April 22, 2018
I’m just back from the Worlds of Flavor Conference in the Napa Valley, where the food was stunningly good. And abundant. Every day dozens of chefs from around the world cooked mountains of food in astonishing variety. So much food, in such profusion, that it became almost numbing.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting impressions of the conference, a meal at the new Charter Oak, and a final feast in San Francisco at Mourad. But right now I want to mention a meal I snuck away for.
On the last night of the conference I found myself at yet another global feast provided by what seemed like hundreds of chefs. People milled around, munching and exclaiming. Suddenly I looked at all those stations and…. I just couldn’t do it any more. I wanted to stop grazing and sit down for a civilized meal. I wanted to order a few dishes, talk to friends, sip some wine. Wonderful as it was, I wanted out of the movable feast.
And so I escaped to one of my favorite restaurants: Terra in St. Helena.
It was an oasis of calm and quiet. And the food was… fabulous.
I started with that hamachi at the top. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.
A little fritto misto of maitake mushrooms.
White asparagus, shrimp, caviar.
Fantastic tripe stew with white beans and seared scallops.
And a dumpling soup, rich with kimchee, fresh vegetables and bright flavors.
It’s a comfortable restaurant, popular with local winemakers who pass glasses from one table to another. But as I was leaving I noticed that I was not the only escapee. Sergio Rossi of Milan’s Trippa was there. Earlier in the day he’d done a demonstration of deep fried tripe, where he managed to turn the honeycombed innards into deliciously crunchy little strips dusted with salt and rosemary. They were like French fries with a college education. And what was the great Italian chef eating at Terra?
Tripe,, of course.
April 16, 2018
When your evening at Restaurant Daniel begins with a cool crisp little oyster topped with sea urchin and caviar, you’re happy from the very first bite. At least I am.
It is followed by this citrus-cured hamachi, tinged with beets, on a jaunty swoosh of chive aioli.
Then this mosaic of poularde (that would be a fat castrated chicken) and foie gras captured in aspic while bits of langoustine, pickled ramps and wild mustard cavort around the plate.
It’s spring, so there will be white asparagus, slicked with hazelnut oil and served with a little puddle of hollandaise touched with a bit of that aged vin jaune from the Jura, which adds a sultry touch of mystery.
And abalone, served on the rocks in its own private shell of puff pastry.
You forget sometimes – or at least I do – about the kind of serious French cooking that requires a platoon of people in the kitchen madly turning and peeling and dicing and saucing – dressing up each morsel of food until it no longer resembles its natural state. And there is nobody who does this particular kind of celebratory cooking better than Daniel Boulud.
A meal at his flagship restaurant is an instant Special Occasion, and even if it’s not, it will become one.
The service is superb. Here comes the captain now, about to strike a match and start playing with fire.
He flames foie gras in mescal, then nestles it into its own private nasturtium garden.
And these are just the starters. Next up is squab, superbly rare, with a wonderfully musky flavor and
surrounded by an entire palate of spring flavors: fiddleheads, fava beans, pea shoots and tiny mushrooms.
Rabbit comes encircled by grapes, chard and daikon in a rich puddle of reduced saba.
I should, perhaps, mention, that there were four of us. But the food was so beautiful – and so intriguing – we were passing our plates, eager to taste everything. Between sips of a Saint Aubin from Thierry Pillot (Saint Aubin is an often-overlooked wine, which makes it one of the most affordable white Burgundies) and a deep Pelissero Barbaresco, we came to this little treat….
black cod steamed in seaweed in an aged sake beurre blanc. Is that caviar paving the top? Of course it is! A fantastic conception, and one of my favorite dishes of the evening. On to sole
with spot prawns, asparagus and seaweed in a saffron sauce.
This is fairy tale food, and it’s hard not to feel like Cinderella. Daniel creates a fantasy for you: for a few special hours you are a pampered person living in a more gracious time.
He knows not to end this story too abruptly. After dessert there is a basket of madeleines, still warm from the oven, breathing vanilla. And finally adorable little boxes to take home, a gift for the morning, when you can eat your cannele and relive dinner.
April 7, 2018
One of the things I miss most about LA is Beverly Soon Tofu, which I’ve been going to since it really was on Beverly Boulevard (the restaurant moved to Olympic Boulevard thirty years ago). There is nothing more comforting than a big bubbling bowl of soondobu jiggae.
This is how it works.
You walk into the small restaurant and put your name on the list. Then you wait for an empty table.
When your turn finally comes you slip into one of the backless stools and decide how you want your tofu stew: there are many permutations- vegetarian, pork, shrimp, even spicy cod roe. Then you decide your level of heat; go for the hot, which isn’t painful.
Then you wait.
The first thing that arrives are these cool, clean little slices of tofu.
Then the panchan:
Finally you hear a furious boiling, bubbling and hissing and the waitress appears with your sizzling dinner, which spits angrily as she cracks a raw egg into the middle.
And then you eat, slowly and blissfully.
If there is a better $12 meal, I haven’t had it.
April 2, 2018
While I was eating this fish taco, with its cilantro and its astonishingly delicious pineapple puree at Cosme, it hit me that this might be the most delicious Mexican food I’d ever eaten.
And I’ve had a lot.
But the food had a purity I hadn’t expected, and I found myself eating in a kind of daze.
This guacamole, sprinkled with herbs, had a clean sweetness I haven’t experienced before, forever banishing guacamole fatigue. (C’mon, admit it; aren’t you tired of tasteless guac?)
The beautiful purple endive, with its bean puree, its hints of avocado and its pinenuts is the best kind of finger food, edging into bitterness.
Hidden beneath the lovely striped cucumber is kampachi, in the most elegant aguachile I’ve yet encountered.
And this may be the tlayuda to end all tlayudas; Cosme’s version of the crisp Oaxcan tortilla is a corn confection so liberally topped with truffles that the aroma wafts across the dining room, making everyone sit up and take notice.
Little lamb tacos – the edges of the lamb slightly burnt – were utterly irresistible.
And the desserts!
Yes, Cosme is expensive. And yes, it’s worth it. If you want a sense of how elegant and flavorful Mexican food can be, you can’t do better. The next stop, of course, is Mexico City, with its extraordinary restaurant culture.
March 22, 2018
The snow kept coming down, relentlessly, beautifully, constantly, but New York City snowplows were snuffling about, keeping the streets fairly clean. Getting around was easier than it’s been for years – there was no one on the road – and cabs prowled empty streets, eager for fares.
What better night, I thought, to try to snag a seat at the city’s hippest new restaurant, the one you can never manage to get into? I’ve been wanting to go to Legacy Records, and this was my moment. “Sure they said when we dripped into the restaurant, “come right in.”
I can’t imagine a better place to be in the middle of the storm.
The latest venture from the Charlie Bird/Pasquale Jones people is large, warm, candle-lit and casual. The ceilings are high; you can talk. Beautiful people keep walking in the door; at one point Pharrell arrived with a large entourage. Glancing down at the menu, I wanted to eat everything.
To begin: a blood orange spritz. The perfect antidote to the too-sweetness of Aperol.
You have to pay for the bread. You’ll be glad you did. It arrives, all warm and crusty, with both butter and lardo. That sprouted, seeded loaf is soulful, absolutely what bread should be.
The crudo tasting is fantastic. (It is also, at $25 per person, very expensive. Better, I think, to order the dishes individually.) But you will want them all, from those razor clams with tarragon, to the oysters with their crunch and their heat and their pop, to the truly gorgeous Nantucket bay scallops.
But what you absolutely do not want to miss is that Montauk tuna! It does not taste like any tuna I’ve eaten before; rich, soft and sweet all at the same time, this is tuna with serious character.
You definitely want this salad! Grains, greens, radishes and roots, a glorious muddle of flavor.
You want this cuttlefish pasta too, a little symphony in black and white with the added crunch of crumbs.
I’ll be going back to taste that dry aged rib eye, the roasted chicken, the sea trout. I’m sure they’re all delicious. But how will I ever manage to keep from ordering the duck? This is the duck of my dreams – all crisp darkness on the outside, all rich juicy redness within. The pears, the endive and the pistachios are perfect partners.
We left reluctantly. While we were eating the snow had gotten more intense, and we slip-slided all the way home. Which made the entire adventure that much more fun.