Recipes for restaurants
March 16, 2017
This is the fish market in San Sebastian. It tells you a few things. For one, that this is a city where women are often in charge: have you ever seen a lovelier display? (Please notice the tulips and bay leaves scattered about.) For another, that you will never find better fish – or chefs who are so adept at cooking it. The only fish market I’ve ever visited that smelled as deliciously fresh as this was Tsukuji in Tokyo.
I fell in love with San Sebastian. Easy to do; this is a beautiful coastal town filled with kind, charming people and fabulous food. Over the next few days I’ll post detailed notes from the restaurants I visited, but for now, just a few highlights.
Infant peas (with white asparagus and an egg poached just to trembling at Bodegon Alejandro. The peas were sweet and so tiny they floated into your mouth, delicate as raindrops.
A tangle of tiny eels at Arzak (with pomegranate seeds and minuscule broccoli florets). These angulas are usually cooked in olive oil and garlic, but here their amiable slither had an opportunity to shine.
The tortilla at La Vina, a pinxtos restaurant most famous for its fabulous burnt cheesecake. (More about that later.) Caramelized on the outside, still runny inside, when you poke it with a fork soft little cubes of potatoes come tumbling out. Where you’re supposed to go for the tortilla is Bar Nestor – but the place makes exactly one each day, and if you miss it, you’re out of luck. I missed it. But I did not miss Nestor’s even more famous steak
You pick the one you want, Nestor cooks it to order, and this is what you get…
Afterward you go around the corner to La Cuchara de San Telmo, to experience this suckling pig: all crackling skin enfolding meat so tender it is barely there.
Squid “risotto” at Akelare: no rice, just squid, cheese and butter. The squid is cut into brunoise the size of rice and barely cooked.
At the table, you stir in this butter flower, which slowly vanishes into the dish, leaving behind an ethereal trail of flavor.
And to end the evening in San Sebastian, the drink of choice is gin and tonic. You want to go to the Dickens Bar to experience true obsession: the barman worries over the shape of the glass, the size of the ice, the temperature of the tonic. And they buy only organic limes, which he stops to zest at least three times during the construction of the drink.
Tomorrow- cocochas, anchovies with strawberries… and this lunar chocolate moon.
March 12, 2017
This is Aitor Arregi of the restaurant Elkano in Gaitara, just outside San Sebastian. And that is one of the turbots for which he is justly famous. If you can eat only one fish in your life, this is the one you want. But only after Aitor has explained it to you, for he can find the entire world in a fish
If only I could capture Aitor’s passion at the table, the way he talks about the turbot. “I don’t like the little ones,” he will begin, “they need to be fat to get flavor.” He will go on to tell you that they are influenced by the temperature of the water, the time of the year, and mostly by what they eat.…
I want you see Aitor waving his eloquent hands to demonstrate how these flat fish swim. Turning the turbot he will show you the black skin on the bottom “the side that looks toward the sea,” and then over again to display the white skin on top. “That side looks toward the sky.” And yes, tasting carefully you do discern the difference, the slightly algal taste of the black side which has spent its entire life under water, compared to the more cosmopolitan white side, which has had the whole wide world to see.
Aitor will gently filet the fish, separating the left side from the right, pointing to his own body as he explains that the side with the organs – the liver, the heart – has a more complex flavor than the side that is pure flesh.
Pulling out the bones he will hand them to you, insisting you eat with your fingers, pulling the soft, slick flesh from the crunchy bones with your teeth.
Then he will take the larger bones at the head and crack them, exposing the marrow. “Taste it,” he will urge, holding it out.
When you have finished you will not believe that a single fish can offer such variety. And you will never eat another fish without remembering this one.
Before the turbot you will eat cocochas – the tender flesh from the throat of the hake – which has the texture of the most perfect oyster you have ever eaten. He will offer them cooked in various ways, and you will love them all.
What else will you eat? Almost nothing. A bit of bread. Some of the restaurant’s wonderful olive oil. And perhaps to end, their cheese ice cream with strawberry sauce.
Aitor will insist you drink the local txakoli, but from different years so you can taste the way it changes over time. You will drink another glass, and then another, thinking how lucky you are to be here in this wonderful restaurant.
And leaving, you will wonder how soon you can come back.
March 6, 2017
Yes, that is a mountain of caviar – excellent Bulgarian caviar – in a block of ice. Just one of the many luxurious offerings at the afterparty William Sonoma threw at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival on Friday night. The party felt like a return to the excessive eighties… The chef guests strolled about sipping Champagne while nibbling on an endless parade of sea urchins, giant langoustines, shockingly large lobsters
fist-sized truffles, cured meats, wagyu beef… I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. (These luxuries were sourced by Ian Purkayastha, who is also known as Truffle Boy.)
But the entire festival was a trip on the excess express, a rolling journey of wine, food and fun. A few highlights….
A meal at Husk, which began with two kinds of chicken wings…
and included (along with some fifteen other dishes), this gorgeous pan of cornbread
exceedingly rich shrimp and grits edged with hints of onion…
sauteed shishito peppers
extraordinary fried chicken on a bed of seductively smoky beans…
One of my favorite meals was at the much-loved The Ordinary, which included towers of seafood, piles of shrimp, a fantastic razor clam salad and these tiny uni tacos…
and oyster sliders…
One morning a breakfast for Daniel Boulud at Le Farfalle included a dozen or so courses, including these fried chicken biscuits
and ending with the most luxurious eggs it has ever been my pleasure to eat. Gently scrambled, they were glazed with butter and buried in black truffles.
One of the final highlights of the event was a dinner honoring Chef Boulud. The dishes, prepared by high profile chefs who’ve worked for him were paired with special wines. More on that tomorrow, but here’s a little teaser…
March 1, 2017
Fresh sea cucumber. Hairy crab. Cod sperm. Huge live shrimp, legs wiggling. Marinated mackerel. Fresh bamboo shoots…
Yesterday I had a truly memorable meal at the venerable Kiriko in L.A. It’s the kind of meal I wish I could go back and have again today. And I would – if I weren’t on my way to the Charleston Wine and Food Festival.
The Japanese call shirako – which is milt, or the sperm sac of the male cod- “children of the clouds” a euphemism that always thrills me. The substance itself also thrills me. It has an extraordinary texture – pillow soft, tender, almost liquid but yet not – and a rich, gentle taste. That’s it in the bowl above, lightly poached.
Kiriko also sets it on sheets of kelp and grills it. The result is a kind of savory marshmallow; utterly irresistible.
But everything we ate was memorable, from this fresh hairy crab
to these crisp, slightly crunch slices of lotus root
and these firefly squid – no bigger than a fingernail but packing big flavor.
I love the giant shrimp, the flesh translucent, the flavor clean, bracing and yet sweet…
And it’s head, fried, all crackling tentacle and soft fat
Fresh sea cucumber is quite a change if you’re accustomed to the dried version served in Chinese restaurants. This has the most astonishing texture, simultaneously soft and chewy. (It’s all texture, very little taste.)
And if you’re a lover of saba – Japanese mackerel – don’t miss Kiriko’s version.
We had some traditional sushi as well. Wonderful uni. And this sparkling kohada, all shiny silver scales and deep, full flavor.
To finish up? You might opt for the traditional tamago. As for me, please give me a handroll with cucumber, shiso and umeboshi. The perfect finale to a pretty perfect meal.
February 28, 2017
“I want to knock your socks off!” Michael McCarty declared when he opened his restaurant in 1979.
I have a special place in my heart for Michael’s in Santa Monica: before it made its debut I persuaded my editors at New West Magazine that it was going to revolutionize restaurants. It was, I insisted, brash, exciting and utterly new. I then spent a few days a month for almost a year hanging out with Michael and his chefs as they built the place.
It WAS revolutionary: the chefs were all American (unheard of in those days), young (they were all under 25, equally unheard of at the time), and college educated. On top of that they were using American ingredients and showcasing American wines.
There were other innovations: Michael was one of the first restaurateurs to computerize his kitchen. He filled the dining room with great modern art (still there), and dressed his waiters in Ralph Lauren. He created a garden so lovely that eating among the plants was reason enough to entice many people through the door. But the food was the main draw. Michael had an eye for talent: the first chefs – Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, and Mark Peel- all went on to distinguished careers.
I’ve been back many times over the years, but my last visit left me with a sinking feeling. Nearing forty, the place felt like a tired old star limping along on its last legs.
So I was thrilled to walk in a few nights ago and find the place packed to the rafters and filled with energy. I was even happier to look at the menu and find that I was eager to taste every single dish. This is the old age we all yearn for: the rooms have been spruced up, but the basic bones are so good they don’t need a face lift. As for the garden – it has only grown more graceful over time.
The energy comes from the new chef, Miles Thompson (he worked at Animal, opened Allumette and then went north to work at Shed). His menu is pure fun.
Consider that barbecued quail up above, the flavors amped up with tangerine, miso and plum vinegar. Plain delicious.
Octopus with lime curd, chrysanthemum and a shrimp vinaigrette: a few irresistible little morsels.
The most wonderful squid, the flavor underlined by a devilish smudge of burnt eggplant puree and the gentleness of maitake mushrooms.
Chawanmushi – but a bracingly clean version – flooded with the voluptuous flavor of crab and sea urchin and sparked by a flash of ginger.
Hiding somewhere under all that greenery are light little ricotta gnudi
The entrees are more straightforward – although they do their best to startle with strangeness. This tiny, juicy little chicken – beautifully cooked – arrives embellished with both head and feet.
A righteous steak: big, bold, meaty. Something for everyone.
This branzino was delicious – but that black carrot puree? Over the top. Addictive. Enough, all by itself, to bring you back.
The excitement over the food has also infused the staff: they’re young, pumped, eager to make you happy. It’s really good to see Michael’s come roaring back.