteria Mozza. A completely delicious surprise – as was the fact that the stranger sitting next to me turned out to be a friend. The joy of serendipity.
Suckling pig ravioli in fonduta, at the bar at Cotogna. Soft sweet meat in a gentle puddle of melted cheese. So fine.
A medley of gorgeous spring vegetables, from the Quince kitchen.
Chef Michael Tusk with fresh pasta at Cotogna. And then the result….
This is pasta as it should be: toothsome, with real integrity.
Another night, another restaurant. This time Boulevard, where everything was wonderful but this fried soft shell crab was served with bacon slaw that continues to haunt me. Hands down the best coleslaw I've ever tasted.
This too from Boulevard: a soft pool of melting Burata paired with tomatoes so fresh they tasted as if they'd just been pulled from the earth. On the side, a counterpoint of crunchy little croutons wrapped in crisped pancetta.
Afterward we went on to eat even more at Kin Khao. How could we possibly continue eating? It was 2 a.m. – the restaurant's open late – and there's always room for khao man gai!
Especially when it's served with real Sriracha:
The next day, in Santa Rosa, Spinster Sisters served up the sweetest, most concentrated carrot soup I've ever encountered. Topped with harissa oil and cilantro cream, it was truly memorable.
Then it was on to Vancouver – another fantastic food city. I ate so much. And so well. Stay tuned.