Sunday, December 18, 2005

Restaurant 74: Tempo Doeloe (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

RESTAURANT: Tempo Doeloe
LOCATION: Utrechtsestraat 75 Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 17, 2005
FOOD: Nasi Koening - Indonesian festive dinner with yellow rice and the following dishes: Sajoer Lodeh, Ajam Opor, Ora Arie, Daging Semoor, Paksoy, Godon Dari Sapi, Sambal Goreng Beans, Sambel Goreng Oedang, Sambel Goreng Tempeh, Oerapan, Ajam Roedjak, Sateh Ajam
BEVERAGE: Bentang (Indonesian Beer)
PRICE: 32 Euros

Thai is known for the fiery intensity of its sauces. Chinese Dim Sum is a kaleidoscopic view into the cuisine’s diversity of small plates. Indian shares the heat of Thai, but its spiciness is more upfront, its bread, rice, and meat combinations with a distinctly contrasting heat to that of Bangkok. Vietnamese food is lighter, often based around soups and noodles; Malaysian is a conglomeration of exotic sensations. Then there’s Pakistani, Afghani, the stewed meats of Himalayan and Tibetan, not to mention the beautiful simplicity of Japanese. Asian cuisine presents seemingly endless possibilities, few, if any, which when prepared in authentic style could ever bore a diner.

And then there’s Indonesian. Though uncommon in the United States, the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, has embraced rice tables and gado gado with the famous Dutch open-mindedness. For every canal in the city, there appears an Indonesian restaurant to match. The question is which restaurant is the best.

Tempo Doeloe has accrued a reputation as one of (if not the) premier destination for the art of Indonesian. Situated in a posh street in the city center, the restaurant’s name means “Old Days” and to enter, patrons must ring a bill before the hostess grants them admittance. The effect of this procedure is less pretentious than one might expect and shows more about the seriousness with which the restaurant prepares their dishes. Walking into Tempo Doeloe is like stepping into a culinary sanctuary – while the ambience is courteous and inviting, chefs prepare and waiters serve meals with a disciplined attention to detail.

While the menu offers both appetizers and entrees a la carte, it’s the tasting menus, specifically the rice tables that are Tempo Doeloe’s most popular options. The full rice table consists of over 20 petite dishes, while there are also two smaller and less expensive meat and vegetarian tables. The large one contained five beef dishes, making the nine-course meat table more appealing to me.

Tempo Doeloe took the foundations Tanjung San had laid and did to them what Frank Gehry’s brilliance did for Minnesota’s architectural scene – namely expanded it and caused the basic to flourish. From the night’s initial bite to its cessation, every flavor was enhanced, every course offering insight into new worlds. This started with prawn and rice crackers, Indonesian snacks which Tempo Doeloe easily could have overlooked without sacrificing the pleasure built by the entire meal. But the two types of crackers exploded with crunch and the refusal to submit to the mundane. The rice was a cross between gourmet potato chips and rice cakes, while the prawn crackers dazzled with their oyster cracker like thickness and traces of shrimp.

A chicken skewer in peanut sauce announced the opening of the meal in full. The peanut sauce was astonishingly singular, a true feat considering how many version of peanut sauce are available. It had the hue of rich chocolate and a similar viscosity. It coated the tongue with a marvelous blend of sweetness and the natural salty cream of peanut butter. The sauce was close to a nut gravy and for it alone, Tempo Doeloe is a master restaurant.

The rijstaffel then descended in all earnest, including a notable pot of baby shrimp in red pepper broth. Holders contained cabbage, cucumber, and tomato courses which though distinct in their own right, were linked b y the heavy application of vinegar in their sauces. A chicken dish illustrated the milder side of green curry, the aromatic tang of cilantro mixed with meat in a dynamic fusion. A pork dish mirrored Himalayan Yak’s stewed goat. It was a personal Indonesian buffet, mounds of yellow rice with friend and green onions serving as the starchy platform for the spectrum of flavors. Even the toasted coconut, mixed with peanuts, was above and beyond the ordinary.

With such successes, Tempo Doeloe might seem a culinary utopia. Yet for all its triumphs, its lone failure was also a huge cause for complaint. The spice levels at Tempo Doeloe purportedly attain Gobi desert temperatures, yet for all the hype, none of the dishes in the rice tables exhibited anything more than the mere building blocks of concentrated heat, a true disappointment I must say. Thus, a meal bordering on the sublime, was unable to take the final step. Tempo Doeloe was a fantastic experience, the rice table a breadth of new marvelous tastes. But with the spice levels turned down to low, an essential ingredient of Indonesian cuisine went missing. However, the lack couldn’t strip the meal of its otherwise delicious combinations, and for that, Tempo Doeloe was worth every Euro.

RATING: 8.0/10

Restaurant 73: Vlaam Frites (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

RESTAURANT: Vlaam Frites
LOCATION: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 16, 2005
FOOD: Fries with Green Peppercorn Mayo
PRICE: 2.50 Euros

It’s extraordinary that the Dutch people are so thin considering the fried food cornucopia that is part of their culture. However, they do have junk food down to a science. Fries with one of a myriad of dipping sauces are available all over Amsterdam. Though mayo and curry ketchup are the standard flavors, green peppercorn mayo was an interesting alternative. It tasted like steak au poivre in liquid form. Peppery, but not spicy, it would have been better if the taste of pepper was stronger and that of the mayo more subdued. As for the fries themselves, crunchy but flavorless, a small order killed any desire to eat fries for countless days to come.

RATING: 3.0/10

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Restaurant 72: Tanjung San (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

LOCATION: Amstelveensaweg 156, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
DATE: September 16, 2005
FOOD: Rice Menu with Curried Lamb, Coconut Relish, Pickled Vegetables, Sliced Cucumber, Spiced Green Beans, Soy Sauce Tofu; Sambal Goreng Telor (Egg in Tomato Sauce); Krupuk Crackers
PRICE: 10.50 Euros

It is commonly known that the Netherlands resides below sea level. The canals and windmills may make nice postcards, but they serve the more important purpose of preventing the nation from sinking into the North Sea. However, with the onslaught of rain battering Amsterdam the night of September 16, it seemed only Noah’s Ark could keep the city from drowning.

Danny and I had spent nearly an hour and a half searching for a vegan restaurant with three euro dinners. When we finally found the place, the owners politely informed us it was only open three days a week. Thursday wasn’t one of them. Dejected and hungry, Tanjung San appeared like a wet mirage up the street.

Indonesian food and Amsterdam are as synonymous as the city and coffee shops, but only the former will reduce one’s appetite. Neither of us had tried the cuisine previously but Tanjung proved a memorable introduction. We both ordered combination rice plates and the flavors ran as wild as a naked toddler on a Slip ‘n Slide. The meal started with the wafery crunch of Krupuk crackers, delectably puffy and hinted with tangy shrimp. My main plate was suffused with food. The green curry lamb was exotically spiced but not hot, the curry integrated deliciously into the chunks of meat. The toasted coconut added a cascade of sweetness to the proceedings and a bite of meat, coconut, cucumber and rice was enough to convince me Indonesian food needs to become as ubiquitous in America as Chinese take-out and our disinterest in Arena League Football.

The green beans and red peppers raised the heat of the meal, but in a very composed manner. It wasn’t a light your mouth on fire after one bite heat, but a gradual, almost sexual build. Cold tofu in soy sauce was more chicken than vegan, meaty and substantial. A separate order of hard-boiled eggs in a tomato sauce with the consistency of sweet-n-sour sauce highlighted a link to Chinese, but showed how Indonesian goes off in a more complex direction. The tomato sauce was all things at once, sweet, spicy, almost like a thin jelly. But most importantly, it tasted sensational.

Usually first impressions are marred by awkwardness and noticeable silences. In my initial encounter with Indonesian cuisine, there was no room for quiet, every forkful referencing other Asian cuisines while maintaining a uniqueness all its own. The new acquaintance had left me enamored. Enough so in fact, that Tanjung San became the warm-up act for the premiere Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam. Two days later I was to experience Templo Doeloe.

RATING: 7.4/10

Friday, December 09, 2005

Europe 3: A Taste of The Netherlands

Clockwise from top left: The Falcon windmill in Leiden; St. Xaiver church in Amsterdam; One of Amsterdam's countless canals; Delft china

Spice bread and Stroopwaffels


PLACES AND DATES: Rotterdam – September 13, 2005;
Amsterdam – September 14-17, 2005

DAY TRIPS: Leiden – September 15, 2005: Leiden is like a Dutch Oxford. A quaint and pretty town about thirty minutes outside of Amsterdam by train, Leiden is home to multiple universities and close to 20,000 students. The town’s bakeries present a wealth of enticing options, even a multi-grain croissant. The Van Delk (meaning Falcon) is a fully restored windmill open for tours. It costs just 2.50 Euros and gives a reaonsable history of the functionality and utility of windmills in Dutch culture. But the town’s system of canals are the main draw, less crowded than Amsterdam, and surrounded by a mix of Dutch and English architecture. A half-day visit is a great way to gain a sense of how the non-coffee house Dutch live.

Delft – September 16, 2005: You can see the two factories where Delft china is still made. Every piece if made by hand during and the process is amazingly laborious.

HOSTELS: Rotterdam – Stayokay Hostel

Amsterdam – Flying Pig Palace – Cheap bar with a nightly happy hour, free internet and breakfast and a surprisingly reasonable noise level.

SITES: Rotterdam – Erasmus Bridge is an incredible sight and a symbol of Rotterdam’s prestige as the world’s largest port.

MUST SEE IN AMSTERDAM: Anne Frank House; St. Xavier Church – Interior is an astonishing piece of Baroque art at its pinnacle; the interior includes gilded statues, kaleidoscopic stained glass and an altar that is a testament to how faith can instigate great art; Albert Cuyp Market – Everything is for sale here. Fabrics to incense, to authentic Dutch cuisine (herring broodjes, stroopwafels) along with fresh fruit and veggies, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. It’s a vibrant strip of Dutch life with the beautiful drowsy branches of willows overhanging the street and children galore.

FOOD: Rotterdam – Incredible mix of African and Asian cuisines

Amsterdam – Indonesian cuisine (reviews to come); Stroopwafels – Sweeter than a Halloween candy bag, these paper thin waffles come in hefty sacks and are filled with a layer of either caramel, honey, or butter syrup. Delicious in small quantities but addictive enough to cause consumption of an entire bag, ending inevitably in stomach aches and a desire to swear off all sweets forever more; Spice breads – Rather flat tasting. Heavily flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, the bread is too dense, feels like a brick, and would be well-served by nuts or dried fruits to break up the thickness. Beware, those aren’t nuts on the top of the bread, they’re pieces of rock sugar.
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Restaurant 71: Maoz (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

LOCATION: Five Locations Throughout Amsterdam
DATE: September 14, 2005
FOOD: Falafel with unlimited salad bar
PRICE: 3.50 Euros

When it comes to the art of the cheap eat, perhaps no food better satisfies both stomach and wallet than falafel. The idea of frying ground chick peas is simple enough but a successful falafel rests on the spices used in the process. In New York, Alfanoose has perfected the recipe. But in Amsterdam, we were dealing with uncharted territory.

We had discovered the Maoz chain while in Madrid and been delighted by the backpacker friendly price and unlimited, free salad bar. As Amsterdam is the home of the chain, we decided to give it another go, as it’s hard to beat a 3.50 Euro dinner.

Five large pieces of falafel, prepared just moments before, crowded into the cushy envelope of a whole wheat pita. The falafel had the crunchy exterior all good falafel should have. While the predominant spice was parsley, there was still enough variety of flavors to keep the falafel interesting. Maoz’s falafel might not be on par with Ataturk’s regime, but it’s far better than the Ottoman Empire’s final triad of hapless pashas. What makes Maoz so appealing is the salad bar. Nothing is spectacular, but my love of olives and beets found satiation. The carrot and tabouleh salads were delicious and the butter pickles, downright outstanding. Combine that with sauces ranging from yogurt dill to tahini to hot sauce, and Maoz was a fantastic break from our normal pork based diet. The only US location is in Philadelphia and if I ever have the misfortune to find myself in the city of brotherly love and the last place Eagles, I might have to chow down on some falafel instead of a cheesesteak.

RATING: 6.3/10
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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Restaurant 70: Le Dix Vins (Paris, France)

Clockwise from top left: Dix Vins in Paris; Avocado Terrine; Lavender French Toast; Grilled Tuna

LOCATION: 57, rue Falguiere, Paris, France
DATE: September 12, 2005
FOOD: Terrine d’avocats aux herbes; Steack de thon et la crème aux poivrons doux; Lavender French toast
PRICE: 26.40 Euros

It was like dining in a cliché. Dinner at a Bistro in Paris – what more could a foreign tourist crave? The Eiffel Tower at night? Already seen it. Timeless works of art? Already examined courtesy of the d’Orsay and Pompidou. So what was left of the stereotypical Parisian experiences other than bistro fare?

So the first of our four great meals was upon us (one for each month we would travel). With meals in Amsterdam, Rome, and Barcelona still to come, Dix Vins, voted as the best bistro with a menu under 30 Euros by a leading Parisian food magazine, heralded a break form the cheese and meat sandwich diet we’d been surviving on for weeks on end. For once, we’d throw expenses to the wind and indulge in Dix Vins’s 24 Euro, three course menu.

Located in Montparnase, south of the Latin Quarter on the city’s Left Bank, Dix Vins interior exhibited the same simplicity French bistro cuisine is known for. There was a small wine bar and a scattering of baskets and paintings on the walls. Nothing flashy, nothing to indicate this was one of the city’s most affordable gastronomical pleasures.

The menu was written on a chalkboard. Five selections, including three terrines, pate and a vegetable flan for the appetizers, while the main courses consisted of three varieties of steak and a grilled tuna. Dessert was a choice of a lemon tart, chocolate mousse, or lavender French toast. Aside from the beef dishes, the menu was thoroughly appealing and I would have been happy ordering anything.

I started with a terrine of avocado and herbs. While not a bad decision, Danny’s peppery house pate and the beautiful vegetable flan would surely have both been better choices. The avocado terrine was like a refined guacamole. Nicely matched with quarter sized tomato chunks, the avocado was pert and tender, hinted with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And though the medley of herbs crowning the terrine blended mild parsley with the more forceful bliss of fresh cilantro, in the end, the terrine was too simple for its own good. More robust spicing, from the basic pepper and salt it lacked, would have helped make the dish something greater than ordinary. As it was, there was nothing remarkable, nothing to suggest the heights of French cuisine.

By appearances alone, the tuna entrée promised better results. The steak was thin, seared to the appetizing off-white color of grilled chicken. Accompanied by potatoes au gratin and a sea of red pepper cream sauce, the plate barely made it to the table before my fork sliced into the fish. For the most part, my excitement was justified by the taste. The cream sauce was magical, lighter than lobster bisque but sharing that soup’s velvety richness. And the potatoes were by far the pinnacle of the meal’s savory courses. Firm, yet in the same instant miraculously pliant, the potatoes dazzled, along with the creamy cheese coating them. The slices were as smooth and mouthwatering as fondue. I especially appreciate the bold pairing of fish and potatoes, a combination I’d only seen once before at King Louis' in St. Louis. Yet the tuna itself was a tad dry and stringy, the result of overcooking. The course had come so close, but like reading Moliere in translation, there were just some elements that would never be perfect. Again, I had to add pepper and salt, something I’m not in the habit of doing. Thus, while I respect the fundamental simplicity of bistro fare, it shouldn’t give a chef carte blanche to dramatically under-season.

Only with dessert did Dix Vins finally present a taste both distinctly French and universally spectacular. In the lavender French toast, everything worked. The bread consisted of two thick baguette slices, grilled so the ends had an attractive char, while the interior retained a cushy chew. This wasn’t your IHOP French toast and they were far superior to even Wylie Dufresne’s French toast dessert at WD-50. Resplendent syrup was sprinkled over the bread, like a superior French honey. Full lavender seeds added an unusual flavor that was less about sweetness than about the garnering the same satisfaction one gets from the smell of fresh flowers. All in all, the dessert was exactly what I’d hoped the entire dinner would be.

If I lived in Paris, I’m certain Dix Vins would be a favored haunt of mine, the ideal restaurant when gourmet is too much and grab and go too little. The menu changes daily and no doubt, I’d have many a memorable meal. But strictly on my one visit, the restaurant was far from perfection. There were promises everywhere but to be truly satisfying, a meal must have more than unfulfilled potential.

RATING: 7.0/10

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Just Desserts 16: Berthillion (Paris, France)

RESTAURANT: Berthillion
LOCATION: 31 Rue St. Louis En L’ile, Paris, France
DATE: September 18, 2005
ICE CREAM: Cone with a scoop of fig and a scoop of honey nougat; mini chocolate fondue; cup with scoop of hazelnut and a scoop of tiramisu, topped with Chantilly crème
PRICE: 7.60 Euros

Notre Dame Cathedral and its centuries of significance tower in the background. Pont Neuf, inspiration for Renoir and impressionists galore, is a ten minute walk west. Yet on the Rue St. Louis En L’ile, a line has formed. It isn’t history the crowds have come to see, but rather ice cream they’re longing to taste.

Located on the island in the Seine directly east of Notre Dame, Berthillion Ice Cream has made a name for itself, gaining in Napoleon like prominence with the publication of each new tourist guidebook. Yet ,despite the prestige, the scoopers still smile, the prices remain reasonable, and the product itself, is sinfully scrumptious.

The fig sorbet was as sweet and juicy as the fruit, bits of seed furthering the illusion one was enjoying the freshly picked and not the freshly creamed. However, the honey nougat, like Baklava cream in a cone, literally caused me pause, so subtle was its sweetness, so multi-faceted its flavors. The honey and cream played a boisterous game of cat and mouse, each taste emerging and then re-emerging as the ice cream melted on my tongue.

But once tasted, a solitary cone wouldn’t suffice. On my second go-round, the tiramisu proved the French do understand Italian, tiny chocolate morsels strewn throughout an ice cream bursting with rum and cocoa flavorings. The hazelnut was too straightforward and slightly disappointing, the only ice cream of the afternoon that wasn’t ebulliently original. However, the mantel of Chantilly cream adorning the cup’s two scoops more than made up for the hazelnut’s failings. This was the way all whipped cream should be, airy and deceptively vanilla, sugared, but not sweet. One last indulgence was the mini-chocolate fondue, a near perfect dark chocolate replica of the Modern’s spectacular chocolate soufflé. The cake was pure chocolate, pure, rich, and intense, chocolate for chocolate’s sake. Nothing interfered with the chocolate’s statement. It mirrored Berthillion’s achievement. The crowd’s may flock and the traveler’s handbooks advise, but in the end, none of those things overshadow the greatness of the desserts.

RATING: 8.7/10

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Restaurant 69: Ti Jos (Paris, France)

Clockwise from top left: Ti Jos; The crepe walnut and honey; A piece of art from the Pompidou; The Arc at night.

LOCATION: Rue Delambre, 14e, Paris, France
DATE: September 9, 2005
FOOD: Split a Galette Champignons, Jambon, Fromage; Crepes Miel, Noux (Honey and Walnut)
DRINK: Tap Water
PRICE: 9.00 Euros

Ah, but what would Paris be without its food? Perhaps romantic, perhaps historic, but certainly less satisfying in a very immediate way. It’s the cuisine that puts us in France and the food that puts France in us. Without the patisseries and cafes, the baguettes and chocolate, Paris would be less than what it is and for this, we’d all suffer from the loss.

But, fortunately, the French culinary tradition is alive and well. And while nouveaux American cuisine has bogarted much from its European ally and cross-pollinated it with other world flavors like Mendel and his flowers, the taste of authenticity and un-tampered with classic French cuisine still can defrost even the worst of transatlantic tensions. What food better exemplifies French cooking than the crepe? Ti Jos, a creperie and cider restaurant, excels at making traditions relevant. The crepes are created by a woman advanced in age but also in culinary skill, and who by all appearances, could very well pass for Whistler’s mother. The clientele are locals, a well-needed respite from the discordant American voices heard ubiquitously all over the city.

But the crepes, the crepes are the thing themselves. Street vendors may sell more common, inexpensive versions, but to sample the real deal, Ti Jos is the place. The menu is divided into galletes and crepes, the gallettes consisting of a buckwheat base and filled with savory items like beef, cheeses, and ham, whereas the crepes are all sweetness, all the time.

We began by splitting a ham, cheese, and mushroom galette, and while the ham was nowhere to be seen (Whistler’s mom has a lot on her mind), the galette was still densely rich and brilliantly smooth. The mild coat of gruyere cheese enhanced the smoky aspects of the sautéed, though still firm mushrooms. Nothing was overcooked and all blended together seamlessly in a galette, that though grain based was nonetheless effortlessly light.

For dessert, there was no splitting. My honey and walnut crepe was a commendable dessert, though it would have worked nicely for a petit dejeuner as well. The walnuts came whole, topping the honey glaze of the crepe. The honey was effectively sweet without being birthday cake saccharine. However, the crepe itself, slightly chewy, thoroughly moist and in all ways outstanding, proved why Ti Jos was a local favorite. Everything about the meal was successful (save the forgotten ham) and the next time Bush and Chirac clash over the former’s refusal to recognize global warming or the lack of WMD, perhaps a plate of Ti Jos’ crepes, Whistler’s mother included, will serve to reach the cowboy in a place reason can not.

RATING: 8.2/10
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Rise and Shine 3: Artisan Boulanger Patisserie (Nice, France)

Clockwise from top left: The Bakery; The wonders therein; Nice's train station; A fountain near the waterfront

BAKERY: Artisan Boulanger Patisserie
LOCATION: Corner of Rue Dalpozzo and Rue de la Buffa, Nice, France
DATE: September 4, 2005
PASTRIES: Croissant filled with vanilla crème; Pain au Chocolate
PRICE: 2.05 Euros

An overnight train from Bordeaux to Nice leaves every night at 9:39 pm. It arrives in Nice the next morning at 7:55, an hour too early to check into most hostels. What to do in the void while your room is readied? You’re in France and it’s breakfast – is the answer really all that difficult to guess?

Pastries line the store windows and interior display cases of this artisan bakery, just minutes from Nice’s Rue de Anglais and scenic waterfront. And while croissants might not be the best food for sculpting an ideal beach bod, they sure a tasty way to chunk up.

The vanilla crème filled croissant, dusted in a layer of powdered sugar, was the essence of France. The pastry possessed of a feathery flakiness and that distinct, thoroughly buttery moistness inside. The crème filling was amazingly light, the breakfast equivalent of a Dan Brown novel. The pain au chocolate, shaped like a raisin croissant but with the substitution of life’s ultimate hedonistic splurge, French chocolate, was another deft exhibition of this bakery’s prowess. The pastry was as creamy as egg yolk, but with the density of marzipan. After a near sleepless night spent fitfully turning alongside babbling children and a surprisingly docile dog, there was no better way to start the day than by playing Nice at one of the city’s best bakeries.

RATING: 7.3/10
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Monday, November 21, 2005

Europe 2: A Taste of France

Clockwise from top left: Bordeaux's San Michelle Cathedral; Canale, the local rum based specialty of Bordeaux - an amazing dessert; The Japanese Garden in Monaco; Changing of the guard in front of Monaco's Palace.

A Taste of France (and Monaco)

CITIES AND DATES: Bordeaux – September 1-3, 2005;
Nice – September 4-6, 2005;
Lyon – September 7-8, 2005;
Paris – September 9-13, 2005;
Avignon – November 9-10, 2005;
BREADS: Clawed Toasted Sesame; Sunflower and Corn Baguette;
PASTRIES: Drop (Vanilla Liquer Crème, Chocolate Chips, Almonds); Pistachio and Sour Cherry Cornbread
DESSERTS: Canale – rum pudding dessert, specialty of Bordeaux;
FRUITS: Red Plum Apples
HOSTELS: Bordeaux – Hotel Studio
Nice – Hostel Meyerbeer Beach
Lyon – Hotel Stars in Bron: Awful – like a cruise ship run aground, this sea themed hotel was dirty, cramped and most importantly, nearly an hour by tram Lyon’s center.
Paris – Hotel des Olympiades in Montmarte: The dingy, Bohemian hotels of Parisian yesteryear still exist. Rooms are shabby, with worn carpet and tattered, mismatched bedspreads. There is a single toilet and shower on each floor. The hotel fits the Moulin Rouge past of Montmarte, the take it as it comes, communal, no frills style evokes lonely writers laboring over their passion in the solitude of sweaty rooms.
GROCERY STORES AND MARKETS: Bordeaux – Auchan: Huge, amazingly cheap and inspirational. A testament of France’s ubiquitous love of food.
Lyon – Des Halles: the city’s largest indoor market was as haute cuisine as a market can get. Unfortunately, this also meant the prices were quite haute as well.
CATHEDRALS: Bordeaux – Basilique San Michelle and San Andre: San Michelle is a study in Catholic anachronism. While the church design and its most valued relics date from as early as the 15th century, the stained glass windows are fascinatingly modern. After the bombings of WWII destroyed the original windows, local artists created a new series of stained glass for the Basilica in the 1950s. Their design mixes cubist elements, reminiscent of Picasso, while still portraying classical and Biblical scenes. The amalgam of stylistics serves to capture not only the history of God, but the cathedral’s own story as well.
RANDOM: Bordeaux has great benches along the Rue Clemenceau in case you arrive so late that your hostel is already closed and end up having to sleep on a park bench. Good times.
Nice – Drinking champagne along the boardwalk late at night.
SITES: Paris – Musee d’ Orsay: The Louvre may have the Mona Lisa, but the Orsay has everything else. I fyou can resists the temptation to re-enact the scene in Godard’s “The Outsiders” when the threesome run though the Louvre in under ten minutes, the Orsay will provide smaller crowds and more stunning art. The museum itself is art, illuminated throughout on its perch on the Seine’s left bank. Time is a central focus of the Orsay’s design, with clocks modeled on art nouveau styles and train station inspirations overlaid on the museum’s windows. But the collection is the true astonishment, pieces by Van Gogh, Manet, Pisarro, Seurrat, Rousseau, and an extensive display of Monet’s life work. The Orsay is five floors of the premier French and Western European sculpture, paintings, and furniture from the last 200 years. It may not have the Louvre’s reputation, but perhaps that’s for the best. Plus, there’s discounted admission if you’re 18-25;
The Pompidou: Amazing – Based around large, ideological themes and not chronology, the collection was our favorite in Paris. Free guided tours in English on Saturdays at 3 pm; Art Market near the Rue des Martyrs in Montmarte; Notre Dame (of course, need I mention the Eiffel Tower); Tuilleries.
DAY TRIP: From Nice: Monaco – The epitome of wealth, privilege and luxury, Monaco’s rococo buildings practically rise right out of the sea. The views are mesmerizing, the streets remarkably clean, and the concentration of tourists, overwhelming. But the trip is worth it for the sight of the Palace’s white-suited guards to the surreal cliff and beach vistas. The Japanese Garden is a welcome and needed reprieve amidst the cities dense crowds. Though tiny, it’s a beautiful and serene greenspace.
BARS: Nice – Chez Wayne: Overpriced and like a “Girls Gone Wild Video” gone even wrong. The drinks cost too much, the seating is shabby, and the photos of girls revealing their chests seem less exotic than pathetic.
ODDS AND ENDS: Great public transport systems in both Bordeaux and Lyon, mainly utilizing the tram, but in Lyon, there is also an underground metro.
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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Restaurant 68: La Barraca (Valencia, Spain)

Clockwise from top left: La Barraca; The Seafood Paella; One of El Greco's many masterpieces; The pigeons love the statue more than the toursits;

LOCATION: Las Arenas, near the beach, Valencia, Spain
DATE: August 29, 2005
FOOD: Seafood Paella
PRICE: 9.20 Euros

Olive oil, rice, and one huge skillet and you’ve got yourself a meal. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, that expand in your stomach like a blowfish, combine whatever ingredients you have lying around the kitchen, meal with machismo enough for Hemingway, rice experience. Served in an iron skillet only slightly smaller than the country of Luxembourg, paella is meant to be a communal feast, an entrée for an entire table to share.

La Barraca, located on a strip of Valencia’s beach front with as many Paella restaurants as the Conquistadores had infectious diseases, is more casual than many of its rivals, plastic outdoor furniture in place of the table clothes and hardwood chairs next door. But the paella is just as authentic as at the neighboring restaurants. After 30 minutes of anxious anticipation, the paella is brought tableside. The seafood variety had excellent mussels and decadently tender calamari. However, the prawns were stringy and the shrimp, flavorless. The saffron colored rice had been beautifully penetrated by the olive oil bath and possessed a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth quality. The rice attached to the sides of the pan developed a crispy char which had the succulent consistency of roasted garlic. While La Barraca’s paella might not thrust Valencia into the realm of elite world food cities, it certainty does its city proud.

RATING: 6.8/10
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Restaurant 67: Bar Pilar (Valencia, Spain)

Clockwise from top left: The buckets on Bar Pilar's floor; Mussels in tomato broth; The cheapest wine Spain had to over - a liter box for 45 cents!; Afternoon in Valencia.

LOCATION: Calle Moro Zeit 13, Valencia, Spain
DATE: August 30, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Mussels with Tomato Broth; Patatas Bravas; Black Pudding and Lomo Boccadilo; Ham Omelette Boccadillo
BEVERAGE: Glass of Marista Vino
PRICE: 8.25 Euros

The night before joining in Europe’s largest food fight seemed the appropriate time to try a restaurant where throwing food wasn’t only acceptable, it was downright encouraged. Bar Pilar’s reputation as an inexpensive but dependable tapas place frequented by locals came from the reliable Lonely Planet, Europe on a Shoestring, guidebook. Bar Pilar fit the description perfectly. Waited on by a kindly, middle aged man, who was most likely the owner, our meal was as low key as Bar Pilar’s simple, black and white tile décor. Danny and I decided to split an order of patatas bravas, two boccadillos (Spanish sandwiches) and the mussels for which Bar Pilar is known.

While throwing hundreds of tomatoes the next day at Tomatina 2005 was childishly addictive, the fact that the mussel shells we threw into buckets on Bar Pilar’s floor couldn’t be thrown back with harmful velocity gave the meal an advantage over its festive food competition. The mussels had a pleasant chew and the tomato broth served alongside gave a nice, salty gloss to the dish. While the patatas bravas couldn’t match those of Tia Pol, the dual layering of saucing, with heavy mayonnaise on top and pepper broth beneath, caused the crispy fried taters to have a surprising degree of complexity. However, both sandwiches were forgettable at best, unappetizing at worse, the omelette too oily, the black pudding like onion and mystery meat gruel and placed in bread that was noticeable for its American grocery store deficiencies, especially when compared to the other great breads we’d had in Spain. Thus, while Bar Pilar may have given our arms a warm up for Tomatina, it should have been the sandwiches and not the mussel shells that were tossed by the wayside.

RATING: 4.5/10
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Friday, November 18, 2005

Restaurant 66: Al-Andalus (Granada, Spain)

Clockwise from top left: Al-Andalus; The extraordinary chicken schwarma is wrapped up tight in the burrito like pita; A ceiling relief at the Alhambra; The famed courtyard and fountain at the Alhambra.

LOCATION: Calle de Elvira, Granada, Spain
DATE: August 25, 2005
FOOD: Chicken Schwarma
PRICE: 3.50 Euros

Street food in America usually consists of little better than hot dogs boiled in a murky, deformed liquid with a distant relation to water. Or there’s also over-sized, cardboard tasting pretzels. While the hot dogs would gain a certain cache if every vendor dressed in the same pirate outfit Ignatius Reilly wears in A Confederacy of Dunces, the character’s penchant for stuffing cats into the bun warmers would probably cause hot dogs to be even further from accepted health standards than they already are. In Europe, no costuming is necessary. Instead of hot dogs, there’s doner kebab and schwarma, much tastier alternatives to the States’ processed wieners.

In Granada, located in the Plaza Cuchillos directly across the hill that leads to the Alhambra, Al-Andalus takes schwarma street food to a new level of flavor. While the shredded, fatty strips of spit cooked chicken are familiarly pleasant to any gyro fan, it was the combination of the stuffed pita’s other elements which made Al-Andalus great. Inside the grilled pita (composed almost like a burrito), crunchy carrots and lettuce were a delicious compliment to the greasy meat. But it was the thick, ricotta cheese like yogurt saucing, wildly spiced and complex, which elevated the pita to monumental heights. And at just 3.50 Euros, it would be hard to imagine any reason, even old Ignatius himself, live and in person, to ever crave a hot dog again.

RATING: 7.6/10 Posted by Picasa

Just Desserts 15: Horno San Onofre (Madrid, Spain)

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Clockwise from top left: Horno San Onofre; Pretzel and Chocolate Creme Cone; One of Madrid's countless plazas; "Coco".

JUST DESSERTS: Horno San Onofre
LOCATION: North of Plaza de Sol, Madrid, Spain
DATE: August 22, 2005
DESSERTS: “Coco” with mixed fruit and nuts; Tuna Empanada; Bite-size Spinach Quiche; Nut Glazed Pastry Pretzel; Chocolate Coated Cone Filled with Chocolate Cream; Bite-size Hazelnut Cream Pastry
PRICE: 7.00 Euros

What’s for dinner? The eternal question.

Don’t eat that, you’ll spoil your appetite. The eternal warning.

But if the first had an answer that nullified the need for even uttering the second – well wouldn’t that be a situation Liebniz might have described as the best of all possible worlds?

So dessert for dinner was the solution. Fatigued after taking in many of Madrid’s essential sites – from El Retiro to La Plaza Mayor – hunger weighed as heavy as a Valezquez painting over Danny and me both. It being seven, most of Madrid’s restaurants had another hour or more until dinner time, closed for one of the seemingly endless Spanish siestas. Instead of waiting, we opted to skip the savory and head right for the sweats.

Horno San Onofre had the upscale atmosphere of a West Village grocery, but without all the other foods mixed in. Though my intention had been to focus only on desserts, the temptation of Horno’s mini-quiches and meat stuffed pies proved too overwhelming. The quiche was simply riveting: cheese, cream, egg and spinach combining for a mouthful of buttery bliss. The tuna stuffed pie was like a pastry sandwich, and packed the robust flavors of tuna and onion with the delicacy of a flaky pastry casing.

But, these were the warm up acts. The featured performers came onto stage with the assured air of mastery and put on a show full of pyrotechnics. The “Coco” was like a mixed nut and fruit peanut brittle without the hardening and overly sugary glaze. The trail mix topping rested upon a soft and buttery crust, not unlike that of a pie. The sugar and nut glazed pastry pretzel was as light as William Gaddis’ prose is heavy and each puffy bite proved the combination of German engineering (the shape) and French style (the croissant like pastry) should occur elsewhere than Alsace-Lorraine. The bite-sized chocolate coated cone with chocolate crème filling illustrated why sometimes ice cream is simply unnecessary. And as for the hazelnut cream pastry, there’s little else this nut could be used for more advantageously.

In all, Danny and I had succeeded in not only spoiling our appetites but also in removing the need for dinner altogether. With France up ahead, another night of just desserts beckoned, though Horno would be a remembrance not soon to pass from memory.

RATING: 8.5/10

Restaurant 65: Museo de Jamon (Madrid, Spain)

Clockwise from top left: El Museo de Jamon in Madrid; Tortilla with Jamon y Manchego; All parts of the pigs. Man do Spaniards take their pork seriously; A display of pig parts in Barcelona's central market.

RESTAURANT: Museo de Jamon
DATE: August 21, 2005
LOCATION: Calle de Goya, Madrid, Spain
FOOD: Tortilla with House Ham and Cheese on Integral Roll; Pastry Espanade
DRINK: Water
PRICE: 5.00 Euros

The contemporary art world has changed the museum from a place only to show art into a work of art in itself. As countless literary theorists have pointed out, the aesthetic line separating what hangs on the walls and the very walls on which they hang has largely been obliterated. The avant-garde’s legacy has been less to show us how art is everywhere around us, but rather the very subjectivity of what we consider art in the first place.

Well who knows how Duchamp or even Picasso would have responded to the numerous Madrid locations of El Museo de Jamon. For at this museum, the art is edible and it comes prepared by the strong, yet loving hands of burly Spanish butchers. The museum could be seen as a testament to Spain’s love of all things pork. Whole cured hams hang from the ceiling, seeming to number in the hundreds, like the finest vintages in a wine cellar. The choices of pork at the Museum is astonishing, but the house speciality, more like a pancetta than jamon is why the museum deserves its lofty name.

The pork is the color of dark cherries. The meat possess the perfect level of saltiness and while adequately tender, forces the diner to chew with concentration in greedy indulgence. Sewed into the puff embrace of a Spanish tortilla, lined by Manchego sheep’s cheese, there can be few things more authentically Spanish or more divinely pleasurable. If all contemporary art was as enjoyable, the world’s museums would seem far less austere. But any place with the gall to name itself the museum of any meat, let alone ham – well you know it’s got to be good.

RATING: 7.7/10 Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Restaurant 64: Edelmann's Cafe (Barcelona, Spain)

From top left: Potatoes Aeoli, Hot Bomb, Stuffed Squid, Bruschetta, Cod Fritters.

RESTAURANT: Edelmann's Cafe
DATE: August 20, 2005
LOCATION: Barcelona, Spain
FOOD: Potatoes with aeoli, Hot Bomb, Stuffed Squid, Bruschetta, Fried Cuttlefish, Tortilla with Spinach, Mushrooms sauteed with ham; liquor based dessert tarte
PRICE: 17 Euros

Exhausted and hungry after a day of touring Barcelona's array of memorable sites, we sought a taste of tapas to cap off the evening. Cal Pep was closed for the month of August, a disappointing turn of events that it would take until November, when our trip was over, for us to rectify. Near the Plaza d'Catalunya, we found Edelmann Cafe, where a deceptively unaffordable and subpar meal ensued. While the cod fritters were crunchy and only slightly oily, the potatoes with aeoli sauce were a disastrous blend of boiled root vegetable and underseasoned globular mayonnaise. The spinach tortilla (Spanish omelette) proved unassuming if not downright bland and the mushrooms sauteed with ham were a dish even the most novice chef could prepare better.

The lone redeeming tapas were the complex potato and meet "Hot Bombs", covered in paprika laden dressing and the Andalucian style cuttlefish, wich tasted as authentically Spanish as their title suggested. However, even a generous does of liquor as saucing couldn't save the dessert tarte from its dry, flavorless self. With a pricetag that reached seventeen Euros a person for six incredibly mediocre tapas, Edelmann's was a bad introduction to eating out in Spain.

RATING: 3.0/10

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Europe 1: A Taste of Spain

Clockwise from top left: Barcelona from Parc Guell; The Palace of Communication in Madrid; The Royal Palace in Barcelona; A Wall Tile in The Alhambra, Granada.


CITIES AND DATES: Barcelona – August 15-20, 2005 and November 10-12, 2005;
Madrid – August 20-24, 2005;
Granada – August 24-28, 2005;
Valencia – August 28-31, 2005
BREAD: Integrale; French Style White Baguette; High Fiber Bread in Granada (perhaps too much of a good thing)
RESTAURANTS: (reviews forthcoming) Barcelona: Café Edelman;
Madrid: Horno San Onofre (Pastry Shop);
Granada: Al Andalusa; Bar Pilar;
Valencia: La Barrasca
MARKETS: Barcelona: El Mercat de Boqueria;
Granada: Mercat St. Augustin
PORK: Chorizo, Lomo
WINE: .45 Euro cent box of
CHEESE: Sheep’s Milk Cheeses, especially Manchego
FRUIT: Meloncoton (peaches) at the peak of flavor
HOTELS: Barcelona: Hesperia Sant Juis;
Madrid: NH Parque de Avenidas;
Granada: Hostal Alcazaba;
Valencia: NH Hotel
RANDOM FUN: Granada: Kashbar – A fantastic tea house with nightly belly dancing exhibitions; Caves in Sacremento (Granada) – Above the city, gypsies inhabit caves in the hills overlooking the city; Bunol: Tomatina – You may never want to see a tomato again after the festival but the craziness is a once in a lifetime even to behold.
ESSENTIAL SITES: Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia, Montjuic, Parc Guell, Las Ramblas;
Madrid: El Prado, El Retiro, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Sol;
Granada: Alhambra
ODDS AND ENDS: Reservation fees for trains add up in the summer, even if you have the Eurail pass; EVERYTHING is closed in August, from restaurants like Cal Pep, to many stores and even some museums; The Prado is free on Sundays.
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Monday, November 14, 2005


From August 28, 2005 to November 12, 2005, I backpacked around Europe, starting in Barcelona and moving eastwards. Upcoming on this blog with be an account of that adventure.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Restaurant 63: Nizam's (Vienna, Virginia)

Doner Kebab: The lone bright spot of the meal.

LOCATION: 523 Maple Avenue West, Vienna, VA
DATE: August 13, 2005
FOOD: Split the mezze plate including Hummus, White Bean Salad, Borek (Fried Cheese), Feta Cheese, Olives, Yogurt covered Eggplant; ENTREE: Doner Kebab (Thinly sliced lamb with dill, covering a grilled pita and yogurt toped with tomato sauce); DESSERT: Dessert Sampler including Baked Pear, Baklava, Milk and Honey Sponge Cake.
BEVERAGE: Pasha Martini, Argentinian Red Wine
PRICE: Courtesy of my mom

As Europe turns inward and the EU’s xenophobia convulses like an epileptic seizure, the probability that Turkey will gain admittance to the unified Western nations becomes increasingly remote. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Ataturk, Turkey has embraced a precarious Western secularization, unique amongst its neighbors. While the EU’s desire to include Turkey wanes, the tremendous and intricate culture of Turkey is overlooked for economic reasons.

One furtive aspect of this culture is the cuisine. Reminiscent of Greek, Lebanese, and other Mediterranean nations, Turkish food centers around roasted and skewered meats, pureed vegetable dips, robust cheeses and honey laden desserts. Nizam’s, a Vienna establishment honored with a place amongst Washingtonian’s Top 100 restaurants for 21 consecutive years, attempts to drape Turkish cuisine in all the elegance and regality of the Europe which keeps the country at arms length. While it takes kebabs above the street cart form, Nizam’s, can’t quite succeed in being the refined European it seeks to be.

The house specialty is the doner kebab. Similiar to the Greek gyro but with a greater diversity of spices, ground lamb is roasted on a spit and then sliced paper thing. In Germany, doner kebab elevates street food to a rarefied level. In Vienna, Virginia, the meat comes on the pita instead of in it, but the taste is just as marvelous. The dish is richly layered – the lamb pieces rest atop pita bread softened by meat drippings and are lathered in a fragrant dill yogurt. The meat is then gently brushed with a forceful tomato sauce. This tiered trio comes off at great effect, producing a creamy and acidic contrast for the succulence of the meat.

But it was in the appetizers and desserts that Nizam’s was closer to stumbling than to Suleiman imperial dominance. A boring mixed mezze plate with the sole highlight of yogurt covered eggplant, left a lot to be desired. The hummus was bland, the feta under salted, the borek forgettable and the white bean mix regrettably cold. The mixed dessert plate was similarly misconstrued, with a commendable baklava backstabbed by a tasteless baked pear and a gelatinous milk and honey custard cake. Combined with service that was more distant than the Dead Sea, Nizam’s excellent doner kebab could not compensate for an otherwise uninspired meal. Fortunately, the nation of Turkey has a lot more to offer Europe than Nizam’s can offer diners. The only question left to ask: Why does Washingtonian view the restaurant so positively?

RATING: 4.8/10

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book 18: After the Quake, by Haruki Murikami

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Vintage; Vintage edition (May 13, 2003)

Americans may find all too familiar the angst haunting the characters in Haruki Murikami´s collections of six stories, After the Quake. In each story, a tumultuous event provides ample reason for buried fears to rise to the surface consciousness of the an individual character. In one instance, catastrophe escaltes the progres of a love stalled by years of friendship. In another, the earthshaking event leads a woman to reconsider her life and her punctuated hatred of her ex-husband. But in all the story, Murikami´s characteristic masterful use of simple language for profound ends allows the author evoke a sensitivity and passion in not just his characters, but the reader as well.

Murikami is perhaps the foremost Japanese novelist. His works include Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World along with the novel generally regarded as his masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But After the Quake, provides a rare glimpse of the novelist in short story form. It is a glimpse full of promise and reward and thoughts with a universal applicability.

Americans may recognize the scnearios faced by Murikami´s characters, but few will have deep knowledge of the tragedy involved. The Kobe earthquake wrought havoc on the Japanese city when it struck in 1995, measuring a devastating 6.9 on the Richter scale. It had the same type of effect on Japanese life as 9/11 did for many Americans. What had seemed stable was suddenly undermined and frighteningly ephemeral. What foundations were left? Who was to blame, how to prevent another such tragedy, when the "enemy" was so evasive? It is the fear of living that Murikami tackles in the foremost, his six stories exploring how people come to deal with fear and go on living even as they are forced to realize every moment could be their last.

Unlike many short story collections, each story in After the Quake is a unique entity on its own, while tying into the work´s larger thematic emphasis. In "Frog Saves Tokyo", the main character is beset upon by a Gregor Samsa like gigantic Frog to battle the devil earthwarm that will cause an earthquake beneath Tokyo like no natural disaster before. However, in the longest story, "Honey Pie", Murikami is much less fantastical, dealing with love and the classic Hamlet paradox of inaction versus action. Fear, whether personal or in the form of a potential destroyer, may lead us to turn in ourselves to seak safety, but disengaging from the world rarely provides us with the answers we´re looking for. In the end, what arises most from Murikami´s wonderful and entertaining stories are the human ability to persevere despite horrendous circumstances and a willingness to face life head on. As his stories suggest, Murikami sees avoiding life as being as frightful as anything mother nature can muster.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Restaurant 62: King Louie's (St. Louis, Missouri)

RESTAURANT: King Louie’s
LOCATION: 3800 Chouteau, Saint Louis, Missouri
DATE: August 6, 2005
FOOD: Seared gnocchi with brown butter, mushrooms, and pistachio; roasted mushroom Flatbread, thyme, goat cheese; King Louie’s Salad: Dried Cherries, Pears, Toasted Walnuts, gorgonzola; Yellowfin Tuan with syrah reduction and seafood sausage; Beggar’s Purse: Chocolate-Cherry Walnut Tart with caramel ice cream
BEVERAGE: Martini, up with lime; Split a bottle of Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough; Coffee
PRICE: $190.00 (for two)

We were on our way to see the King. Libby and I, mixes of anxiety and anticipation, held hands to calm ourselves as we approached his castle. We had broached the fortress during an October night nearly a year before, but that night, then as now, was more waking fantasy than reality, a surreal entwining of personal happiness and public pleasures.

Now a visit to see the King is not something to be entered into lightly. First, and perhaps most importantly, King Louie does not share the foolishness of a certain other emperor. You will not see Louie walking around his castle naked. Consequently, this means none of the guests are allowed to sport “new clothes” either. Louie isn’t asking for suits and ties, but the man’s a King for Christ’s sake, and attire fitting his majesty is the surest way to begin and stay on his good side.

Immersed in nervous conversation so as to avoid the subject on both of our minds, we arrived at King Louie’s before we had time to second guess ourselves. The King’s, the King’s. There was no mistaking it – any thought that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere along Chouteau was quickly dispelled by the castle’s sign “King Louie’s”. We were in the right place.

Trying to summon courage from somewhere deep in the smythie of our souls, we fearlessly left the tiny Honda behind and walked towards the castle’s drawbridge, beautifully ablaze in an otherwise serene nightscape. But the bravery suddenly faded. Had we remembered the second most important thing before visiting the King? We stopped walking and listened. For moments there was nothing. Just silence, silence as black as the night around us. But then we heard it. At first softly, it grew, until there was no mistaking the joyous cacophony echoing from our bellies. We had remembered to arrive hungry! No fear, we would be able to handle a feast fit for a king.

Our last hesitancies cast aside like a worn-out court jester, we charged ahead, across the drawbridge and the perilous moat beneath. We entered the castle and relief washed over us like a wave. The dark wood, the romantically lit rooms – it was just as before. The recognition sparked a sense of safety, of coming home. I turned to Libby, and the look in her eyes was unmistakable – this was exactly where we needed to be.

But there was one more hurdle to jump before we reached the King. Inside or out, the question loomed like the threat of a foreign invader? Inside or out? Inside was familiar and peaceful, but the outside had that slick summer buzz of outdoor barbeques and fireflies. Where would we find the true King and not an imposter?

With a bold determination, I forged ahead to the outdoor patio, only to realize we would never find the King this way. While there was no doubt an enjoyable evening would have ensued, outside presented only a limited version of the King’s greatness. Libby and I had come for the real thing. So we beat a hasty retreat, lavishing apologies upon the cute and friendly courtier, who succumbed to our charms and seated us in the King’s main banquet hall, far away from the maddening crowd that had also come that evening to see royalty at work.

We settled into an uneasy calm. Would there be any more tests? Had we finally surpassed the last of the obstacles? As if a genie from a lamp, one of the King’s most trusted advisors appeared by our table. Courteous and knowledgeable, with a practiced air about him, the advisor immediately set our minds to rest. Yes, it was okay to relax. We belonged here with the King and everything was going to be alright.

From that point forward, the evening progressed without hiccup. Having remembered to pack our appetites, nothing the King threw at us was the least bit daunting. The King was clearly well traveled. Using influences from all over the world, he presented us with enough options during his banquet for meals to come ad infinitum. However, as we were concerned only about the one directly before us, we solicited the goodwill of our aide-de-camp and his recommendations were as flawless as Cleopatra’s were divisive.

The King pulled out all the stops. He began his display of marvels with a funghi exhibition of unexpected and tempting delights. His thyme flatbread, loaded with goat cheese and enough mushrooms for an entire kingdom’s harvest, was superb. The bread had the charcoaled lining of wood oven pizza and while it may have been my imagination, some incendiary bit of the fire’s heat seemed to dance amongst the bread’s surface.

Equally compelling was the mushroom gnocchi. Perhaps when you’re King, it’s easier to ignore convention than it is for the rest of us plebeians. Whatever the reason, Louie’s gnocchi was a shocking fusion of American technique with Italian heritage. Seared like a scallop, his gnocchi had the buttery richness of a sauté, but with the dense potato flavor one desires in gnocchi. The mushrooms were the ideal compliment to the gnocchi’s splendor and if Louie had forced us to leave then, we would have exited with contentment etched across our faces.

But Louie still had some tricks up his sleeve. Quite obviously, any salad officially given the name of the King is going to produce fireworks. Sweet cherries sparked our mouths when coupled with the softened pears, candied walnuts, and pungent blue cheese of the salad. The salad was an epiphany of sorts – while fruit, cheese and nut salads have become as commonplace as bad political leadership, Louie reminded us why the salads gained notoriety in the first place. His salad deserved its praised title.

During all of the food, our lips were lapped by the nectar of the gods, a personally selected and aromatic white wine from the distant land of Oceana. The wine’s intense grapefruit flavor meshed well with our food, and Louie proved himself not to be a connoisseur of food alone.

With all the devotees having flocked to the castle that Saturday evening, the one mistake during our meal was understandable, if not downright forgivable. For the same amazing yellowfin tuna I had ordered my previous visit to see his greatness, this time was a bit dry around the edges. Enhanced by seafood sausage and the brazen use of mashed potatoes with fish, Louie provided enough successful side shows to make up for the slightly overcooked nature of the tuna. With such a wide dominion to look after, I’m hopeful he attends to his ports and waterways with more care next time.

Even as Libby and I patted our stomachs, near full and entirely satisfied, Louie had one more spectacle for us to behold. The King is known for his humor, so his tongue and cheek labeling of his prized dessert as the “beggar’s purse” is an act of levity that comes from some many years of sagacious rule. Composed of a flaky, pie like dough, the “purse” enclosed a mind-blowing lava of melted dark chocolate, walnuts, and cherries, the last of which provided a tartness of scintillating proportions. Never had chocolate tasted like this, sweet and sour fused into one panoramic whole.

The King seemed to be smiling. We had graced his majesty’s presence without embarrassing ourselves, but with our acute awareness, we knew it was time to depart. Holding hands once again, this time out of joy rather than apprehension. Embracing in the moonlight, Libby and I felt, even if for that fleeting moment only, what it would be like to be King. The only way to describe that feeling is to quote Mel Brooks: “It’s good to be king.”

RATING: 8.5/10

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Just Desserts 14: Annapolis Ice Cream Company (Annapolis, Maryland)

RESTAURANT: Annapolis Ice Cream Company
LOCATION:196 Main Street, Annapolis, Maryland
DATE: August 2, 2005
DESSERT: Sundae with a scoop of Raspberry Chocolate and a scoop of Chocolate Chip Vanilla, topped with Heath Bar pieces, Slivered Almonds, and Whipped Cream; Cone with one scoop of Blackberry Cobbler ice cream.
PRICE: $5.50

There were no barbershop quartets. No nickel shoe shines or candy stripers either. A sign even advertised flavors including cake batter and green tea. Unless Bazz Larhman was directing a remake of American Graffiti, there really wasn’t any reason to think that Annapolis Ice Cream Company was in anyway hinting at some great Americana nostalgia. Yet, unmistakably, it was.

Take, for instance, the linoleum floors. One part Norman Rockwell, one part America that never was (though the two are truly one and the same), the floors hinted at that clean simplicity with which Americans like to view their past. Or, if further examples are needed, take the dreamy-eyed teenagers who scooped and smiled with the naïve air of unlimited expectations. Had they never heard of irony, did they not realize the cruel reality of the world?

But it wasn’t one thing specifically that evoked the America of the G.I. Bill, economic optimism, and entrenched segregation; it was the cumulative effect that made the atmosphere of Annapolis Ice Cream Factory so anachronistic. Almost as if the place had Rip Van Winkled its way through the last half-century, awakening in a time when every dunk of an Oreo brought with it hearty amounts of trans fat, a time when ice cream shops needed to set out disclaimers stating that in the interests of health, ice cream was best enjoyed in moderation.

Such a sign does in fact hang in Annapolis Ice Cream Company, yet another eclectic leveling of time and place to satisfy even the most demanding post-modern stomach. However, even with the double-codings and the shadow of Frederic Jameson hanging over the freezers like an academic Frankenstein, the actual product the store churns out is less Pynchon and more Potter, as in Harry, being one of life’s simple, but seemingly inexhaustible pleasures.

Though the flavors were more mundane than the concoctions of Chinatown Ice Cream Factory or the gelato of Otto (oh sweet Olive Oil, how I miss thee), Annapolis Ice Cream Company did very well with dessert ubiquities. The raspberry chocolate was more fruit than cocoa, possessing a tartness more reminiscent of a chocolate raspberry martini than dairy decadence. The chocolate came in such minute pieces, like those used in a good mint chocolate chip ice cream, that no one aspect overwhelmed any other, and a sturdy cohesion greeted the tongue. The same was the case with chocolate chip vanilla, with just enough pizzazz to break up the monotony of normal vanilla ice cream. In sundae form, complete with heath bar pieces and almond slivers, a mighty combination emerged.

Yet, the show stopper was the blackberry cobbler scoop. Akin to Ted Drewes’ use of whole pieces of pie in concretes, Annapolis Ice Cream Company had true, buttery crumb pieces of cobbler incorporated into the berry infused ice cream. Perhaps blackberries are an evolutionary accident, on par with dinosaurs and Jamie Lee Curtis, but they’re certainly the most delicious berry of them all. And when used as Annapolis Ice Cream Company used them, in minced, rough chopped form, they add a texture, style and taste to dessert nothing else can.

Maybe Annapolis Ice Cream Company just cares about the ice cream. Maybe they’ve paid less attention to their furnishings than their desserts. Maybe, just maybe, the old-timey feel is unintentional. Maybe it doesn’t even have a feel at all.


Maybe not. But regardless, whether Annapolis Ice Cream Company is attempting to incite in its patrons a love of yore or just a love of ice cream, what it achieves most definitively is an ice cream that is much less mundane and much less misconstrued than anything it linoleum tiles might suggest.

RATING: 7.7/10

Restaurant 61: Cafe Normandie (Annapolis, MD)

RESTAURANT: Café Normandie
LOCATION: 185 Main Street, Annapolis, Maryland
DATE: August 1, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Appetizers: Artichoke Stuffed with Crab; Baked Brie with Honey and Almonds; Entrees: Cornish Hen Stuffed with Spinach, served with roasted potatoes; Lobster Thermadore; Desserts: Crepe filled with Vanilla Ice Cream, Pecans, and Caramel; Profiteroles with Chocolate Sauce, Almonds, and Vanilla Ice Cream.
BEVERAGE: Bottle of Pinot Grigio; Decaf Cappuccino
PRICE: $150.00 (for two)

But what would you expect?

Leave New York and the food changes. The restaurants change too, with everything from interior design to plate presentation noticeably different than in the cozy confines of the five boroughs. The changes aren’t always dramatic, nor are they necessarily bad. But there’s no denying, New York is singular when it comes to haute cuisine.

But that seems a bit preposterous. Of course, New York is known worldwide for its celebrity chefs and innovative food stylings, but in the end, food is food, bread is bread, and wine is wine. How different can things really be?

The first and most obvious difference is the portion size. New Yorker’s are relatively fit, a trend that might be surprising if the restrained and eloquent plating of most upscale restaurants wasn’t taken into considerations. Sure the city has its McDonalds and all you can eat buffets, but at the premier eateries, Danube, Bouley, Per Se, WD-50 just to name a few, egregious amounts are nowhere in sight. Diners aren’t left hungry, they’re just not deliberately overfed.

At Café Normandie, the plates were large and so too were the servings. The lobster was as ostentatious and extravagant as the lifestyle a Henry James character. It was also huge – huge in the way the Sears Tower is huge, huge in the way Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane occupies every inch of screen space by the end of the film. No high-end dining restaurant in New York would ever serve such a wildly large portion. But Annapolis wasn’t New York, and the taste of the lobster was nothing to scoff at. As creamy as the baked brie which preceded it, though the richness of the lobster meat and butter, cheese, and cream combination was perhaps too indulgent. The lobster, while satisfying and delicious in small bites, was too much to handle, especially in such an uncontrolled portioning and much of it was left uneaten. When an entrée costs $26, it’s a shame and financial frivolity when any of it goes to waste.

The second difference that proclaimed itself with the impact of a head-banging Futureheads song, was the plating technique. While Asian-inspired ceramics are certainly not the sole dominion of the Tri-State are, at Café Normandie, a restaurant ranked by Washingtonian magazine as the only Annapolis restaurant to be included on the DC Area Top 100, the plating, dishes and food included, were much more traditional. Maybe this is expected at a country French restaurant, but the change was noticeable nonetheless. The brie, perfectly baked until the cheese developed the desired over-crust top layer, was wonderful to taste but rather lard-like and unappetizing to behold. Appearances can be ignored when taste triumphs, but the contrast existed regardless.

A third change was the attention to detail. At a dinner at The Modern, the wait staff seemed to sense what patrons would do even before the diners did it, effortlessly pulling out chairs and refilling water glasses, all the while remaining unobtrusive. At Café Normandie, the service was fine and attentive, but there were little things that never would have passed at a nicer New York establishment. Perhaps most glaringly was the artichoke filled with crab, in which a delectable and rewarding crab salad had been plopped a top an artichoke not completely shucked of its leaves. While the decision to include the leaves was deliberate, it made the dish cumbersome and messy to eat, something that would be fantastic at Dinosaur BBQ, but not for a romantic French dinner.

Finally, there were the ingredients. Whereas most New York restaurants include a Cornish hen or chicken dish mainly as a way to appease the non-adventurous dining dead, at Café Normandie, the Cornish hen was a special, and like the lobster, prepared in a style distinctly French. More moderately sized than the lobster, the Cornish hen was excellent, paired well with crispy pan fried potatoes and buttery sautéed spinach. The only negative of the course was that there was only dark meat on the plate, the more succulent parts of the bird apparently getting lost somewhere between coop and kitchen. Another example was the crepe, not only massive, but filled with a rather too American heaping of vanilla ice cream. However, like the profiteroles stuffed with the same ice cream, the crepes tasted amazing, blending mild bases with scintillating sugary sauces of caramel on the crepe and chocolate on the profiteroles. The portion sizes were the most extreme of the evening, but is this really a complaint when desserts taste as fantastic as Café Normandie’s did? It’s hard to say.

In the end, even taking into account the relatively supersized amounts and various other non-New York methodologies, it’s easy to see why Café Normandie holds the reputation as the best restaurant in Annapolis. Every thing was delicious and at times even memorable. But to misquote Dorothy, “I don’t think we’re in New York anymore”. For all its merits, Café Normandie only further solidified why its beneficial to live on the Hudson.

But of course, what else would you expect?

RATING: 7.4/10

Restaurant Remix 4: Otto

LOCATION: 1 Fifth Avenue
DATE: July 30, 2005
FOOD: Split the following – Vegetables: Summer Squash & Pecorino; Summer Corn & Fregula; Meat: Coppa; Fish: King Fish "In Soar"; Cheese: Coach Triple Cream, Goat, NY; Parmigiano Reggiano, Cow, EMI; Ricotta, Cow, CT; Salad: Heirloom Caprese; Pasta: PENNE ALLA NORMA (TOMATO, ROASTED EGGPLANT, BASIL, BUFALA RICOTTA); LINGUINE SICILIANI (ZUCCHINI, FRESH CHILES, MINT, BOTTARGA); Pizza: QUATTRO STAGIONI (TOMATO, ASPARAGUS, MUSHROOMS, COTTO, PEPPERS);
BEVERAGE: Glass of Proseco (complimentary for a long wait); Split a bottle of white wine
PRICE: My treat

The Tasteland's first review of Otto, from April 24, 2005.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures for this meal.

It was my final night. A year in New York filled with more unforgettable experiences than anyone person should hope to have in a lifetime, and just one night left. With melancholy already setting in and my appetite retreating like the Yankees’ chances of a pennant, it was hard to muster the desire to leave the apartment let alone gear up for one last revelatory meal.

So just as the year had passed with an incomprehensible speed, so too did the hours of July 30th. It was nine pm before we were ready to eat. After enough discussion to make the Yale debate team seriously consider giving up rhetoric permanently, Bennett, Wayne, Libby and I decided to meet my former roommate Jordan at an old standby.

Otto. Mario Batali may have the Midas touch, but Otto suggests that the man cares more about the food than bilking customers or pandering to food critics. Otto, in its essence, proves that Batali is a simply a man who likes to eat and a chef who has never forgotten that meals are a first and foremost a social activity. With a wine bar that creates a festive atmosphere, Otto is a perfect meeting place.

But wine and uplifted spirits can’t outshine the food. Even though we had to wait until 10:30, the vibe in Otto was still electric. At 10:30, every table was filled and the hostess apologized numerous times for not being able to seat us on time. When we were finally seated 20 minutes later, she gave a round of Proseco to the entire table as a way of apology, which makes sense, because who isn’t a bit friendlier when they’re drinking free alcohol?

Trying to please five fairly diverse diners was a difficult, but our waiter (who was very likely inebriated himself) did a commendable job of guiding us through the menu. Eventually, we opted to let him select for us, and he brought us dishes from each of the menu’s categories. The two vegetable and king fish Italian-style tapas offerings came together, and ranged from refined simplicity, to more daring and varyingly successful combinations. The pecorino and squash was as straight forward as its two ingredients would imply, though how Otto’s kitchen makes squash so tender remains a mystery. The salty pecorino complimented the earthy texture of the root vegetable well. Equally pleasing was the corn and fregula. There’s something distinctly summer about fresh corn and the dish captured that feel marvelously. The king fish “in soar” was the only sub par of the three initial samplings. Tasting vaguely of canned tuna and exuding the color of the gray English afternoons under which D.H. Lawrence tarried, the king fish was a surprising misstep from a restaurant that otherwise is very reliable.

However, the king fish was soon forgotten. The cheese tasting was marvelous, especially the creaminess of the goat cheese. Every cheese plate at Otto comes with saucers of honey and fermented cherries, and the sweetness of these sides enhances Otto’s marvelous dairy selection in a way other restaurants should take note of. After all, success lies in the details.

The heirloom caprese showcased the seasonal tomatoes. Aged to the degree of ripeness eliciting sexual comparisons of suppleness and firmness, the salad disappeared quickly. The pasta courses followed suit. While the linguini scilliani had the spice of Babbo’s black spaghetti, its zucchini base was too mushy and similar in texture to the noodles to be truly outstanding. Fortunately, the penne more than made up for its semolina sister. Large roasted chunks of eggplant and artistically appealing clouds of mozzarella jostled with the noodles for plate space, but were the very example of cohesion when tasted. The mozzarella made the pasta and it’s amazing that a restaurant with Otto’s reasonable prices can serve products of such high quality.

Finally, there was the pizza. The Quattro Stagioni was Otto’s take on the classic quartered pie and offered something for everyone. The same coppa, an Italian ham similar to proscuitto, which had helped open our meal on an up note, concluded it in the same manner as a topping on the pizza.

Though lasting nearly two hours, our meal seemed as compressed and fleeting as my stay in New York. As Jordan and I reminisced over a friendship stretching into its fourth year, I couldn’t help thanking him for being the reason I came to New York in the first place. As I said goodbye to him and the city I love, I felt an unexpected burst of emotion puncturing my normal (and preferred) near catatonic state. Perhaps my mood wasn’t assisted by the fact that we had forgotten to order Otto’s otherworldly gelato, but by the time we said goodbye on Fifth Avenue, I knew my departure from Jordan, as well as New York would have to be temporary rather than permanent. Otto brought to the close a year of eating, unique experiences, and life-altering moments that like New York, are without equal. Only time will tell, but I have a feeling this isn’t the last New York has heard of me or I of it.

RATING: 8.0/10

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Rise and Shine 2: Murray's Bagels

RESTAURANT: Murray’s Bagels
LOCATION: 500 6th Avenue
DATE: July 30, 2005
FOOD: Multigrain Sesame Bagel with Low-Fat Scallion Cream Cheese, Smoked Salmon, Tomatoes, Capes, and Red Onions
BEVERAGE: Bottled Water
PRICE: $8.00

What’s a visit to New York without at least one bagel? So, when Libby’s sister, Bennett, and her boyfriend, Wayne, came to New York during my last weekend in New York, Saturday began with a trip to Murray’s Bagels.

Continuing on the excellence of my previous two visits, my lox and cream cheese bagel was outstanding, and hands down, the best of my three experiences. The bagel contained its typical hearty sublimetly, the cushy inside offset by the perfect tough, chewy exterior. However, the smoked salmon was what made this visit outshine my others. Nearing the perfection of Russ and Daughter’s expertly cured seafood, Murray’s smoked salmon was fresh and crisp, the type of fish usually found only near fresh water ports. Whereas many smoked salmons are ruined by oversalting, Murray’s had the prefect level of sodium dense luxury. That I could even get low fat scallion cream cheese to enhance the pungent flavors in the salmon, capers, and onions, made this an ideal breakfast. Though being a tour guide is seldom fun, at least in this instance, it meant I got to eat well.

RATING: 8.5/10

Restaurant 60: Alto

Clockwise from top left: Polenta; Gnocchi; Peach Strudel; Guinea Hen.

LOCATION: 520 Madison Ave.
DATE: July 28, 2005
FOOD: Four Course Dinner Prix Fixe: Polenta Integrale – Chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus, braised lumache & preserved truffles; Potato-Spinach “Stran golapreti” – ricotta and potato gnocchi with rabbit “en civel” shaved parmigiano; Guinea Hen – “poached” breast, roasted leg, foie gras emulsion, speck & haricot verts; Peach Strudel – vanilla custard and fresh blueberries; Additional Cheese Plate: Brunet: goat’s milk – Piedmont crystallized rosemary, apple and pinenuts; Hoch Ybrig: cow’s milk, Ybrig, Switzerland – caraway and shallot marmalade with fennel salad
BEVERAGE: Glass of Proseco; Split a bottle of red wine
PRICE: $145.00

L’Impero wasn’t enough. For, Scott Conant, all heady youth, ambition dripping like purified olive oil, it was time to make the next jump. He wanted his fourth star. Thus, Alto was born, a restaurant set on transforming Italian food by adding the influences of German cuisine.

And by all accounts, Conant is close – close but still not quite there.

Alto has all the trappings of the traditional four stars: smooth, knowledgeable service; creative presentation; a menu with as many languages and cultural influences as Mario Batali has restaurants. Yet, Alto is still young, still in need of the refinement only time and countless repetitions can bring.

The four course dinner prix fixe is a bargain by New York standards at $72. Including three savory courses and a dessert, it follows the same model Conant made popular at L’Impero. However, it’s not just the two menu’s structures that show similarities; the offerings also nod towards one another. At L’Impero, Conant’s polenta with mushrooms has become the stuff of legends. At Alto, he adjusts the dish, adding escargot, truffles and white asparagus, while maintaining the brilliant coupling of grain and mushroom. Alto’s polenta appetizer was soft and fluffy, delicious and complex. When a bite took in all the dish’s ingredients, the taste was magnificent, the earthy chew of the mushrooms mixing with the saltiness of snail and polenta to dazzling effect. Yet, the polenta itself lacked the creamy resplendence to stand on its own which made L’Impero’s polenta as memorable as it was. At Alto, the whole worked, but the components equaled something far less great.

The same frustrating case of stunted development hindered the gnocchi course from reaching its full explosiveness. The large, spinach gnocchi were sensational on their own. So too, the tender meat of the rabbit. But while deconstructed dishes may be all the rage, at least for a pasta course, its better to build than tear down. With a presentation evoking sushi, the gnocchi was a disparate blend of flavors. A more traditional cohesion of the rabbit and gnocchi (and a sauce of some kind instead of shaved parmigiano) would have reduced the austerity and seeming overly ornate-ornateness of the potato dumplings. Whereas with the polenta individual aspects needed to be improved to survive on their own, with the gnocchi it was the cohesion that was lacking.

However, when it came to the guinea hen, Conant left no reason to question his methods. Inverting the traditional roasted chicken, Conant injected the guinea hen with a stuffing of almonds and currants before covering it in a foie gras foam, the taste of which are testimony enough of the chef’s prestigious talents. Cloudlike in texture, the emulsion was densely packed with a rich and intriguing smokiness. As he did with the rabbit in the gnocchi course, Conant mixed light and dark meats of the same bird, presenting the diner with an entire spectrum of flavors in the same dish.

The peach strudel was the only true disappointment of the evening. Sweet and enjoyable, it was far too simple for a restaurant attempting to push the boundaries of traditional cuisine. It was the type of excellent strudel easily found at unassuming German restaurants throughout the city or any Milwaukee bakery. But, with the bar set high during the rest of the meal, it was a let down for dessert to be so normal.

And as convivial as the service was, there are still kinks at Alto no four star restaurant would and can permit. One instance occurred when the cheese course was brought at the same time as dessert, with a complete disregard for adequate spacing. It meant either the ice cream melted or the cheese, better prior to dessert than after, had to wait until later.

So Alto isn’t there yet. It may have the petit-fours, but it doesn’t have the grace of a Le Bernardin or the class of a Per Se. Conant is trying to scale a German sized Alp and is having some technical difficulties on the way to the apex. But if Conant’s success at L’Impero is any indication, there’s little doubt that given a little time, Alto will start rising to the heights its name suggests. And who knows what Conant will think to do then.

RATING: 8.0/10