I’m for Contra

July 18, 2018

Apologies; facing a lot of deadlines, I haven’t been posting a lot lately.  And at the moment I’m at the airport, on my way to Italy where I’ll be on the jury for The Basque Culinary World Prize.

But my last meal in New York was so wonderful – in every way – that I can’t leave the country without giving a quick shout-out to Contra.  The small, modest restaurant on Orchard Street is serving truly lovely food, and at $78 for 6 courses – plus an amuse bouche –  it is, by city standards, a bargain.

Another note: the room is small, but surprisingly quiet.  We sat, for hours, just talking and eating and enjoying ourselves. I could hardly believe it when I looked at the clock and realized we’d been at the table for more than three hours.

A little tidbit to start, a single raw shrimp, wrapped in shiso with a faint touch of fermented vegetables.  One startling little shot of texture and flavor.

Could anything be lovelier?  Raw slices of scallop nestled between crunchy little bits of lemon cucumber. On top of all this gentleness, a couple of loud shouts of hyssop.

I really loved the way the chefs didn’t try to draw these ingredients together.  They just let the ingredients mingle, so that the Japanese uni, the various summer squashes and the nasturtium leaves stood alone, waiting to dance.  It was up to you to start the music, introduce them to each other, and then experience how well they played together.  This is very confident cooking which relies on the purity of ingredients.

This pollack was nearly translucent, and it positively reveled in the peas and peppers in that sauce.

Guinea hen is the loveliest bird – the flesh more texture than flavor – and here it’s paired with agretti – a Mediterranean herb, with a crisp saline quality  that’s extremely hard to find in the States. Those creamy potatoes were the perfect counterpoint.

To end, a couple of perfectly cool and simple summer desserts. This is a semifreddo of blackberries and bitter almonds

And this the most delightful little ode to cherries.

I’m off. I expect I’ll be eating very well in Italy. I’ll let you know.

 

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From a Bedouin Cave to a Tel Aviv Market

July 12, 2018

One day we drove deep into the Negev to dine in a Bedouin Village with family friends. They invited us to an underground restaurant built deep into a cave; it was cool down there,  shielded from the midday sun.

The meal was extraordinarily generous: it began with lentil soup, then went on to an array of salads, flat breads, rice pilaf, grilled chicken and ended with sweet tea and sweeter cookies.

By the time we got back to Tel Aviv it was dark, and we strolled through the deserted Carmel market, closed stalls dotted with forlorn rejected vegetables. HaBasta takes advantage of its proximity to the market, filling the menu with everything currently on offer.

Cherry salad with chiles and cilantro.

Grouper neck, fried, with aioli, lemon and fresh tomatoes.

Grilled yellowtail skewers.

Grilled okra with preserved lemon and tomatoes

Tiny okra with taratur sauce

Brains a la plancha with fresh vegetables.

Black pasta with salmon roe, bottarga and egg yolk.

On our last night in Tel Aviv a great group of us ate at the charmingly modest and utterly raucous Ouzeria. It may have been my favorite meal of all.  The food was everything that’s great about the new Israeli cuisine: fresh, local, inventive and completely delicious.

A vegetarian triumph: ravioli made of thinly sliced beets wrapped around fresh cheese.

Lovingly fried squid

A gorgeous beef and burrata  salad

grilled cauliflower

Grilled herb-flecked shrimp

 

Grilled whole sardines.

It was dark by the time we left, and the line to get into the restaurant snaked around the corner. People in Tel Aviv definitely know a good thing when they find it.

 

 

 

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Best Tomato Sauce Ever

July 11, 2018

 

Can’t stop thinking about the spaghetti al pomodoro I made last night.  It was, hands down, the best tomato sauce I’ve ever made.

It began at The Center for Discovery in Hurleyville, New York, where Cesare Casella picked a few ripe tomatoes for me.

These are the tomatoes.  You can see that they have a distinctive shape; what you can’t see is that they’re not only extremely meaty, sweet and flavorful, but also that they don’t have very many seeds – a great boon when you’re making sauce.

You can buy the seeds for these extraordinary tomatoes from Hudson Valley Seed Co.

As for the recipe?  I used Scott Conant’s recipe, which was published in the New York Times a few years ago.  You can find it here.  And if that doesn’t work for you, here’s another place to access the recipe: Serious Eats.

 

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Hummus, Tabbouli and Shakshuka

July 9, 2018

It’s our first night in Israel, and we’ve driven for hours through traffic so heavy it seems like a scene from Godard’s Weekend, to visit family in a suburb north of Tel Aviv.  We’re tired, jet-lagged and hot.  And where do they take us for dinner?  To a gas station!

And the food is fabulous, a dream-like sequence of hummus, salads, pickles, tabbouli, eggplant, peppers – all the classic Arab foods that once defined the cuisine here, followed by skewers of grilled meat.  But, as I am about to discover, things here have really changed.

Yes, my favorite place is still Abu Hassan (or as the locals call it, Ali Karavan), a tiny place in Jaffa that’s been around since 1959 and  still serves what I am convinced is the best hummus on the planet.  What you want is a triple – hummus, ful and masbacha.  It comes with raw onions, a lemony hot sauce  and piles of pita, and you have to eat fast; people are lined up outside, eagle eyes scanning your table, willing you to move on.

But Israel has discovered food in a really major way, and blessed with fabulous ingredients the chefs are being endlessly creative.  Just look at the still life at HaSalon, piled onto the bar, enticing you with its voluptuous rawness.

Then the food begins to arrive, as gorgeous as the display.

This is where Eyal Shani – Israel’s hottest chef – is at his most creative. He’s famous for his roasted eggplant (more about that later), but here he revels in the ingredients of the moment.  I loved this- such delicious eggplant – served in a puddle of sweet tomato sauce with shredded egg on the side.

And this elegant pasta with zucchini and fish eggs

A big generous pot of crab and shrimp….

A grouper head (the body came later), swimming in a rich tomato sauce that we practically inhaled.

And a big, rare, charred ribeye, carved at the table into thick rosy slices.

There were desserts too, and wonderful wine.  But we did our best to restrain ourselves.  Tel Aviv rocks late into the night, and we were headed for Shani’s more modest Miznon,

and a taste of his famous cauliflower.

It’s so famous, in fact, that you can find the recipe, here.

The cauliflower’s wonderful, but if you take my advice you won’t miss the chicken liver in pita, which is mind-blowingly delicious.

We had breakfast the next morning on a kibbutz: shakshuka and salad.  If there’s a better way to start the day I haven’t found it.

Tomorrow: lunch in a Bedouin cave, dinner in the market…and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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