One Fish to Eat Before You Die

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.

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Meat! Glorious Meat!

March 9, 2017

IMG_0764.JPGAmericans have a reputation for being the most outrageously gluttonous eaters in the world. Translated that comes down to this: we eat an incredible amount of meat.

That has been a defining characteristic of American food culture since the very beginning. In Frances Milton Trollope’s cooly disdainful Domestic Manners of the Americans, first published in England in 1832, she notes,  “The American poor are accustomed to eat meat three times a day.” Which proves, mainly, how extremely unusual that was. 

As our population – and our economy – has skyrocketed, eating meat has never gone out of style. As calculated by the World Food Organization, most years the United States leads the world in per capital carcass availability.  In 2010, that was 120 kilos per person; as a comparison, India’s was a mere 5 kilos. 

But reading Cvoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto (Cookbook Secrets of Pope Pius V) written by Bartolomeo Scrappi in 1570, I’m reminded that the only thing new about this is that Americans do not reserve meat exclusively for the rich.  In most corners of the world, throughout history, those who could afford it have indulged in eating meat.

Take a look at this  menu for an official Papal meal with its lavish variety of fowl and game; there are 27 savory dishes and not a single one lacks meat. (A few interesting features to note.  For one, dessert was served both first and last. And for another,  beef appears only in the form of calf or veal.)

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Domestic Manners of the Americans
Francis Trollope
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The Glamorous Chicken

March 8, 2017

Still thinking of Charleston, I find myself poring through Southern cookbooks seeking out the spirit of that food. People EAT there!  Only in the south would leftover chicken be considered glamorous.

This recipes is from Virginia Cooking Past and Present, by the Woman’s Auxiliary of Olivet Episcopal Church in Franconia, Virginia.  I’m not sure I’ll be making this recipe anytime soon, but it does make me smile.


As does this incredible account of the original salamander (hint: not electric) and several historical chicken pot pies. Wouldn’t you like to try Mrs. Washington’s candied lettuce stalks?

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Oh Danny Boy….

March 7, 2017

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The dinner honoring Daniel Boulud at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival was a dream of a feast. Held in a private penthouse overlooking the harbor, each dish was paired with astonishing wines, starting with magnums of Krug Grande Cuvee.

The first course, by Jean-Francois Bruel, current Executive Chef at Restaurant Daniel, was even more delicious than it looks in the picture above. Not easy; it would be hard to come up with a prettier plate.  Slices of citrus-marinated scallop, caviar, crisp notes of radish, a hint of wasabi…  Tiny kisshu oysters were hiding somewhere, along with crunchy little bits rumored to be Budda’s hand.  The scallops were served with a very amiable Trimbach Riesling, 2009 Clos Sainte Hume that made them very happy.

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Kavin Kaysen (of Spoon and Stable and Bellecour in Minneapolis) concocted this little confection – a mere couple of bites – of gently cooked langoustine topped with crunchy popped rice on a puddle of charred eggplant and another of red curry.   So delicious!  With it we drank a 2012 Drouhin Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche poured out of magnums.

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Andrew Carmellini has too many restaurants to list here.  Should we go with The Dutch or Locanda Verde?  His complex French-inflected lasagna layered gossamer sheets of pasta, delicate as flower petals, with sliced truffles and Parmesan cream. It all went whispering into the mouth before the flavors exploded.  The 2013 Gevrey-Chambertin Coeur du Roy from Domaine Dugat-Py was an ideal companion.

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Normand Laprise came down from Canada to cook for the event.  He proudly served this rare magret of duck, the steely flavor edged with the bittersweet taste of sea buckthorn. To drink? A big bold 2009 Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve des Celestins from Henri Bonneau.

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Clearly the wine was getting to me. By the time the fifth course rolled around – Wagyu beef with charred onions, salsify and trumpet mushrooms – we’d been at the table for hours, dozens of speeches had been made, and I neglected to take its picture.  But the dish, by Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony, was a triumph. So was the 2005 Colgin IX Estate, a stately American claret.

And then dessert, this elegant little waltz of cakes, creams, confits and mousselines by Remy Funfrock of the Sanctuary at Kiawah Island served with – are you ready? – 1996 Yquem.

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And so to bed. Well, almost.  A final speech by Mickey Bakst, who conceived the entire affair.  (Mickey himself is so beloved in the restaurant world he’s known as  “America’s Maitre d’.”)  A few more words from Daniel himself, perhaps the most gracious man on the planet.  Each time someone rose to honor him, Daniel gave it right back, honoring the honorer.  The final gift? At the door each guest was presented with Daniel’s latest book, signed with a deeply personal note.




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A Few Things I Ate in Charleston

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

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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…

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FullSizeRender (16)and included (along with some fifteen other dishes), this gorgeous pan of cornbread


exceedingly rich shrimp and grits edged with hints of onion…

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sauteed shishito peppers


extraordinary fried chicken on a bed of seductively smoky beans…

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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…

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and oyster sliders…

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One morning a breakfast for Daniel Boulud at Le Farfalle  included a dozen or so courses, including these fried chicken biscuits

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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.

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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…FullSizeRender (24)

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