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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Atomix

June 19, 2018

You leave Atomix with a deck of cards, a gorgeous kind of Tarot set, each one devoted to a dish you have eaten.  In another restaurant this might seem like a gimmick, but at this serene almost contemplative restaurant it is something much rarer: it is pride.

JungHyun and Ellia Park are too ambitious to simply offer you food: they want you to ingest their culture. You sit at their spare but luxurious ten seat counter and each course tells a tale of Korea; by the time this deliriously delicious evening comes to a close you have a new respect for this complex cuisine.  And – if you’re me – an enormous desire to learn more.

Although the two restaurants do not resemble each other in any way, this is, I think, closer to Blue Hill at Stone Barns than any other place I can think of.  When I want friends to experience sustainability, I send them to Blue Hill. In that spirit, I’ll be sending people with an interest in Korea to spend a few hours at Atomix.

You could, of course, just go and eat the food.  Everything we had was artful, beautifully presented, and exciting.

The meal builds.  This first course – a roasted burdock soup – was filled with intriguing and unfamiliar flavors.  What you are looking at is a preserved Korean plant, mugwort oil, and a little nugget of fishcake. That fishcake, made in house, was unlike any I’ve tasted before. I wanted more. A lot more.

The next course was hoe – raw fish – and it was stunning.  The card tells you that the inspiration came from a poem talking of “fish tossed in golden gleam.”  That poem becomes sea bream  marinated in tangerine vinegar, then topped with a gelatin made of soy sauce, Japanese uni and a bit of chrysanthemum.  The flavors were subtle and slightly teasing, the gentleness of the fish underscored by the bitter leaves, the spicy citrus, and the opulence of uni.

A fried course.  One elegant langoustine topped with an uni-nasturtium cream.  But there was another flavor, prickling my tongue, hovering at the very edges of consciousness, dancing in and out.  It was, apparently, a seed pod called chopi, used in Korea before peppers arrived on their shores. Fascinating!

Now we come to the one course that didn’t work for me.  I love caviar – and this was everything osetra should be – slightly fruity, rounded, a gentle pop in the mouth.  But it was overwhelmed by the lovely freshness of the cheese curd, so soft and sexy, so richly milky. That curd was so seductive – a textural magician – I barely noticed the caviar.

This is the chef’s idea of pancakes.  If you’ve spent any time around Korean food you’ve undoubtedly encountered the pajeons – savory pancakes.  Here the cake becomes a shadow of itself, a thin crepe embracing golden eye snapper.

But there’s another elusive flavor here, and I worry at it, trying to identify the taste.  It is, it turns out, a rare Korean soy sauce, the balsamic vinegar of the country if you will, which has been slowly fermented for at least five years.  The resulting elixir is not just salty; it is round, proud – the taste of time.

It was served with the most extraordinary little bowl of rice. The rice, each grain distinct, was mixed with seaweeds, sesame oil and topped with a tender little cloud of tofu.

A  tidbit, really, one tiny bite of eggplant with eel mousse. On the side, a poached oyster with kimchi.  (And should you be interested in these lovely ceramics, the cards identify each artist.)

Chef Park displays a whole turbot, first grilled then poached.  When it next appears it is in a chrysanthemum sauce. I’ve always thought of chrysanthemum as a rather grumpy flavor, but here it actually smiles.

“If I were to provide the one word that best describe the true Korean flavor, I would undoubtedly say fermentation,”  the chef writes on this card. That is the point of this plate. The little cubes of wagyu have been marinated in fermented fruit juice.  On the side, fermented wasabi leaves, preserved garlic, ramps, dried seafood.  And more in the panchan: preserved radish, cucumber, cabbage. No more than a few tiny bites, but each one eloquent.

Easing into dessert shaved ice tops strawberries and creme fraiche, with coriander and black pepper rocketing through the sweetness.  This is what I thought when I took the first spoonful: If you could bite into those first few days of spring, this is what it would taste like. 

It looks simple, but there’s so much work in this little dish of rice ice cream with pickled sprout honey.  That unfamiliar flavor?  It turned out to be a pudding made of the scorched rice left at the bottom of the rice pot. 

This was the most provocative and exciting meal I’ve had in a very long time. I’m ready for my next lesson in Korean cuisine; I can hardly wait for the next menu.

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Terrible Weekend

June 12, 2018

Like almost everyone in the food community, I’ve spent the past few days mourning Tony Bourdain. He wasn’t a close friend, but I’ve known him for at least twenty years and watched, gratefully, as he changed the food landscape.  More than anyone, he was the person who persuaded a wide swath of Americans that food is much more important than merely something to eat.  He went beyond the delicious to demonstrate that it’s one of the fundamental ways we connect with one another.  He made it his mission to prove that food is really about community and politics, about economics, the environment, culture and history.

He mattered, and it’s almost impossible to believe that he’s gone.

I was on Cape Cod when the news arrived, speaking at a charity function for a wonderful institution called We Can dedicated to helping women in transition at difficult points in their lives.  We were, of course, talking about food and community.  And as I went out, alone, to walk along the beach in the early morning, thinking about Tony, I was glad to be there. I wished there had been someplace Tony could have reached out  to when he was in so much pain.

Then I drove to Truro, to a workshop at another wonderful institution, The Castle Hill Center for the Arts. There for a writing workshop, we were all so sad that we dedicated our  time to Tony’s work.  We began by reading his first seminal piece for the New Yorker, and then some pieces from Gourmet.  I especially like this one.

And then, of course, we ate.  It seemed appropriate to celebrate Tony’s life with food. Here are a few highlights.

Fried belly clams.  There are dozens of places to get them on the Cape.  My favorite in Wellfleet is PJ’s. (These are not theirs – I forgot to take that picture. These are from another place down the road, whose name I neglected to write down.  But it’s hard to find bad fried clams on the Cape.)

Baked Wellfleet oysters from Terra Luna restaurant – one of the coziest, friendliest restaurants you’ll ever find.  They describe their food as “rustic neo-pagan” which seemed just about perfect for that moment.

A plate of homemade salumi from Ceraldi’s – the most ambitious and impressive restaurant in the area.  They’re making their own coppa, pancetta, bresaola – and that bagna cauda beneath the radish was really delicious.  (As was everything we ate in a long meal, from crisp local oysters with samphire, to locally raised chicken and a rhubarb panna cotta.)

Had more fried clams on the way home.  And then, back in Hudson, stopped in at Oak Pizzeria Napoletana for a wood-fired clam pizza.  Seemed like a fitting end to this particular journey.

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