Recipes for restaurants

California Road Trip: Day One

May 19, 2017

On Sunday morning, I woke up and took this picture from my bed…. Gulls swooped, and off to the right, where you can’t see it, an egret fished. Breakfast was oysters from Hog Island next door, with a splash of lemon. (And yes, I will tell you how to stay in this magical mystery place.)

That will give you a sense of what this mad odyssey of driving, talking and eating was like. In a word, wonderful.

Over the next few days I’m going to post the highlights of the food we ate as we meandered through California, from Los Gatos to the Napa Valley, Healdsburg, Point Reyes, San Francisco and finally Carmel.  Along the way we had what I think was one of the best meals of my life… But that comes later.

Our first meal – it was meant to be just a snack – was at Bywater in Los Gatos.  We didn’t want to eat much because we were having dinner at Manresa that night… But we started with that bam bam shrimp above, and after that, well, we were lost. Really fresh, sweet and tender, the shrimp was split, dipped in cornstarch and then fried to an astonishingly crisp crackle.  Utterly irresistible.

After that we had one of the finest gumbos I’ve ever encountered. Deep, rich, clarion clear, and singing of the sea. I just couldn’t stop eating it.

And then, of course, a po’ boy.  Fried oysters and the greatest pickled okra.

At that point, happily, we had the sense to stop. Dinner at Manresa was only an hour away.

There’s something wonderful about eating at a chef’s casual place and then moving on to see what he does when he gets really serious. David Kinch gets both experiences: Bywater is the kind of place you could happily eat in every day (if you were lucky). Manresa is a slow it down, think about it, special occasion place.  And for a three-star Michelin restaurant, it is wonderfully lacking in pretension.

I’m not going to go through all of the twenty or so courses we had at Manresa, although there wasn’t one I didn’t love. It built slowly, from the pure simplicity of this…  

Two clean, simple bites of perfection.

To this tricky little mouthful. What you can’t see from this photo is that the fried anchovy is in a “puttanesca” sauce made of strawberries.  It turns your head around, and suddenly your mind is playing with you, jumping back and forth between tomatoes and strawberries.  I loved it.

Panna cotta with clams and salmon roe.  The trick here was the way the richness of the custard was edged with the saline tang of seawater vinegar.  Again, you found your mouth vibrating between rich and astringent, a boomarang, an echo.

The loveliest little salad – a walk in the spring woods,

Asparagus. Salmon. Asparagus.

Abalone in a “gumbo” of its liver.  I often find abalone disappointing; this was not.

We had duck. We had lamb. And then we had a slice of beef- the richest, most intense piece of steak I’ve ever experienced. The mineral tang of that meat still haunts my mouth. (And I’m sorry, but my photograph is just so ugly I won’t subject you to it….)

Afterwards there were strawberries, ice cream – and a whole bag of breads to take home and eat in the morning. Eating that toast the whole meal came back to me… a truly wonderful ending.

Then we packed up and headed north to two truly astonishing meals. Not to mention the most spectacular salad I’ve ever eaten.

Stay tuned….

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My Dinner at Fish and Game

May 3, 2017

Let me start by saying I’ve rarely had better cured pork than the soft, sweet American version of prosciutto they’re making at Fish and Game in Hudson.  Air and salt cured for two years, it has that beautiful frill of ivory fat that melts seductively as your mouth closes around it. Once its vanished you’re left with the complexity of the meat itself, the intense flavor resonating long after it’s gone. Don’t miss it.

There are lots of other lovely dishes on the current menu – it changes regularly – like this brilliant take on asparagus, which is topped with a wonderful mush of sea urchin, lime and garlic.  You’ll never want to eat asparagus any other way.

I was impressed with the restaurant’s version of scallop crudo. Scallops are the sea’s mildest creatures, but these soft raw slices are topped with XO sauce, which changes their nature into something both funky and intriguing.

Grilled soft shell crab arrived on a little pillow of smoked eggplant that. The texture coaxed out the soft succulence of the meat just as the smoke and chili oil underscored its flavor.

These floppy noodles ( made from locally grown rice), were topped with a robust  fish ragout laced with turmeric. Impressive.

I’ve always admired what Zac Pelaccio was attempting at this beautiful restaurant: he’s been relentless about sourcing local ingredients, going so far as to make his own fish and Worcestershire sauces.  But now that he’s allowed more of the Southeast Asian flavors he did so well at Fatty Crab (and at his barebones Back Bar up the street) to influence the kitchen, the menu has become even more exciting.

Restaurants in this part of the Hudson Valley are constantly improving and there are many excellent new ones to explore. But as they increasingly follow the farm to table mantra a kind of dull sameness has crept onto the menus. It’s safer that way – something to please everyone.  Meanwhile Fish and Game follows nobody’s lead and blazes its own trail.  I didn’t love every dish I tried, but there wasn’t one I didn’t admire and dinner left me with a deep desire to return.

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California Dreaming

April 6, 2017

Last night I dreamed of …. not Manderly, but the incredible yellowtail and uni tacos at Holbox, a small perfect seafood stand in the La Paloma Market near USC.

Little wonder; I’m not in LA anymore, but in the cold, gray Berkshires where it’s mud season and the skies drip endless rain. Of course I’m thinking about this tropical dream of a dish: it’s rare to find such exquisite balance in a simple seafood dish. Every element here, from the smooth avocado to the chewy little nubbins of fish and the marvelously seductive sea urchin adds a different element, which is pulled together by the sharp, fruity bite of the chile morita.

There are lots of other dishes to love here.  Blood clams, almost scary in their red-rimmed shells, but incredibly fresh and delicious. Giant oysters. Wonderful shrimp cocktails, piled into tall glasses like savory sundaes.  And the most delicious surf clams, sliced into thin ribbons and swirled in bitter orange juice.  If you love the crisp crunch of giant clams at sushi bars, you’ll love this.

But when I dream, it’s the uni-yellowtail tacos I think of. I may just have to go back to LA…..

 

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Magical Mystery Tour: Akelare

March 18, 2017

 

A stunning glass edifice above the sea.  Two large mysterious red lamps, elegant as tulips, light your way to the door. Approaching San Sebastian’s  Akelare, you have no doubt that you are about to enter a temple of food.

But it is more than that.  Chef Pedro Subijana is a kitchen wizard who delights in surprising you.  Nothing at his restaurant is what it appears to be.  A parade of appetizers greets you. First the Bloody Mary up above, a gorgeous clash of tomato, celery and vodka.  It is followed by “diabolical butter” to spread onto “colorful bread.”

 

And olives, that are not mere olives, but burst into your mouth in a great gasp of anchovy liquid.

 

Now the real show begins.  A captain arrives bearing a tray of shrimp, which he proceeds to douse with Orujo, a pomace brandy (100 proof, it’s the local equivalent of marc or grappa). With a dramatic flourish he sets it on fire, sending a whoosh of flame leaping into the air.  He quickly smothers it, allowing the flames to die.  The result is a few stunning moments of picking the creatures up by their tails as you devour the soft, slick flesh, and then suck the succulent heads.

The show is not over.  Next comes “carpaccio of pasta”.  This offers layers of texture: pasta, peppers, mushrooms and cheese that combine in the mouth to truly resemble raw meat.

Another vegetarian dish appears: chickpeas, potato and truffle, a glamorous smush of flavor.

 

The captain is back now for another display of showmanship.  He presents filets of anchovy – and what fabulous anchovies they have here in San Sebastian – and proceeds to “cook” them by smothering them in muslin bags containing hot salt.  The result is something quite extraordinary: the most delicate anchovies you will ever encounter.

This was followed by another little sleight of hand trick:  “risotto” made without rice.  Squid has been diced into brunoise, cooked in its ink and served with a “flower.”

Swirl the flower into all that dark denseness  and watch it slowly vanish, leaving behind a trail of flavor. You taste butter, Parmesan and a touch of sweetness – sugar perhaps?  The  waiter insists there is no sugar, no honey, no sweet wine, so you can only surmise that local squid are sweeter than any you’ve experienced in the past.

It’s notable that, in this protein-mad city (San Sebastian thinks nothing of serving you a meal made entirely of meat or fish), we’ve had six courses without a morsel of meat.  But here it comes now now in the form of spiced hare Pojarski. I imagine the chef chuckling as he stirs exotic spices into the mix, longing to offer you yet another surprise.

Dessert.  A lovely little tangle of exotic citrus fruits: yuzu, tangerine, lime and Buddha’s hand laced wth little pearls of  finger lime that explode in your mouth.

This is followed by the most astonishing “apple tart.” Once again the chef wields his magic wand: although you taste apple, this is  puff pastry and praline cream wrapped in “apple paper.”

A final little bit of magic to send you into the night.

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The Cosiest Three Star

March 17, 2017

Of the many ways to describe three star Michelin restaurants, the word “cosy” has never occurred to me.

Until now.

Arzak is sui generis, an insanely ambitious and original restaurant that also feels like home.

Because that’s what it is. The restaurant began life as the family’s home in 1897, and it clings to that sense. Elena Arzak (who shares the kitchen with her father Juan Mari), began working in the family restaurant when she was eleven years old.  Today you might walk into the kitchen and surprise her children, crayons scattered across the table as they eat dinner. Walk into the dining room and you’ll find that the people serving you have been there for much of their lives; a waitress in her seventies recently (and reluctantly) retired because the trays had grown too heavy.

And unlike so many chefs, whose egos demand they keep sending food until you are begging them to stop, Elena keeps asking, “are you sure it’s not too much?”

Are you getting the feeling that I loved this restaurant?  I did.

Dinner began with a quintet of playful little tidbits like the red gyoza above, filled with shrimp and moringa (an herb most often used in Ayurvedic cooking.)  Crisp and fresh, it was a fantastic way to start the show.

A smush of banana and squid was dark and dense with a mysterious funk that felt like a warning: beware, in this restaurant looks can be deceiving.

I couldn’t help it: those jaunty little shells peeking out of their hidey holes made me think of Sponge Bob.  Pure clean deliciousness. Pumpkin and clams is an inspired contrast of color, taste and texture.

Another surprise: strawberries and anchovy don’t seem like a perfect match.  Until you try it. The fruit’s acidity turns out to be an ideal foil for the silvery fish.  The textures are lovely too:  the crisp bite of strawberry,  the smooth slippery anchovy  and the softness of fish mousse go somersaulting merrily through your mouth.

Again, the playful presentation belays the seriousness of this combination.  Duck ham and smoked eel – two varieties of smoke- come  wrapped inside a chickpea flour crisp.

They call this “Mondrian oysters” – very crisp warm oysters in a field of herbs and flowers. Have you ever seen a prettier dish? The little sweep of sauce is made with maca, which is sometimes called “Peruvian gingseng.”  (In the lab above the kitchen, the Arzaks constantly experiment with new ingredients.)

Tiny eels – angulas – just lightly warmed, on a crisp slightly sweet cracker.

Hiding inside that crisp green cracker – made with krill it is the Basque version of an Asian prawn cracker – is the most extraordinary red shrimp.  Just a bite, it’s been marinated in mint and lemongrass and then set on a beet puree. In some ways this is the epitome of Arzak cooking: colorful, inventive, textural and delicious, all at the same time.

“Monkfish Cleopatra.” A smooth little chunk of grilled monkfish hides beneath a clever lattice of cracker. (Are you getting the impression that crackers are often employed to add an element of crunch?)  The hieroglyphics are made of pumpkin and chickpea.

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Potatoes, Truffles. Egg Yolk.  The most whimsical luxury.

And now for the main event.  I have never had a better piece of venison.  Roasted roe deer and tenderloin of venison in an anchovy sauce with bits of celeriac and broccoli stems.  On top, a crisp ruffle of tendon.

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They call this “Square Moon”‘ a cube of chocolate crackles open to spill its liquid heart of mint, neroli and kiwi across the plate. This is what dessert should be: pure fun.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a chef who created more beautiful plates or used color in a more decisive fashion. But in the end, it’s neither the pretty plates, enticing textures or fantastic food that you’ll remember most.  What you’ll think about, and think about again, is the warmth of the Arzak welcome.  And you will long to return.

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