Traveling Tongue

25th February
2010
written by spd

(images: Sean Patrick Doyle)

(images: Sean Patrick Doyle)

“We lunched upstairs at Botín´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.” The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Well, I can’t say that I drank three bottles of rioja alta, but I did have a very big meal at Restaurante Botin on Calle De Cuchilleros. To call it one of the best restaurants in the world is also a stretch, but to call it the oldest restaurant in the world… that would just be fact. The restaurant, opened in 1725 in a building dating back to 1590, holds the certificate from the Guinness Book of Records to prove it. How’s a foodie on holiday to resist? As you can imagine, the place has become wildly popular with tourists trying to scout out Hemingway’s seat; but it’s worth mentioning that when I dined there, there were several tables of spaniards enjoying cochinillo asado, the roast suckling pig they are so famous for. And of course, that is what I had as well.

The portion was laughably large, but so much of it was fat and bone, that I only got a small fists-worth of meat. The pig is roasted in the Castilian style with a mixture of onion, garlic and parsley, tomillo (thyme), some bay leaves, dry white wine flavored with fermented fish, and pig’s fat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the meat as flavorful as expected, and the potatoes that accompanied it weren’t exactly inspiring. I did, however, end the meal with the most incredible flan de queso I have ever tasted!

With light spilling in through ancient window frames, waiters in white jackets flying by, a nearby elderly madrileno enjoying a taste of her childhood, azulejos (ceramic tiles) dating back to the 1700s (and others in the cloisonne-like style of the 1500s) surrounding me, I found the ambiance sort of infectious. The menu is headed with an etching of Madrid in 1561, around the time the first cutler’s shanty was put up on this very spot. If you come at lunch, the crowds are sparse enough to sit back and contemplate all of the generations that have passed through these arches. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Restaurante Botín. Calle de los Cuchilleros, 17. 28005 Madrid, Spain. 91 366 42 17

botin-travelingtongue

20th February
2010
written by spd
(img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

(img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

The common denominator in every Portuguese meal we had was, strangely enough… custard! Pastelerías occupied every corner, and round the clock, we found ourselves sinking our teeth into the most incredible custard-filled pastries. In the morning as a vehicle for our bicas (espressos), as a late afternoon pick-me-up, as a post-dinner dessert. I became particularly addicted to the delicias ovos (layers of puff pastry sandwiching a mixture of sugar and egg yolk) at Pasteleria Suica in Rossio square, and David made a habit of trying a new pastry at each sitting. None, however, compared to the now world famous Pastéis de Nata at Pastéis de Belém. I suppose they should hold the title, and enjoy the deserved hype… This was the first place that the pastries were sold in 1837, shortly after the Monesteiro dos Jeronimos closed. The monks, left to their own devices to make a living, decided to sell the pastries that they had been making for years, for a profit. All of the recipes created by these Portuguese monks revolved heavily around the egg yolk, as whites were used in large quantities to starch clothes and (if you can believe it) to make wine, such as Port. They managed to find a very delicious solution to the overabundance of yolks! Shops all over Lisbon attempt to recreate the recipe, and all are delicious (though we were disappointed by those at the renowned – and beautiful! – Confetaria Nacional in the Baixa), but none have as creamy a custard, or as flaky a shell. Sprinkle the still warm pastry with powdered sugar and cinnamon and your sweet tooth will be chattering for more and more…

13th February
2010
written by spd
Steaming Cataplana is served table-side at Martinho da Arcada (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Steaming Cataplana is served table-side at Martinho da Arcada (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Determined to uncover more of Portuguese seafood than salt cod and sardines, David and I sat down to lunch at Baixa fixture Martinho da Arcada. Once a haunt of poet Fernando Pessoa, they are known for their Cataplana, a seafood stew from the Algarve region that is similar to bouillabaisse in France. The waiters scurried around us in white jackets and brought our starters of cabbage soup (another Portuguese staple) and asparagus, because I was feeling starved for greens. Sadly, when the asparagus dish came, it was pickled white asparagus that tasted only of vinegar, but the folly was forgotten when the Cataplana came!  Named for the clam-like copper shell that it’s cooked in, the instrument was unclamped at our table and the stew was served table-side. Steaming inside were sea bass, salmon, prawns, lobster, clams, mussels… we eventually stopped counting! After soaking up some of the flavorful broth with our bread, it was easy to see why Pessoa would loiter here…

Martinho da Arcada, Rua da Prata, 2-8 1100 – 419 LISBOA, ph. 218879259

13th February
2010
written by spd
A simple lunch at Estrela de Belem (img:Sean Patrick Doyle)

A simple lunch at Estrela de Belem (img:Sean Patrick Doyle)

Belem, located a few miles west of Lisbon’s city centre, is home to a handful of tourist must-sees, among them the Torre de Belem dating back to 1515 and the lacy show-stopper Monesteiro dos Jeronimos built in 1501. The area immediately surrounding the Tejo is crowded with souvenir shops and overpriced cafes, so in an effort to find something more authentic, David and I meandered through backstreets with quaint pastel houses and took lunch at a no-fuss eatery, Estrela de Belem. We were the only out of towners in the joint, and entered just as a slew of leather-faced locals were finishing their beers. However, we were far from being the first to wander here, as it’s mentioned by both Lonely Planet and and the foodies over at Chowhound. We sipped cold Super Bock, the Lisboeta brew of choice and munched on sausages from a local butcher and grilled sardines. David proved infinitely more skilled at de-boning them! It’s worth the walk to escape the maddening crowd…

Estrela de Belém-Restaurante e Cervejaria Lda, Lisboa – Santa Maria de Belém, R Embaixador 112-r/c, Lisboa 1300-217 LISBOA

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7th February
2010
written by spd
The chic dining room at Eleven can be deceiving.  (img: Eleven)

The chic dining room at Eleven can be deceiving. (img: Eleven)

Lisbon gifted us an impressive array of culinary treasures, but Eleven was not one of them.  Every food find that I write about here is, theoretically, in the three to five star category.  However, I’ll make an exception to put of the red flag for unsuspecting visitors entertaining a meal here.

Eleven gives a nice first impression, with its sleek dining room overlooking the Park Eduardo. Until Tavares Rico stepped up its game and earned the recognition of Michelin tasters, Eleven was the sole restaurant in lisbon to boast such an honor. Indeed, this is just what the eleven partners were aiming for; Chef Joachim Koerper’s resume boasts Girasol in Alicante (two Michelin stars), L’Ambroisie in Paris (three Michelin stars), Moulin de Mougins (three Michelin stars), Guy Savoy in Paris (two Michelin stars), Hostelerie du Cerf in Marlenheim (two Michelin stars), and Au Chapon Fin in Thoissey (two Michelin stars). So I ask you, WHAT HAPPENED?

When we were seated, we were hounded by the juvenile sommelier several times before we ever saw our waiter. The 15 minute mark hit, and we still didn’t have menus, though we were expected to order wine blindly. When the waiter finally arrived, I found his hurried attempt to get us to order the truffle or lobster menu annoying. We decided on the menu digestion, and prepared to restart our engines when the food arrived. A pricy but well deserved feast was coming our way after so many anniversaries apart this year!

The 12 courses rolled out at a strange pace, and each was so heavy I found myself dreading the next. The only dish with any brightness or acid in it was a Seared Scallop with Curry Foam over a Lemon Risotto.  It was lovely, but even so, the garnishes were very bizarre. The centerpiece of another dish was a beautifully cooked fillet of John Dory slathered in a heavy, nondescript sauce.   Scattered around the dish were beautiful, pillowy chestnut gnocchi, so I was still slightly intrigued.  However, the meat course says it all; David and I ordered the Lamb and the Duck, respectively, and both came out over potatoes and overcooked vegetables with the exact same indecipherable brown sauce. With endless possibilities waiting to be unearthed in the food world, a Michelin-starred chef phones in the meat course?   I don’t buy it.  And that’s how I came to the conclusion that Chef Koerper has been in absentia for quite some time, leaving the kitchen in the hands of a novice chef de cuisine. It doesn’t help that the sommelier was out of his mind.  Not only did both of our wines taste like someone had poured sugar in them, the champagne he doused our intermezzo sorbet with made the concoction taste like glass cleaner.

At well over 100 Euros per person, it’s upsetting admit that the dishes were so forgettable, I can only vividly remember elements of three. While the dinner ended with some lovely confections courtesy of a very capable pastry chef, it didn’t rectify my opinion. As far as dollar value for quality is concerned, it was the most disappointing meal of my adult life.

Phew, now that that’s over, I can get back to relaying all of Lisbon’s incredible eats! Meals that cost (quite literally) a tenth of our dinner at Eleven and lingered in our minds for days afterwards!

Restaurant Eleven. Av. Marquês da Fronteira Jardim Amália Rodrigues, 1070 Lisboa, Portugal. ph 213 862 211

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3rd February
2010
written by spd
Our feast of split chicken piri-piri at Bomjardin (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Our feast of split chicken piri-piri at Bomjardin! When we returned for the second time, the weather was so fine that we dined outside and people watched on Rua de Sao Jose. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Our first meal in Lisbon just happened to be our favorite, and one that we recreated dish per dish later in the week. Bomjardin, a Chowhound favorite that’s just as loved by locals, serves the best Frango Assado (Chicken Piri-Piri) in the Baixa. Judging from the throngs of Lisboetas occupying it’s dining room and its annex across the street, perhaps the best in Lisbon!

There are no frills here, just fantastic food. A dismal window aquarium possesses the world’s saddest lobster, his criss-crossed claws bound for probably a decade, since the only plates exiting the kitchen carry split chicken. The frango is irresistibly juicy, and it’s crisp flavorful skin packs a punch of flavor. For extra spice, a tiny clay jar with a basting brush is available for extra piri piri. Unsanitary? Perhaps… but when in Lisboa… With a half bottle of the vinho tinto de casa, esparregado (spinich, not asparagus), batata frita (french fries), agua com gas, and the usual accompaniments of bread and queijinho sec (a simple, but delicious cheese), the meal comes to just over 20 Euro. We feel as if we’ve just robbed someone, and leaved stuffed and very, very happy!

Bomjardin, Travessa de Santo Antão 12, 1150 LISBOA Lisboa, Portugal. ph. 213 427 424

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23rd January
2010
written by spd

St. Lawrence Market exterior (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

St. Lawrence Market exterior (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

When I think of Toronto, I’ll first think of St. Lawrence Market.  Voted one of the World’s top 25 markets by Food & Wine, I would argue that it’s at least in the top third of those chosen few.  Not even La Boqueria in Barcelona or the Chelsea Market in New York could make me as giddy as I was the first time I walked its stalls.  Favorites included White House Meats, with an impressive assortment of game meats, and the most incredible pre-marinated butterflied chickens, and St. Lawrence Pizza & Ice Cream, whose house-made fettuccine and agnolotti filled my belly for my five week stay.

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23rd January
2010
written by spd

The dining room at Vertical.  (img: Vertical, via Open Table)

The dining room at Vertical. (img: Vertical, via Open Table)

I really slacked on dining out in Toronto.  With the St. Lawerence Market nearby, and a well-appointed kitchen, I found myself roasting chickens, shaving brussels, and browning butter to toss with orecchette most nights.  I did, however, treat myself to one very lavish dinner while David was in town.  Food and Wine made several suggestions, but 6 degree weather led me to the closest fine dining suggestion, Vertical.  Located on mezzanine level of Canada’s tallest building, First Canadian Place on King Street, the surroundings made me feel that I should have a corporate card on me.  However, we arrived late on a Monday and there were only two other dinners on a date, so it felt a bit like our own private dining room.

Our indecision is a reflection of how varied the menu is, and instead of making up our minds, we just ordered an insane amount of food. We started with Grilled Zucchini, cut into scallop-like discs, topped with speck, golden raisins, and mint. The seasoning was deeply eastern, and really surprising, with the mint making a definitive mark on the plate. It’s a not a dish I would think to make, though I’m glad they did! Our other starter didn’t move mountains but was flawless and simple, and because of that, my favorite of the night. Grilled Boneless Sardines with Grilled Crostini, pungent Morrocan Olive Tapenade, and Lemon. The skin was perfectly crisp, and the dish had just the right amount of acid. Sardines are a staple of Portuguese cuisine, and this dish made me so excited about our upcoming trip to Lisbon… I want to sip Vinho Verde in the Alfama over grilled sardines, but for now a New Zealand Sav Blanc will do.

Our pasta course arrives and they have made a mistake. The Papardelle has been confused with the Tagliatelle. I return mine, eager to try their twelve hour braised wild boar ragu, but David is content with his, and picks out pieces of Lobster and Scallop from his lightly dressed mound of house-made pasta. The correction is made, though I would think the boar would be more tender after 12 hours. Still, it’s a dish that warms me to the bone, as we gaze on the snow-dusted streets outside.

We finished with an Orata, presented whole at the table, then taken away and de-boned. Served atop a mixture of cauliflower, stewed tomatoes, olives, and caper berries, the fish wasn’t grilled, but braised, making it’s firm flesh so tender and moist. I missed the crispness that would have come from grilling but David was happy with the milky skin, which still had it’s thin under layer of fat. By now, I was bursting at the seams and had given up on my portion, when the waitress brought out some olive bread to sop up the incredibly flavorful tomato-based broth. I could have had had that broth for soup as a starter and been content. David was eying desserts, and we ordered something I can no longer remember, which is telling. He rolled me into a cab, and I stayed uncomfortably full for hours! Haha!

Vertical is certainly not a cheap destination, and the location might make some feel that they’ve just just exited their office and taken the elevator a few floors down, but the food stands on it’s own. It’s simple, straight-forward cuisine that’s not nearly as stuffy as it’s surroundings that makes Vertical worth a visit.

Vertical Restaurant and Bar.  100 King Street West. Toronto, ON M5X 1K7, Canada. ph (416) 214-2252

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30th October
2009
written by spd
The dining room at Michy's (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

The dining room at Michy's (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Michelle Bernstein looks great on paper. This half-Latina, half-Jewish ballerina-turned-chef has hosted a show on the Food Network, published a book, won the James Beard, appeared numerous times as judge on Top Chef, the list goes on. She has the distinguished honor of being the only native chef of Miami to really receive national notice. Her first lone venture, Michy’s, is located in an unassuming strip mall in the upcoming area of Biscayne. While most restaurants are thematic, Bernstein resists being categorized, and has been quoted as saying, “It’s just kind of a restaurant.” With Latin, Southern, French styles and a slew of others making an appearance on the menu, would she be presenting a watered-down version of all of them? I had to taste for myself, so I took my parents on the last night of our run in Fort Lauderdale.

We started by sharing an order of the delicious Jamon Serrano and Blue Cheese Croquetas. This upscale take on a Cuban snack that I’ve been eating for much of my life was a delightful balance of salty and sweet! My Dad had the Peruvian Ceviche with Snapper, Ginger, Lime, Chilies, Sweet Potatoes and Corn; but not just corn – corn three ways! Popped corn, fresh sweet corn, and corn nuts added textural interest to the dish. I had the White Gazpacho with Marcona Almonds, Grapes, and Cucumbers, and it was probably the highlight of the meal for me, because it was so surprisingly flavorful and still light. I could eat this daily – in smoothie form as a post-gym snack.

What’s wonderful about Michy’s is that most dishes can be ordered in half-sized portions, so you can try many things. This left plenty of room for our entrees. My mother had the Salmon with Farro, Baby Artichokes, Cippolinis and Lemony Saffron Nage- safe, but very delicious. And my father had the Steak Frites, a wonderfully flavorful Churrasco with house made Fries and Bearnaise and and Au Poivre dipping sauces. The fries appeared very well done, but were slightly soggy. The dipping sauces, however, were wonderful, especially the Au Poivre. I order the dish that grabbed my eye the second we sat down – the Crispy Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads with Fava Bean Pesto, Fresh Favas, Oranges, and Caraway Veal Jus. It was an utter disappointment. The heavily breaded sweetbreads were floury and soft, the Favas were bland, and the presentation was haphazard. I don’t quite know what to make of the dish, except that it’s not at all what you expect from a celebrity chef’s kitchen. Yes, the food at Craftbar in New York is horribly overrated, but at least it’s finely executed. I’ll excuse the misstep because what followed was a wonderfully satisfying Bread Pudding dessert, with Raisins, Congac, Chocolate Chunks, Orange Rind and Vanilla Ice Cream that tasted like creme brulee. It was a fine way to end the evening!

Bernstein overlooking the 50-seat dining room. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Bernstein overlooking the 50-seat dining room. (img: Sean Patrick Doyle)

Bernstein herself made several trips to the dining room that evening, and that might explain the lull in between some of the courses, or the fact that the Crispy Sweetbreads and Frites were a little soft. She’s a great culinaire but she might need a great expediter in the kitchen with her. Still, the meal was memorable and sparked my curiosity. I would return to Michy’s but since her starters seemed her strongest suit, I’m more likely to scope out her newly opened tapas restaurant, Sra. Martinez, located in the nearby Design District.

Michy’s. 6927 Biscayne Blvd. Miami, FL 33138-5733. ph. (305) 759-2001

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9th October
2009
written by spd
aldea

The austere, but elegant dining room at Aldea (img: Aldea)

Until two weeks ago, I hadn’t had much Portuguese fare since performing in Macau, China with West Side Story in 2005. This might partly explain my attraction to Aldea, George Mendez’ debut Flatiron restaurant, which has garnered glowing notices since it’s opening in May. His understated riffs on tradition Portuguese meals combine rusticity and refinement to create seemingly simple food that you want to eat. The setting is a narrow, austere two-level dining room, with six coveted seats overlooking the open kitchen in the back.

The concise dinner menu lists twenty-two items, of which fourteen are petiscos (Portuguese amuse), charcuterie, or appetizers. We began with the Sea Urchin Toast with Cauliflower Cream, Sea Lettuce, and Lime. I could take or leave it, but I appreciated the homage to Portugal’s Asian outposts. I followed with the dish that initially caught my attention when reading the review in Time Out New York: Migliorelli Peas with Tennessee Bacon, Soft-Poached Egg, Green Garlic and Truffle. The dish was comforting and straight forward and the egg was a thing of beauty, poached to perfection at precicely 64 degrees. However, the Tenessee Bacon was oppressively smoky and robbed the shaved black truffle of its presence on the plate. Still, I found myself finishing every last pea. David’s Baby Cuttlefish with Carmelized Lychee, Mentaiko, and Squid Ink was clean and focused, but I longed for more delicious lychee to balance the bitterness of the ink. He loved it.

When ordering our entrees, we asked the waiter for suggestions. He described the Arroz de Pato as simple and classic — “something your grandmother would make.” Sure, if your grandmother could sous vide a duck breast! This dish took traditional Portuguese flavor profiles to new heights! Duck appearing in three incarnations (sous vide breast, confit, and mouth-watering cracklings), dehydrated olives packing quite a punch, dollops of apricot paste lining the plate, brightening the rich flavor of the duck and thinly sliced chorizo. It was strongest dish of the evening — one worth returning for. We also had the Sea-Salted Chatham Cod with market cranberry and fava beans with lemon-basil mussel broth, because I couldn’t conclude a Portuguese meal without tasting Mendez’ preparation of this signature ingredient. Satisfyingly seared on the outside and resting on a bed plump beans, this dish looked very promising. The fish was quite nice, and the mussels hiding among the beans were so tender that my fork could could slice them without a fight. However, the same smoke permeated the broth. When we asked, the waiter said that the chef uses lardon to flavor the mussel broth. This is a case where the phrase “everything’s better with bacon” might fail to be true.

It appears that Mendez creates his menu like a couture designer creates a collection. Just as a fabric would re-appear two looks later, Mendez echos certain ingredients throughout the meal. In the case of the bacon, it felt redundant, but we were happy when the apricot paste showed its face again as one of the dipping sauces for the delicious “sonhos ‘little dreams'” (small donuts, elegantly enveloped in a linen napkin).

We probably didn’t need to order dessert, as a selection of small confections come with the check. The meal was flecked with these fine dining touches, presented here in an unstuffy setting. The food was moderately priced and inventive without being challenging. It’s the sort of restaurant that is easy to enjoy, and I would spend my time and money here again.

Aldea. 64 W 10th St.  New York, NY 10011-8702.  ph. (212) 505-7777

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