Gypsy Boy's Profile
According to the infallible folks at San Pellegrino, Alinea is the #7 restaurant in the world. In that ranking, Eleven Madison Park is #10 and #11 is Steirereck in Vienna (up eleven spots in one year and one spot ahead of Joel Robuchon’s flagship in Paris!). Since we happened to be in Vienna a few months ago and were at Eleven Madison Park a few months before that, we thought it would be interesting to take time out from the “downmarket” places we ate most nights to try this place. And so we did, taking care to make reservations some weeks in advance.
(By the way, I took many pictures and rather than try to include them all here, I urge those who are interested to visit my page at flickr: “Gypsy Boy2” starting on page 3.)
We walked from our hotel into the Stadtpark, a large, lovely park on the eastern edge of the Innere Stadt, the historic inner city. Sadly, by late October, even an early reservation can’t be early enough to enjoy a little light and so any views of the park were lost. We arrived slightly early and were greeted in English by a staff that is clearly accustomed to non-German speakers. The only surprise in that regard was the enormous variation in English ability of the servers who attended us throughout the evening. Some were almost completely fluent while others struggled to get through a sentence. Given the number of foreigners who must come through and clearly did the night we were there (something I’ll explain in a moment), we were surprised. It certainly didn’t affect the dinner or the service in any significant way, but we found it interesting.
The room is fairly large, modern-ish, well-appointed, and—blessedly—the tables are widely spaced. I’m getting so used to being shoehorned in that this was a happy reminder of how pleasurable it is to have that space. Service tended toward the formal and, whether it is a function of the language issue or not (I don’t think so), Steirereck has a practice I’ve never seen elsewhere that we both loved. As the silver is brought for the next course, a small card (about 2½ by 3½ inches) is set before you explaining, in great detail, precisely what is coming. This is so logical, so brilliant, that we were truly captivated by it. No wondering what it was that the server mumbled or forgot to mention. The card is left in front of you throughout the course and, at least for us, it told us everything we wanted to know. Absolutely loved it! (You’ll note that ours were in English; we take that as a measure of the number of foreigners who visit Steirereck that they find it worthwhile to have the cards printed in English.)
You can choose from an a la carte menu or a tasting menu. We both chose the latter, which offers a maximum of seven courses. You are free to choose either six courses (€118) or seven courses (€128). (Wine pairings are €69 and €79, respectively.) Each course offers two selections from which you choose. The entire tasting menu and choices can be found on the restaurant’s website here. (I should note that our tasting menu had a different pairing from what is currently shown (crosne and pheasant). We both chose the free-range pork and neither of us can remember the other selection.)
At this point, our memories have become a little hazy, so I omit course-by-course descriptions for the most part (Though I will list all of the courses, line by line.) I will also note that the bread service was extraordinary. It helped that the young man with the bread cart spoke nearly fluent English and—perhaps for that reason—was among the warmest and most outgoing of those we dealt with. He knew his breads in great detail, was not shy answering questions or making recommendations, and was just a real pleasure to talk with. The breads, it should be noted, were uniformly excellent. This may be the single best bread service we’ve ever had.
I absolutely loved puntarelle in Rome and in my post on our visit there a few years ago, I said this: “According to the wonderful Prodotti tipici d’Italia (a small softcover encyclopedia of Italian foods that I purchased while there), puntarelle is a variety of chicory specific to Lazio, Rome’s province. As the picture shows, puntarelle has serrated leaves, like dandelions, and long white/green ribs that are hollow. The ribs and leaves are served raw, as a salad dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette. The puntarelle itself is mildly peppery with, perhaps, a bit of sweetness. It reminded me a bit of chicory or even endive. The shoots are wonderfully crisp and what intrigued me was the preparation. The ribs are sliced extremely thinly and then soaked in ice water for hours. This treatment causes a remarkable transformation: the strips curl up tightly, become juicier, and lose some of their bitterness. (David Downie, in Cooking the Roman Way, devotes a two-page spread to a discussion of puntarelle.)”
This is a completely different presentation. We thought it not only attractive but a lovely interlude. It has some crunch (though less than we expected, given how it’s served in Rome) and it was nice break.
Puntarelle with Jerusalem Artichoke, Litchi Tomatoes and Chanterelles
Just a quick note to say that my venison was just about perfect: perfectly cooked, perfectly spiced (I chose that instead of “seasoned” because it seems more accurate), and a real pleasure to eat. Best of all, although the picture may not make it clear, the portion was generous given the number of courses and I was grateful for the chance to linger over it.
Mallard duck with Barley, Nasturtium root, Romaine Lettuce and Tomatillo
I got only a poor shot of the cheese cart in part because the young man serving the cheese was emphatic (to the point of rudeness) about not being in the picture. Nevertheless, the selection was remarkably broad and, as with the bread guy, he clearly knew his stuff. He explained how a cheese selection “should” be made and was careful to describe virtually everything on offer. As we progressed through the selection, which took not a little time, he was also not shy about recommending specific cheeses, asking about personal preferences and taking into account previous choices.
Plum and gem marigold Curd Cheese and Roseval [potato] ice cream
Dessert “Jewelry display case”
As I noted at the top, the folks at San Pellegrino rate Steirereck one place behind Eleven Madison Park. Having just eaten there recently we don’t get it. We certainly had our quibbles with various things at Eleven Madison Park. And there were a lot of things we loved at Steirereck. But at the end of the evening, we wouldn’t struggle for long if we had a chance to return to only one of them. Perhaps it was a slight language barrier but we’ve eaten overseas far too much to think that this was the case. Something about the meal, taken a whole, just struck us as less than what we expected/hoped. Excellent food, yes. Beautifully presented, yes. Excellent service, yes. Beautiful room, yes. Maybe it was the (lack of) warmth of the staff (certain notable exceptions notwithstanding). Maybe it was the weather. But wonderful as the dinner was, we just didn’t enjoy it a whole lot. Maybe it was simply that, despite the excellent-ness of the food, it just didn’t strike us as inventive or creative or surprising in any positive way.
The venison which I singled out as superb was just that, superb. But not something that plenty of other places couldn’t have done just as well. Nothing exotic or fresh or inventive about the pairings or the technique or the presentation. And the venison was, for me, easily the best course. The pork and the pike-perch weren’t quite as good and neither was exceptional in any way. The dessert with the potato ice cream: maybe that’s it. Inventive, but not in a positive way. Neither one of us “got it” or even enjoyed it. The ice cream was very well done in that it was technically excellent ice cream and it tasted very much of potato. But why? How does potato ice cream “work” with plum and marigold? To us, it just didn’t. These are only examples, of course. Any great meal—regardless of price—is more than the sum of its parts. It’s the food, the service, the atmosphere, the people, and other imponderables. At Steirereck, it’s hard to fault the food or, for the most part, the service. Maybe it was the imponderables. But as good as the meal was, it just didn’t wow us the way, say, it did at Rudi’s.
I am several months remiss in posting on a series of places we visited while in Vienna a couple months ago. (I will report on our single high-end splurge meal at Steirereck soon.) There are simply too many good pics to post here so for those who are interested, get thee to flickr. My pics of this trip are posted under the name "Gypsy Boy2." Thanks are in order to all here, but most especially Sturmi. If we didn't make it to everywhere we intended, it's only because we couldn't figure out how to create 48 hour days!
Might as well start off with the top of the pack:
VARIOUS AND MISCELLANEOUS
I think I have made progress (probably just self-delusion). In any event, my thoughts are these. For our lunches, Bitzingers (or should I save this for a snack and choose somewhere else?), Gasthaus Reinthaler, Gasthaus Poschl, and then I can't decide between Haas Beisl or Shnattl? (We're going to Melk one day and so will have lunch somewhere else...Krems, Durnstein....)
For dinner, Steirereck, Rudi's Beisl, Gmoakeller, and Phonixhof. Then, I am uncertain which two to choose among Eisvogel, Meixner’s, Artner auf der Wieden, and or Restaurant Eckel (or perhaps Freyenstein).
And somehow in the midst of all this--at the very least--I owe Sturmi (and Mrs. Sturmi) a drink for all your help!
Wonderful; thank you again for your time and comments.
I spent the weekend working on my list and have a few more for which I'd love to have your comments as well. I'm slowly narrowing down the list, trying to make it workable. Too many wonderful places, too little time! The new list includes:
This second group is, I think, likely to be less desirable, but I'm not entirely certain.
And finally, it doesn't make sense (to me, anyway) to come to Vienna without rying local specialties. One that I've never had and seems well worth trying, is probably also worth asking for a specific recommendation for: beuschel.
I'll try to stop inundating you with lists but since we have so little time, I don't want to waste any of it!
My mistake. I hadn't realized you were confining your answer.
However, a few additional places have come up in my research. Any thoughts (that you wish to share) on any of these places?:
And yet again--many thanks!
...and Steirereck. We received a nice e-mail response from the restaurant. We were given a choice of three dates (albeit at 6:30 pm and, sadly for us, in the smoking room--though they offered without our even mentioning it to move us as soon as a vacancy opened in the other room) but even though the choices might not be absolutely ideal, we are still thrilled to be able to get in. I presume reservations this far out (we arrived 22 October) would also be needed at Walter Bauer.
FWIW, my wife tried calling nonstop but what got the table for us, finally was...OpenTable! Amazing though it seems, her calls ultimately didn't work and Open Table did. Go figure. (And good luck!)
[We made the trek from Chicago to NYC for a major birthday. My wife, the Lovely Dining Companion, managed to set us up with dinner at Kajitsu and here. We loved both dinners and I thought I'd post our take on Eleven Madison Park. Kajitsu to be added later.]
Where we were going was kept a secret from me right up until the end. The cab dropped us off at 23rd and Madison Avenue. We start to walk up Madison Avenue by Madison Square Park (the street was closed for some private event that had just ended) and I still have no idea where we’re going (largely because my New York IQ is limited to broad geographic notions). Then, the LDC stops after a block and says, “We’re here.” I look up and see nothing in front of us save a massive edifice with multiple Credit Suisse plaques. A bank? We’re eating dinner at a bank? This is the big surprise? Oy. I won’t tell you what kind of visions are racing through my head at this point. Of course, I am standing in the exact, perfect, wrong spot because, from where I am, it is impossible to see anything but signs for Credit Suisse. So I walk another step and, behold: the clouds part, the single shaft of light shines forth and the sign appears: a front door with a none-too-subtle large gold (okay, extremely highly polished brass) sign above the door: “ELEVEN MADISON PARK.”
We walk in (it’s a trifle before 5:30 which is a good thing since we’ll be spending four hours there) and are met by Ramsey who, it turns out, dealt with LDC over the telephone. There are already about half a dozen tables hard at it, not to mention the children’s birthday party in the private room upstairs with a glass wall so we can spy on each other. We chat with Ramsey for about five minutes covering everything from Chef Achatz’s imminent arrival in NYC for the 21st Century Limited collaboration to our experiences at Alinea to what’s in store this evening. He’s warm and friendly and puts us in a welcoming mode for our experience.
We’re seated by a young woman who turns out to be the only robot of the evening: precise, correct, exact, and with all the warmth and friendliness of an ice bath. Oh well.
Still, we’re seated by the Madison Avenue wall under thirty-foot high windows and, as the sun hasn’t quite set, the light is spectacular. (Nice help for the pics, too; sadly, the sun did eventually set and the very subdued lighting began to take its toll….)
Tucked discreetly under the napkin is the introduction: a large square card with four lines of four items each. Each line represents a course and you choose from four items. The intention, which I find pleasing, is that over the course of the tasting menu, they think you ought to have some input into what you’ll receive. Needless to say, dinner is much more than four courses. Between the amuse(s) and other selections made by the kitchen, we end up with fourteen courses. But your choices are entirely yours and set the parameters, in some ways, for what follows.
As it happens, we were extremely fortunate to have a special choice for the entrée (the third line): Muscovy duck. Much as we were tempted by the other choices, the LDC had read—and it made eminent sense—that if duck was offered, you get the duck. So we did.
The amuse comes boxed and wrapped in string like the gift that it is: two tiny black and white cookies. So how could it hurt that we had started the morning at Russ & Daughters and bought, among other goodies, an oversized black and white cookie? But this version is savory: black truffles and parmesan cheese. Now that is an appetizer! Not much to say or need be said. The conceit is clever and succeeds easily. A positively wonderful introduction, whimsy and humor being a part of much of what will follow.
Tomato gelee with tarragon and gooseberries
Cucumber snow with lapsang souchang-infused broth and grape
Swiss chard “cracker” with eel and foie gras
Smoked sturgeon sabayon with chive oil
Reeling from this dish and wondering what could possibly top it we came to what might just have been the hit of the evening. The server comes to the table and sets down a bell jar so filled with smoke it’s impossible to see a thing inside. He walks away, cautioning only: “Don’t touch a thing.” Minutes pass. Whole universes are born and die. The smoke very slowly condenses revealing a grill topped with four slices of sturgeon atop smoking applewood chips. Hmmm…a little reminiscent of, oh, never mind. But the course is another homage to New York City, so you get
Langoustine with fennel, sour cherries, and clam
Seared foie gras with water chestnuts, dates, and sunchokes
Carrot tartare with rye bread and condiments
Five minutes later the sous chef returned grasping some large poached carrots by the scruff of the neck. She talked to us about heirloom carrots, the provenance of our course, and what was about to happen to the soon-to-be ex-carrots. Fascinating and inventive; maybe the most flavorful carrot we’ve ever eaten. But, in the end, we both found it just didn’t work for either of us. It seemed a little bit too contrived and nine condiments and two little squeeze bottles to “dress” the concoction are simply too much. You lose your way when there are that many things. And there isn’t enough carrot—or, perhaps, more accurately, enough time and inclination to sit there and play with all the various combinations that might work. I can easily see spending a good little while experimenting with the various items but there aren’t enough of any of them, unless you mix each little saucer with the relatively tiny amount of carrot not to overwhelm the condiment. So, I did what I suspect some (many?) diners do: I divided my carrot tartare in half, dressed one half with the carrot emulsion and one half with mustard oil and then divided each condiment in half and dumped half of all of them in each carrot pile. And so didn’t end up with much. Flavorful as the carrots themselves were, the course just didn’t do much for us. We enjoyed the theater more than the dish itself. There’s potential here, but as it stands the presentation demands too much of a diner who’s already six courses in and well past the shallow end. At that point, I can’t decide which combination of two sauces and nine condiments will work best with the carrots….
Poached lobster with escarole and almond
Poached tilefish with turnip, radish, and dill
Muscovy duck roasted with lavender and honey, apple, and quinoa
With that as prelude, what remained is close to ducky perfection. (I reserve absolute ducky perfection for "Paris 1906" at Next (in Chicago) which, to my mind is virtually impossible to conceive ever being bested.) Cracklingly crisp skin, just enough fat to ensure very moist duck and plenty of flavor, and meat cooked to precisely the right point.
Greensward (picnic) with pretzel, mustard, craft beer, and cheese
Egg cream with vanilla and seltzer
By now we’ve been here well over three hours and the experience, the excitement, the food, everything is starting to take its toll. So it was a surprise and a treat when a young man walked up, introduced himself as a maitre d’ and asked if we’d like to stretch our legs and see the kitchen. We considered and debated his kind proposition and, after an appropriate delay of three seconds, accepted his offer. Again, a warm, interesting guy and we had a very interesting talk about the restaurant, what they are doing and where they hope to be going.
No sooner do we arrive in the spotless, gleaming kitchen than the chef de cuisine greets us heartily and asks how we like the food. We allow as how we’re managing and looking forward to what is still to come. (On the fwiw front: we never saw Humm, either in the dining room or during our five-ten minute visit to the kitchen.) The kitchen puts me in mind of the kitchens at both Alinea and Moto for the age of the staff—not to mention the framed art and the mottos posted on the walls. Before we can even settle in, we hear a chef read a new order and the entire kitchen staff respond in unison—much like a football team in a huddle—“OUI!” This team shout occurs a few more times until I finally ask what it is and what it’s about. Every time a new order comes in, it’s called out and the team responds as one. It’s all about not only teamwork but enthusiasm, about “making it nice” (the phrase is emblazoned on a very large plaque and hangs prominently in the kitchen).
Then there’s the very large framed photo of a smiling (!) Miles Davis. More than mere art on the walls, it’s there for a special reason. It seems that in 2006, Moira Hodgson reviewed the restaurant for the New York Observer. She lauded the place highly but ended by repeating her companion’s suggestion that “the place needed a bit of Miles Davis.” (In fact, her very last sentence was downright prophetic: “But when word gets around about Daniel Humm, the only thing needed here is going to be hard to get: a reservation.”)
Thanks to the internet, we found this reaction from Will Guidara, the general manager: “’We had no idea what that meant,’” Guidara says, laughing, ‘but we started to listen to a lot of Miles and read about him.’ They made a list of words to define Davis’ music – “cool,” “collaborative,” “fresh,” “vibrant,” “spontaneous” – and hung them, along with a photograph of the musician, in the restaurant’s kitchen.” I had noticed the photograph and was taken with it simply as art, the more so since, as I commented, it’s one of the very few pictures ever taken of him where he’s unmistakably smiling—a lovely thing.
But we were here for a reason beyond the opportunity to see the kitchen and the staff at work. We were here for another little amuse, prepared in front of us with liquid nitrogen. Truthfully, I can’t report in much detail because we were a little distracted. We’re trying to look at and take in the entire kitchen (video link to come), listen to the maitre d’, watch and listen to the sous chef making the drink. I remember that it involved pomegranate syrup, alcohol (gin?), and, um, some other stuff. That the liquid nitrogen froze the alcohol solid (thanks, Das!), providing that little “scoop” of pomegranate-flavored "ice cream" on top, and that the drink was yummy. Don’t ask me any more.
Fig glazed with orange, sage, and tapioca
A general summary of the desserts would say something like we enjoyed them all quite a bit. The presentations, as is obvious, were attractive, the flavors intense and fresh, and the courses well-composed with careful thought as to complementary flavors and textures. By this point, truth to tell, there’s a little palate fatigue. Each truly was a lovely rendition though none were exceptional or something you couldn’t find at comparable place.
We also received a couple of large chocolate-covered pretzels. I’m not a big fan of chocolate-covered pretzels. But this put them on a whole other plane. These I could happily munch on until I explode. The perfect illustration of how/why salt can enhance sweet.
And now we came full circle because, in a penultimate bow to New York City, we received a box identical to the one that opened the dinner. This time the black and white cookies are the sweet version. I need only say that they can mail me cookies like this any day they wish. They were superb. Not quite “authentic” in that their version is a sandwich cookie with what appeared to be a very thin sheet of apricot paste in between. But oh so delicious.
Okay. The last item—which I will purposely not describe—was very small. It is also a nod to New York’s history, this time: three-card monte and card sharps. It (the food item) was my least favorite item of the evening, but who cares? Others have written at varying lengths about the card trick that precedes this last item. It’s clever, it’s fun, and I disagree with the naysayers: relax and enjoy it. If you like what follows, so much the better. But even if you don’t, you’ll have had so much fun with the prelude that it won’t matter.
Sturgeon: Domaine de l’Ecu, Granite, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley 2010
Foie Gras: Philippe Mur, Clos Basté, Pacherenc du Vic Bihl, Southwest 2010
Carrot: Hermann Wiemer Riesling, Magdalena, Seneca Lake NY 2010
Tilefish: Pichler-Krutzler Gruner Veltliner, Klostersatz, Wachau 2011
Duck: Chateau L’Avangile, Pomerol 1982
Picnic: Ithaca Beer Company, Picnic Basket Ale, Ithaca NY
Pistachio dessert: Kiralyudvar, Lapis, 6 Puttonyos, Tokaji 2003
A comment on the staff. Absolutely terrific in their approachability, warmth, friendliness, and knowledge. In the course of our four hours and probably a dozen different staff people, I think there was one person who was a cold fish. Service was, by and large, absolutely impeccable.
A misstep: the LDC does not drink alcohol and the sommelier mentioned their non-alcoholic drink list. She ordered a ginger concoction that she loved. It was never refilled and no one ever bothered to ask whether she’d like another. It sat there, ice melting, over the course of multiple hours.
A complaint: I know what a turn is and have a reasonably good notion of the economics involved in running a restaurant. So I know why you need to turn a table. But don’t rush me, dammit! As long as dinner was, longer would have been enormously appreciated. Serving ware for the next course routinely appeared literally seconds after the previous course was cleared and the next course always followed immediately. The chance to digest—both literally and figuratively—was missing. Your economics are your problem and you can solve them however you wish, so long as the solution doesn’t affect our dinner experience. We don’t like being rushed and this ultimately detracted some from our enjoyment.
An observation: if the staff wants a drink, why don’t they take it in the kitchen? LDC saw a young man in a tie standing next to a serving station pull a glass from a drawer, pour himself some wine from an open bottle, and down it. In the dining room.
Sometimes, both the LDC and I have encountered a course at Alinea (or at an event where Chef Achatz is present) where our reaction has been, “I don’t get it.” “I don’t know what he’s trying to tell us, show us, accomplish.” And for that reason, we feel uninformed, left out. Which, of course, no one likes to feel. Let me be clear: we understand completely that that’s not what Chef Achatz is trying to do. We know that. But sometimes it happens. And that, in part, is what we mean by Alinea being more “challenging.” It’s a little easier to sit back and relax and enjoy Eleven Madison Park. You don’t have to “work” quite as hard, in a sense, as you do at Alinea.
Let me try this another way: my Dad is a meat-and-potatoes guy who, every once in a while, will surprise me. He’d be a little baffled at either Eleven Madison Park or Alinea, but at the end of the day, I think he’d find Eleven Madison Park more comprehensible, more recognizable, and more comfortable. Even though the courses are occasionally deconstructed, they are a bit more likely to be recognizable to him at Eleven Madison Park. The ingredients at Alinea also tend to be more off the beaten path; Humm’s genius, in part, is his ability to do marvelous things with more mainstream ingredients. Achatz is more experimental, more…curious? I suspect he has more toys in his office and his kitchen. This is not a knock on Humm. Merely a somewhat frustrating effort (because of my inarticulateness) to describe what we see as the differences.
Achatz is only two years older than Humm but he trained under Thomas Keller, a pretty inventive guy. I don’t know too much about Humm’s mentor, Gerard Rabaey. (He used to run a three-star restaurant in Montreux and, at least judging from a recent piece in the New Yorker had some, uh, quirks: he “rooted through the garbage to check for discard food” and had his chefs “standing on ladders to swab the corners of the ceilings with Q-tips” until three in the morning.). Maybe the difference is simply one of personality; maybe it’s a difference in approach and philosophy. I don’t know. Without knowing either of them personally, all we can do it guess. But the differences are undeniable.
THE SUMMATION, AT LAST
But in order to move up the list, a restaurant has to be more than just excellent and entertaining—it has to aim toward reinvention or groundbreaking cuisine (the current #1 is Noma; it displaced El Bulli). Was our dinner groundbreaking or thought-provoking? We don’t think so (carrot tartare notwithstanding). Did they take creative chances, put together flavors that worked in ways that you would never dream possible? Again, we don’t think so. But was it excellent and fun and worth the hassle of getting reservations and the expense? Absolutely.
New York has been getting a taste of Alinea this past week; those who have snagged places when Eleven Madison Park comes to Chicago are in for a treat, too. Humm is enormously talented. At 36, he’s still a youngster. It will be fascinating to see how he and Eleven Madison Park evolve. I only hope that our next trip to New York isn’t too far off and that when we return, we can manage to visit again.
Many thanks. Somehow that particular post escaped my net. My apologies; I can see that your list is already quite substantial.
There is a wealth of information in a variety of threads on Vienna, but a good portion of it relates to high(er)-end restaurants. We've got nothing against high-end (we're hoping to spend one evening at Steirereck), but we're much more interested in local (or other regional Austrian) food that is more classic. If it's old-fashioned, that's fine. If it's rustic, that's fine, too. These places are disappearing everywhere and since it's been 22 years since my last visit to Vienna, who know what will be left next time I come.
So, in addition to the places already recommended (thank you one and all for the various recommendations we've found!), we would be most grateful for even more suggestions for lunch/dinner places that serve dishes that are harder to find, food your grandparents ate, classic, Austrian places. Sure, we'll do some of the obligatory tourist stuff, I guess, and we'll stop for things on the street and a heurige in Stammersdorf, but what else must we put on our list?
And breakfast too. I realize that's a tougher find, but any recommendations are most welcome.
Oh: if it makes any difference, we'll be there 22 October until 29 October.
Good morning, all. Looking forward to my first visit to SD in decades (yup, plural). Coming from Chicago and looking forward to finding things I can't find here, things well off the beaten track. I'll be in SD for five nights (a Tues through Sat, solo the first three and with my wife the last two) and am looking for recs for a couple things. I'll be staying at the Courtyard Marriott on Broadway and 6th (I think); won't have a car but don't mind a long walk or even longish cab rides. I've done my research for the standard "nice" nights out and right now am looking at Cafe Chloe and Kitchen 1540 (and maybe Kaito) for the great meals. My requests are: 1. Someplace open early (6:30-7 ish) for breakfast. Looking for homey, really good b'fast to start my day. Can be American, Mexican, or something completely different. The only real restrictions, I guess, will be that I need to get there, have a relaxed breakfast, and back to the hotel by 8:30 am. If I need a cab, I'll get a cab. I just can't wrap my head around the notion of eating at the hotel when I'm already stuck there all day for the conference. 2. Dinner: something unusual, very off the beaten track (well, no balut, but otherwise I'm fairly open). Chicago's a great food town and we've taken advantage of a lot of what it has to offer, but it's not the be-all and end-all. And I'd really enjoy something that's either uniquely SD or maybe not unique to SD but is really well done, whatever it is. 3. As to the nice nights out, if you have a truly outstanding place to recommend for a dinner, by all means. Price/location/cuisine are all fairly open, though I don't particularly want to spend more than, say, 30-40 minutes in a cab. I know I haven't given you a lot of guidelines but scanning lots of threads leaves me a little uncertain of the best direction to go. So: I'm not particularly looking for anything in particular but am open to most anything if there's something really special about it. Can I answer any questions? Thanks in advance!
I grew up in Rochester but my visits now to see my folks are fewer and farther between than they should be. My memory is too dated to be reliable. That said, I've done some research on the board (and elsewhere) and have provisionally settled on Ristorante Lucano for my trip home in March. Price is not an issue. What I'd like is something at the higher end in quality and dining experience. My folks (Dad is 87 and Mom is 82) are in very good shape, though a little slower and little harder of hearing than they used to be. That said, I would be open to other options though (1) they have been to Rooney's so many times that that's not on the table and (2) I'm not overly enamored of the dinner menu at Max's at the Eastman. The Chophouse Menu is more promising but Mom's not a huge meat eater and the other choices are, logically, minimal. I was looking for something nice that I thought they'd enjoy and I can't recall ever being at a truly good Italian restaurant with them in Rochester. (Lots of middling ones, though.) So, sentiment on the board seems generally positive for Lucano, though it's a bit dated. Can any Rochesterians (or others) tell me if I'm doing the right thing? Thanks!
Thanks. The two other sources I used--both were invaluable--were eGullet and LTHForum.org (a local board in Chicago that I am a member of and that you've already looked at, clearly. Use their extremely helpful search function; same with eGullet). I'd encourage you to spend as much time as you feel the investment is worth. Frankly, I based 95% of our decisions on what I'd read on those boards plus Chowhound. Everyone filters what they read, whose advice they take, and so forth, differently. I'd strongly encourage you to read as much as you can. For us, it paid off handsomely.
You may want to spend some time looking over the wealth of information available at www.coffeegeek.com. I've found their reviews--both in-house and consumer--to be very helpful and informative. I've taken their collective advice into account more than once...to my satisfaction.
I might agree with you about the bruschetta except for the fact that we also ordered it at Armando al Pantheon and it came exactly as we expected--or, if you will, as we would expect to get it in the US. Whether this particular presentation was unique to Checchino (and, in fairness, it's possible that the menu had a description of a different kind of bruschetta, though we don't recall it that way) or to certain places or whether there's some other explanation, who knows? I should also point it that it was fine, as in tasty to eat. Just unexpected.
In gratitude for some advice received here, I offer this post. (The complete post, with pictures, can be found at www.lthforum.com on the "Beyond Chicagoland" forum.)
We recently returned from seven days in Rome—our first trip there. If the gods are kind, it will be only the first trip of many. I can’t recall ever spending so much time and effort researching food and restaurants and so forth but it paid off. We had great meals, espresso, gelato, and shopping. And the tourist sights weren’t bad either. Besides, how could I not love a city where people drive like I do? So...boisterously?
We tried, in a week, to cover as much ground as we could, restricting ourselves, within reason, to classic Roman food. Fortunately, that doesn’t significantly reduce the number of choices available and so we had meals at a wide variety of establishments from humble to haughty. (Well, maybe only semi-haughty. Given the state of the dollar, we didn’t get near any truly haughty establishments.)
The Lovely Dining Companion speaks no Italian and mine is fairly minimal but we rarely had much trouble communicating, either in shops or sightseeing or even in restaurants. We were taken aback at the number of tourists in Rome in mid-November, although Americans were not numerous. We always had breakfast at the hotel (a one-minute walk from Piazza Barberini) and generally chose our lunches based on where we found ourselves at the moment. Most dinners were decided in advance. What follows is a relatively meal-by-meal account, with digressions, of our week in Rome.
We were fortunate in our weather. November is one of the rainiest months in the Roman calendar and it was drizzling when we arrived. (FWIW, we flew Alitalia through Milan because we got exceptional prices. In our four separate flight segments, the attendants were routinely unhelpful and uninterested; the food ranged from mediocre to nearly inedible; and the fairly old aircraft had not been well-maintained from a customer comfort perspective. I’ve also never waited over an hour for my luggage. But I digress.) Except for that first day, every remaining day we enjoyed nearly complete sunshine. Over the course of our week there, the temps rose from the lower 40s to the mid and upper 50s with even more warm weather promised as we departed. We couldn’t have asked for much better weather.
Our first afternoon we looked, not quite hard enough, for Il Margutta, the well-regarded vegetarian restaurant in Campo Marzio about midway between the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo. We were unable to find it and so “settled” for Osteria Margutta, a little trattoria that was an unexpectedly wonderful introduction to eating in Rome. The menu was exclusively in Italian and our server spoke very little English. So given our arrival only a few hours earlier, our jet lag, and our poor Italian, we fumbled a bit. But the very warm, comfortable atmosphere and the friendliness of the staff made the experience a pleasure. The trattoria is fairly small but stylishly decorated; via Margutta seems to house primarily high-end antiques dealers. Prices reflected that but we decided to ignore the dollar’s abysmal value as much as we could. Since our internal clocks and appetites were a bit confused, we did not order a full meal. Rather, I chose a fairly simple meal of pasta and saltimbocca, accompanied by puntarelle. I had been told to keep an eye out for this, as it’s a Roman specialty and likely to be one I would enjoy: a bitter green.
Digression number 1:
Although I would have puntarelle several more times, this turned out to be the best preparation. The anchovies were identifiable without being overwhelming in a dressing that was nicely acidic and complemented the greens just right. The puntarelle itself a generous portion that was crisp and delicious. I’d recommend anyone with a taste for chicory try it—and try it there. I can’t recall the pasta any longer (my note-taking routine hadn’t yet been established) but I remember the saltimbocca well. It was a small portion for a secondi but good. I had saltimbocca one other time—at a very nice dinner at La Matricianella—and the two restaurants’ preps were remarkably similar in size and taste (not that there’s much room for experimentation). In both cases, the serving consisted of two small pieces of veal (smaller than the palm of your hand), topped with a small sage leaf, covered by a piece of prosciutto. And, in both cases, liberally surrounded by pan gravy. Both were good but in neither case would I be likely to order them again.
Two other notes: we had been so looking forward to having artichokes in Rome that we were more than a little taken aback when we ordered some only to have the server tell us they were out of season. Now, in fairness, it’s entirely possible that a language gap may have been responsible for a misunderstanding here, but it was clear that they didn’t have any at Osteria Margutta. Maybe they ran out; maybe she genuinely believed them to be out of season. But, in the event, we had them everywhere else and even saw them for sale in the outdoor markets.
Second note: pane e coperta. Our guidebooks and other research all mentioned that we would be paying for the basket of bread put on our table. I remembered this practice from my travels in Eastern Europe and, though part of me rebels against the notion of being charged for bread, it’s a different culture and I need to relax a little. So I did. And, interestingly, we were charged nothing at all about as often as we were charged a couple dollars. And to bring this, finally, back to Osteria Margutta: it is virtually the only place where the bread wasn’t good. In every other case, lunch or dinner, fancy place or not, the bread ranged from very good to excellent: crusty, fresh, great texture, and great flavor.
As jet lag and the number of hours we’d been awake began to catch up with us, we knew we didn’t have the energy to enjoy a leisurely dinner, so we decided, based on our location at the time, to visit Giolitti for gelato instead. One of the great benefits of traveling in mid-November was that lines—which I imagine in the summer must be phenomenal—were virtually non-existent on each of our visits.
Exceptional. Now we understand that naming a favorite gelateria is like waving a red flag in front of anyone who has a different opinion. And I don’t offer the adjective with the intention of starting a gelato smackdown. I merely report on our experience and thoughts. I had pistachio and LDC had fichi d’India. (Only later did we understand why it didn’t really taste like fig. Fichi d’India is the Italian name for prickly pears.) Mine was nearly perfect. Though the pistachios had been toasted a trifle longer than I would have done, the gelato was creamy...silken beyond my powers of description. Rich, dense, and unbelievably delicious. We would have gelato at several other places during our stay, including Tre Scalini (about which more later), Il Gelatone, and San Crispino, but Giolitti was our clear favorite. We found Il Gelatone’s very good but not exceptional and San Crispino’s was so evidently of an ice-cream-like texture that we wondered later whether we had somehow erred.
Since our lunches were haphazard affairs, I’ll mention only a few. Among the best was the pizza at Antico Forno in Campo de’Fiori: pizza bianca the first time and with mushrooms and with squash blossoms and anchovies the second.
Digression number 2:
One thing is clear, whether you’re a purist or an iconoclast: pizza bianca is a simple dish. And, precisely for that reason, I imagine, difficult to pull off successfully. The simpler, the harder—a little like Mozart. In our case, what we got fell into the purists school: no lard, but also no basil, no arugula, no prosciutto, and no cheese. It resembled focaccia, only thinner. Whatever we had—and since they called it pizza bianca, that’s good enough for me—the flavor was impressive. We were impressed with how much flavor was packed into so simple a vehicle. In that sense, and only in that sense, the pizzas with additional ingredients were slightly disappointing. One cannot expect that the flavor will increase geometrically as one adds ingredients but that didn’t prevent us from hoping. Still, the other pizzas were enjoyable, as much for the crust and texture as for the flavors. There was a bit too much anchovy on the squash blossom pizza to my mind, but hardly a significant factor.
Speaking of pizza...in Rome (and I presume elsewhere in Italy), pizza is usually sold al taglio. That means that there are a few freshly made pizzas on the counter and you tell the fellow with the knife in his hand how big a piece you want. He cuts to your order (from a rectangular pie)—and after, of course, inquiring whether you want is “this big?” [immense] or merely “this big?” [teeny-weeny]. Most countermen we met had a wonderful sense of humor, derived no doubt from having to deal with too many tourists. After he cuts the piece, he weighs it, and then hands you a chit to pay the cashier. Having done so, you come back and collect your slice(s). They’re usually wrapped in plain paper and you take them outside, find a convenient and comfortable spot and eat. Or you eat standing up like the Romans do. Talk about simple! No fancy table, no fancy surroundings, no fancy anything, and the pizza is great. It couldn’t be more plainly all about the food. And the pizza couldn’t be better.
Lunch. Volpetti’s. To those who know this deli (and I use the word advisedly), I need say no more. (The Volpettis call their establishment a “negozio di gastronomia” which they translate on the English-language version of their site as a “food store.” Who am I to argue?) To those who don’t, I’m almost at a loss to begin. It’s a deli in the sense that they sell a variety of what Americans have come to expect to find in a deli, such as meats and cheeses, products which you can take home, and they will make you a sandwich or sell you some things to go. But to call Volpetti’s a deli is somewhat like calling St. Peter’s a parish church. It is everything that a deli is, might be, could be, and more. It is the Platonic ideal of a deli, the deli of delis, the mother of all delis, and the deli without which others couldn’t begin to think of themselves as delis. Not only is the selection enormous. (Look at the one picture below and find an unoccupied chink of space—I dare you). Not only do they have most anything you could want or even think you might, conceivably, someday think about wanting. The people are helpful, generous, and even patient with tourists. They offer multiple free samples. That said, they aren’t inexpensive. Still, I think I could eat happily from Volpetti’s forever and not be bored.
After much deliberation, we chose pieces of the various pizzas available and some arancini. We were treated to tastes of recently fried artichokes and even proffered fried pineapple during the decision-making process. But…swoon…the store. The shelves, the goods, the smells, the tastes. This, boys and girls, is what heaven looks like. We took our oversized bag across the street to the very convenient park and savored our stash. Needless to say, we returned later that day, on our way to dinner, and bought oodles of things to bring home.
Dinner that evening was in Testaccio: Checchino dal 1887, an emporium dedicated to the classic “fifth quarter”—offal.
Digression number 3:
And what better way to enjoy it than at Checchino—a place famed for its preparations of fifth quarter goodies and, specifically, with their Degustazione storico. This menu emphasized the classic nature of the dishes and, though I struggled with the idea of the first item, I eventually succumbed to the encomiums of the place that I had read virtually everywhere:
The restaurant itself is a bright, attractive room, homey, with tables well apart from each other. We sat down eager to enjoy the highly touted menu. Sad to say, we were largely disappointed. Some of this had to do with a server who could not have been less interested. I don’t know if it was us, him, how his day went, or what the issue might have been. I only know that he wasn’t engaged or attentive from the moment we sat down until the moment we left. Had the gentleman he relied upon to bring dishes, replace silver, and generally interact with us, been similarly inclined, the evening would have been a disaster. As it was, he apparently misunderstood LDC’s pasta order. Rather than clarify things, he simply didn’t place any order. When, after waiting an eternity for it to arrive, I finally inquired, his blank expression spoke volumes. He placed the order immediately and it arrived a while later, pasta surprisingly undercooked. No apologies, no evident concern, just an exasperated look that spoke volumes.
My calf’s-foot salad was far less unpleasant than I expected. The calf’s-foot portions themselves were much more approachable than I expected. They looked like oddly shaped pieces of pasta in both color and appearance. Texture reminded me of nothing so much as a cross between slightly undercooked pasta and ever-so-slightly chewy squid. The green sauce—which seemed to be Genovese pesto—worked with the vegetables and was a good vorspeis but, all told, I’m not planning to order this again. Still, I’m glad I tried it and would not hesitate to recommend it to the curious.
LDC ordered bruschetta to begin, followed by a bowl of stracciatella (think Italian eggdrop soup). It was good, but unlike any bruschetta we’ve seen or were prepared for. Indeed, as the picture demonstrates, it looks almost like half of a grilled cheese sandwich on a large thin slice of rye. My two pastas were served side-by-side. Both were disappointing. Not only was nothing noteworthy about either, both seemed like dishes I could get at a hundred other places. Why come to Checchino for them? I should confess that I was quite looking forward to the pajata, a dish not all that common, even in Rome.
Digression number 4:
I guess pajata is just not my dish. I found the expected sour “edge”—but it wasn’t an “ordinary” sour. I have struggled since that evening to find an accurate way to describe the taste and have failed miserably. The cheesiness that the curdled milk in the intestines imparts is not troublesome in the least. I wonder aloud, though, whether a tomato-based sauce is the right vehicle for this specialty: the acid in the tomatoes doesn’t seem to work with the acid in the milk. Instead, there is an earthiness, a robustness to the sour that I found off-putting.
Equally disappointing was the bucatini alla gricia served with the pajata. There was nothing wrong with it, but there was nothing particularly good about it either. It struck me as a dish I could have anywhere, including the local Italian/American red tablecloth joint down the street. Everything about it was acceptable and no more.
The coda alla vaccinara, fortunately, was a bright spot. A classic dish, this oxtail stew was bursting with flavor, a true delight. The ingredients themselves, as disclosed on the menu, are simple. But married with the—to me, unexpected—bitter chocolate, the sauce transcended the ordinary and added a great note to the rich, delicious gravy.
Next day, Sunday, was devoted to the Vatican in the morning and then Porta Portese, the weekly flea market in Trastevere. Walking slowly back toward the center of town, we stopped, famished at Osteria Pucci. And no sooner had I given my order than I was advised, “no pizza for lunch”! “I beg your...what?” No pizza for lunch? Since when is pizza strictly dinner food? Oh, never mind. The Lovely Dining Companion chose a boiled artichoke with garlic to begin and a prawns with chickpeas soup for her lunch. I had pasta. I no longer recall what kind. I don’t remember the pasta, the sauce, or much else about this place. There was nothing bad about it, there was just nothing to make us want to return. Service was acceptable, prices a tad high—but then, we were among the few stupid Americans in Rome with a dollar buried somewhere deep in the sub-sub-basement. We calculated prices during our stay at $1.50 to the Euro and we ended up being dismayingly, dismally close to right. Ouch.
As we wended our way back through Trastevere, over the river, and into the historic center of town, we discovered ourselves at Tre Scalini. It’s a wonderful little spot on the Campo de’Fiori for a mid-afternoon break. The espresso was very good and the Tartufo to die for. I’m not sure it was worth the 7.5€ ($11.25) price tag but it was indisputably wonderful. We chose to enjoy ours senza panna (without whipped cream), in deference to tasting the unadulterated taste experience. Still, having the whipped cream might be a wise way to moderate the intensity of the dish.
Digression number 5:
Dinner that evening was close to the Piazza del Popolo. Although La Buca di Ripetta did not appear on a lot recommended lists, I saw enough positive mentions to mark it down. As a result we were rewarded with one of the best meals during our stay in Rome. We even got a waiter of the kind I had hoped to find: one who advises and counsels, who suggests and steers. We were the first ones in the door at 7:30pm, though the restaurant filled up soon thereafter with what seemed to be mostly locals. The dinner was not without its issues but they were few. Our waiter was properly attentive, erred on the side of formality, but was friendly enough and, more important, helpful. Between his English and my Italian, we managed to understand each other almost completely. He persuaded me—gently—that the baby lamb dish I had in mind might be fine but that the chops were better still. I took his advice—a wise move in the event.
I started with millafoglie di arista (filetto di maiale alle prugne): a thin slice of beef tenderloin, incorporating a slice of prune, was wrapped around some arugula and parmigiano.
This description (which may, I fear, be forgetting an ingredient in the stuffing) was excellent. It was followed by pear ravioli with an orange sauce and shaved parmigiano and a secondo of baby lamb chops. Every course was very attractively plated and pleased both eye and palate. The pear ravioli, which may sound just a trifle odd, worked beautifully. The pear was well-flavored enough that one could discern that it was pear and the acid in the orange sauce highlighted the ravioli perfectly.
The Lovely Dining Companion had carciofi alla giudia followed by eggplant ravioli and—we were in Italy, after all: tiramisu. Her artichokes were disappointing. They were too oily. Even had we not had a superb version a few nights later at Piperno, we would have known that this was not a particularly successful attempt. Our consolation lay in the fact that this was one of the few misses of the night. The ravioli were very good but perhaps a bit too expectable: nothing wrong, but nothing exceptional either.
For dessert, I chose a Sicilian offering: Cassatella tipica siciliana ripiena di ricotta di bufala scoglie cioccolato canditi con affianco di moscato di Noto: deep-fried half-moon pastries dusted with sugar and filled with ricotta, chocolate, candied fruit, all accompanied by a glass of Moscato di Noto.
All in all, we enjoyed an excellent meal in comfortable surroundings. The restaurant has been in its cozy digs for about a century and it has that feeling. We had a wonderful time and would return or recommend it without hesitation.
Although we did not find Il Margutta the first day, it turns out that if we had gone another dozen steps or so around a corner, we would have found it. Determined to eat there, we walked this time until we found it. Il Margutta is famous; in fact, it’s very famous. I’ve seen it called the best vegetarian restaurant in Europe! To say that it has achieved a remarkable level of recognition would be putting it mildly. So much so that I have to admit to a bit of trepidation walking in the door of this restaurant cum art gallery. The expansive space is modern and stylish, with plenty of room and very comfortable seating. The waitstaff—at least the night we were there—seemed entirely composed of people in mid-20s. The menu was extensive and intriguing. There were a number of degustations, many of which I found quite appealing and we were intrigued to find quite a large number of vegan selections as well. (For those interested, their menu is online at their website, listed at the end of this review; I’d encourage you to look at it.) It is, no doubt, evident from what has preceded this paragraph that we are not vegetarians. But good food is good food. And if it happens to be vegetarian, fine.
I began with a disk of pecorino baked in an almond crust sitting atop a bed of chicory, accented by a few slices of pear. The cheese was lovely and cooked precisely the right length of time. It maintained enough structural integrity to deal with it even as it nearly melted in your mouth. I would never have thought to pair pecorino with crushed almonds, but that’s why they’re running the restaurant and I’m not.
Following that I had trofie alla Siciliana with eggplant, olives, and capers. (Trofie is a traditional Genovese pasta in which a thin, one- or two-inch cylinder of pasta is rolled and twisted into shape, the final product resembling nothing so much as a screw with two tapered ends.) I order strudel stuffed with zucchini and ricotta for my secondo.
I thought the strudel a little dry but otherwise admirable, and found myself greatly enjoying the “vegetarian experience.” I’m not sure what I think of eating in a space that doubles as an art gallery, but we were pleasantly surprised at the number of people there on a mid-weekday evening, only a few of whom appeared to be tourists. To cap the meal, I ordered a pear/cinnamon tart with vanilla ice cream and amaretti.
LDC chose the stuffed squash blossoms to begin, followed by a spinach soufflé with deep-fried squash blossoms and a parmigiano truffle sauce. Sadly, the soufflé was small, dry, and surprisingly salty. What made that the more disappointing was that LDC had specifically asked for a recommendation between the strudel and the soufflé. Not knowing that I was about to order the strudel, he pooh-poohed it, suggesting that one could get that anywhere. But the soufflé, he said...ah, that’s special. Only we make that and it’s a specialty of the house. You must order it. So she did. And what had sounded and looked so promising proved to be a disaster. Its failure stood out the more starkly for the success of all the other dishes. While none of the dishes were startlingly good, all were well-executed, beautifully presented, and downright tasty.
In fact, I think Il Margutta’s presentations were the most appealing (and artistic) of those we had during the week. Although it was obvious that great care went into things at Checchino dal 1887 and Piperno, one had the sense that both places justified their presentations on the grounds that they have always done things that way. Their presentations were attractive, to be sure…and expectable. Only La Buca di Ripetta offered presentations that seemed to match the high quality of the food.
And, of course, some places just put the food in front of you. Case in point: Cacio e Pepe. This was the place that proved the old adage that you can’t go wrong relying on a tourist guidebook! You read that right. The best lunch of the trip was at this establishment, plucked, partly out of desperation, from the Lonely Planet guidebook. It was one of a very recommended places in Prati (the middle-class neighborhood northeast of the Vatican). In fairness, the book probably recommends only a few since there are almost no tourist sights here and thus little reason for most tourists to be up here.
The restaurant is one door down from the bank on the corner and its tables oozed all the way to the corner, like an amoeba. The day we visited was sunny, if a bit cool, and every one of the many tables was filled with students, business people, or other locals. Though our server insisted that tourists are common, we heard not a word of any language but Italian. Service is brisk and efficient. No menus because the choices are limited: there were four pastas when we visited: gricia, all’Amatriciana, carbonara, and the eponymous cacio e pepe. (I also recall a soup of chickpeas and something and pasta e fagioli; the website mentions secondi; we were too stuffed after the pasta and no one else seemed to be having anything but primi either.)
Simple home cooking done perfectly. Superb pasta. LDC opted for the cacio e pepe and I ordered the carbonara. I cannot imagine better preparations of these classics. (In the interest of complete disclosure, LDC pointed to a smallish pool of olive oil remaining in the bottom of her bowl. I hadn’t thought olive oil would be an ingredient in making that dish, just pasta, a little pasta water, lots of ground black pepper, and freshly grated pecorino. But the small pool of oil was indisputable.) Now, I will concede that the atmosphere, weather, friendliness of our half-American, half-Sardinian server helped. Still, it was the best pasta I’ve ever had. I would recommend this place unhesitatingly and return in a heartbeat.
Though we didn’t follow lunch with anything on this particular day, coffee—or more precisely, espresso—was often on my mind. I had read about just how devoted Italians are to their coffee but the clincher was on a visit to the out-of-the-way Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (the walls of the city, that is). It is a fascinating place, the second largest basilica in the world, and it dates from the third century when Constantine constructed a church on what was believed to be St. Paul’s burial site. (In fact, in late 2006, a sarcophagus labeled Paulo Apostolo Mart[yri] was found; the church is still deciding whether to open it.) The original basilica has been expanded and rebuilt many times over the millennia, and it is a beautiful site, including lovely, graceful cloisters and gardens. (They even have a gift shop complete with a large variety of home-made liqueurs!) But I bring it up for the small refreshment room, filled with snack machines and a coffee machine. But not just any coffee machine. I count at least eleven kinds of coffee, not to mention several kinds of hot chocolate and even tea!
…and speaking of espresso. As a recent convert, I tried espresso as often as I could. For the most part, I lost track of the places I had it. Sadly, I never made it to Tazza d’Oro. But I made the hadj to Sant’Eustachio. In the event, it turns out I’m a drinker not so much of espresso as of macchiato. That word, meaning “marked” or “stained,” receives a small amount of milk, thereby rendering it—to my palate at least—perfect. The verdict of a man still relatively new to the beverage: I didn’t have any bad espresso. I had a many good to very good cups. But the Sant’Eustachio was quite impressive because of its intensity, an almost overpowering cup nearly completely lacking in bitterness. The flavor was full, deep, and rounded, and I regret only that I was unable to visit more than once. Expensive ($3) but well worth it.
Dinner that Tuesday evening was at La Matricianella, a place spoken of favorably by many but by no means universally. We were, once again, the first customers of the night. After a brief confusion our reservation was found and we were duly seated spitting distance from the kitchen door. The three rooms here are small and the tables set close together. Softly lit with checked tablecloths and wicker chairs, the walls are decorated with copper pots and a large number of framed reviews (Mimi Sheraton’s is stuck in an out-of-the-way, visible only to those who visit the restrooms!) Best of all was the huge leg of prosciutto San Daniele on a carving stand, close enough to our table to reach out and touch. The restaurant exudes warmth and comfort and gives the impression of having been here for a very long time. We were given menus—you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more authentic, truly Roman, set of choices, I suspect—and began to study them carefully since not everything was translated into English and not everything was in our lexicon.
No sooner had we made our final decision than he arrived! We nicknamed him Gusteau, after Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille. He was one of the hits of the evening. Not that he was friendly, warm, helpful, or otherwise pleasant. Gusteau was about six-foot two or three and probably weighed in at around 280-300 pounds. A very large man with long hair and a somewhat imperious attitude. He was responsible for a number of tables and spent no time chatting up the customers. He took orders, answered questions if necessary, and went about his business. He was not there to be your friend, or even your advisor. But he had a sweet side as we would discover throughout the course of the evening. A few carefully chosen compliments and thanks managed to elicit the most genuine, whole-face-encompassing beaming smile I’ve seen in ages.
My dinner began with a bresaola, arugula, and parmigiano appetizer, followed by spaghetti all’Amatriciana, and saltimbocca. The bresaola was plentiful and delicious. (It’s an air-dried salted beef that has been aged for several months during which time it becomes hard and becomes a dark reddish, purple. The thin slices are lean, with a sweetness and depth of flavor that the other ingredients highighted well). Indeed, the three basic ingredients demonstrated quite successfully that food need not be complicated to be delectable. A little lemon to complete the dish. Artfully presented, the dish was delightful.
My contorno was puntarelle. Sadly, neither the picture I took of this puntarelle, nor any other, turned out worth reproducing. (There are some good pics on the internet, if you’re so inclined. I’d particularly recommend one , so if you’re interested, you should take a look at www.gustoblog.it. The spaghetti and the saltimbocca were both good, though I must confess mild disappointment with both as well. It’s not so much that I can point to flaws as that, in the end, neither dish excited me. Both were attractive and both tasted fine. But neither made me sit up and take note. Neither made me eager to return to have them again. Indeed, the puntarelle was a flat-out miss. The portion was ungenerous and the dressing too vinegary. And though I happen to like anchovies, the dish would have benefited from a lighter hand with them.
The Lovely Dining Companion ordered cacio e pepe and an eggplant casserole, both of which were very good but no more. For dessert, I chose dolce della nonna and LDC had a marinated orange topped with candied peel and a light caramel sauce. By all accounts—I couldn’t even manage a taste—the orange was a great success. It’s also worth noting that, alone of the higher-end places we visited for dinner, La Matricianella was very reasonably prices. While all the others hovered around $150 (and Piperno was closer to $210), Matricianella came in at a mere $110. Truly a bargain.
Next afternoon, finding ourselves a block away, we decided to visit Armando al Pantheon for lunch. We were taken aback at the small room but not at the fact that it was already nearly full. Given the location, a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, we were also surprised to find only a few tables of tourists there. Perhaps things are different at the height of summer, but in mid-November the lion’s share of tables were occupied by local Romans. There were enough tables to keep two servers occupied and again, our server’s English and my Italian managed to eke out an order. Notwithstanding the odd dish served by Checchino dal 1887, I ordered bruschetta; this time it came looking exactly like I expected bruschetta to look: slices of bread with chopped tomato, basil, and a good olive oil. It tasted as good as it looked. We each ordered a pasta: I went with carbonara and LDC chose cacio e pepe (clearly, her new favorite dish). As elsewhere, I asked for a glass of house wine and, for the first (and last) time, was given a selection of three to choose among.
Piperno has a long history and a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the Jewish ghetto. Family-run and with a century-and-a-half of history behind it, the setting is very chic and refined…for the 1950s. White-jacketed waiters, rich accoutrements, classic. Ah, but the food! The artichokes, Jewish style, are reputed to be the best in the city so we ordered them. While we don’t have an extensive background in this dish and only had it two other times, I feel confident in saying that these qualified as excellent. Crisp, not greasy in the least. And toothsome. Scrumptious. Makes you understand why they’re so popular.
Digression number 6:
One of the dishes on my list to try in Rome had been gnocchi alla Romana. I hadn’t seen it on a single menu so far. For whatever reason, I had yet to see or have gnocchi of any kind. And so I was greatly pleased to see gnochetti alla fontina on the dinner menu at Piperno. It wasn’t Roman but from Aosta, near the Italian Alps. And it wasn’t, strictly speaking, gnocchi, but gnochetti. But it seemed like it would be my only chance to try anything resembling gnocchi while in Rome. And so I ordered it. Again, my photographic skills were elsewhere. The picture is not worth reproducing. But that recipe most definitely is. Small little gnochetti, about the size of the last joint of my thumb in a perfect sauce. Fontina is a cow’s milk cheese and has a slightly nutty flavor reminiscent of gruyere or emmental. Having had such a wonderful dish, I know now how high the bar is. And I have to return to Rome to start sampling the gnocchi to be had. This was a dish I would have over and over, had I the opportunity.
And then there was the matter of the secondi. The choices were plentiful, the decision painful. But, recognizing that while I might not be in Testaccio, I could still continue to enjoy foods of the “fifth quarter.” So I ordered the animelle di abbacchio. That’s the lamb sweetbreads, Mom. But I’ve had sweetbreads before and I had a good notion what to expect. What I didn’t expect was just how good this dish was. Loaded with meat, braised with artichokes and other good stuff (okay, so my notes aren’t so good...). Another absolute winner.
Dessert. Well, you’ll never believe me. Oh? You think I’m wrong? Okay. Fine. Just remember, I told you you wouldn’t believe it. On the menu, it’s Le Palle di Nonno Fritte. In the words of their English translation, “Fried Grandpa’s Balls.” Poor Grandpa. And yet...and yet.... With a name like that, as the Smucker’s people might say, it just had to be good. So…sorry, Grandpa, but I couldn’t resist. Damn, they were good. Ricotta with pieces of chocolate sprinkled throughout. Shaped into balls which must have been frozen, rolled in something delectable, and then deep-fried. These people know how to fry—not a hint of oiliness. Gooey without being messy. Did I mention that they were yummy?
LDC began her meal with grilled fresh-caught giant prawns, a dish she pronounced among the best of its kind she’d ever had. I managed to cadge a bite and have to say that whatever secret mixture they used to marinate or baste the prawns was remarkably tasty. She followed this with ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta. And finished with a delicacy we’d both seen and tasted already: fragoline, or tiny, wild strawberries. The ravioli were ravioli, which is to say that they were very good, no more. A little disappointing, perhaps, in light of the promise foretold by the prawns. The tiny wild strawberries, on the other hand, superb: intensely flavored, light, and perfectly highlighted by a single scoop of excellent vanilla gelato.
And with that, the week was nearly over. It was Thanksgiving and dinner was approaching. Where to go for our last dinner in Rome? We had researched, we sought suggestions, we talked. We sought more advice. And, in the end, it came to us: our last dinner in Rome had to be pizza. And it had to be Da Baffetto, a pizza spot so widely and highly lauded that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Is it the best pizza I’ve ever had? I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. It might have been. The crust was crisp and chewy and delicious all by itself. But once again Mies van der Rohe came to mind: less is more. None of the American practice of using a dump truck to deliver the ingredients. What was put on the pizza was used in moderation. Or less. Simple, clean, and precisely the right amounts. And that allowed the ingredients to taste like something instead of all melting into an indefinable mass. Everything stood out because there wasn’t too much of anything.
It was damn good pizza. Really excellent. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. I can’t imagine enjoying a pizza more and can remember only a handful of other experiences like it.
And to follow great pizza, for our last food in Rome? Where else? We visited Giolitti again. This time, I split my order: chocolate and orange; the Lovely Dining Companion ordered marrons glacés. Superb. The orange was remarkable for its intensity of flavor while managing to decrease the acidity I would have thought necessary to achieve the flavor. Tiny bits of orange throughout this nectar-like delight. The chocolate was similarly intense and struck a nearly perfect balance between sweet and unsweetened. Though my chocolate preferences have moderated as I grow older (I find myself less drawn to bittersweet and more fond of milk chocolates, I’m very surprised to report), I found this bittersweet chocolate to be perfectly balanced in a way that recalled my initial attraction to bittersweet oh-so-many years ago.
Pizza and gelato. Is there any better way to celebrate Thanksgiving? We’re thinking of inaugurating a new Thanksgiving tradition in our household. And returning to Rome every year to celebrate! Buon appetito.
Despite so many wonderful experiences, so many truly wonderful dishes…I have this yearning, this nagging feeling that there is still better food out there. Maybe it means leaving the big city and going into the country. Maybe it means finding the places we didn’t find. Maybe it means not being so picky. Maybe it means knowing what to order and what to avoid. (Though I’m inclined to believe that if something is on the menu, it should be up to the quality of whatever the best dish is.) Still, I find it intriguing that the two meals that pleased me most were lunch at Cacio e Pepe and Da Baffetto. Perhaps that speaks more to my tastes and prejudices. That said, I would happily return to most of the places we ate—certainly to La Buca di Ripetta, to Il Margutta, and to Piperno. I would return to Matricianella, to Armando al Pantheon, and to Osteria Margutta. But the quest will continue for even better food. And we can’t wait to return to Rome.
* * *
Checchino dal 1887
La Buca di Ripetta
Cacio e Pepe
Armando al Pantheon
Da Baffetto (aka Pizzeria Baffetto)
I know there are other threads on Alinea here. I am starting a new one because I don't think my post falls directly within the initial post subject of the other threads. If it gets relocated, so be it. But my sense is that it (both the post and the restaurant) deserve a new start. And so:
Elswhere, I read the following: "Word of caution: a good amount of what Alinea is all about is surprise. Is too much press a bad thing? Possibly. If you’re planning to go, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time reading reviews, looking at pictures, reading press articles. It ruins some of the surprise and takes some of the fun away…. I feel as though I would have benefited slightly by knowing a little less prior to going."
That was the single best piece of advice I received before going and I’m especially glad I took it to heart. And for precisely the same reasons, I will invoke more of the same writer's words: “If you haven’t been but plan to go, you might skip over the next few paragraphs…—I’d hate to ruin any surprises you may experience. I feel as though I would have benefited slightly by knowing a little less prior to going.” Amen.
Despite my insistence that I had absolutely no interest in trying Grant Achatz’s brand of high-tech cuisine, the Lovely Dining Companion knows me better than I do myself and so we went about a month ago. In retrospect, it having been Yom Kippur, I can safely say that I can’t imagine a better way to break a day-long fast (on one’s birthday) than to eat at Alinea.
I was more than skeptical, I was downright opposed to trying Alinea. Why? Because several years ago, at the annual Food & Wine bash at the MOCA, I tried some cockamamie invention on an impossibly high-tech “skewer.” The skewer reminded me simultaneously of the pins they use to display butterflies and some Tom Swift-y gizmo that he’d copped from the hospital. The food was decidedly not to my taste—so much so that I’ve completely blocked any memory of what it even was. I’ll take my food the old-fashioned way, thank you. Identifiable items served on good old-fashioned plates, with forks and knives!
Since we came back from Alinea, I’ve done quite a bit of reading about Achatz and about Alinea. The best piece has been Corby Kummer’s piece, “The Alchemist.” That it appears in a magazine entitled Technology Review is precisely the kind of information that would have confirmed me in my ignorant opinion had I known of it before we went. If you’ve been to Alinea and haven’t read it, I’d urge you to do so. It’s remarkably insightful. If you haven’t been, let me emphasize dddane’s suggestion above: the less you know the better. While foreknowledge won’t ruin your meal, an essential element of dining at Alinea is the theatricality involved.
“Theatricality” or “theater” is a word that has appeared repeatedly in many of the articles that I’ve looked at in the past week. And I should make clear that I use the word purely as a descriptor, with no negative connotations whatsoever. As Kummer’s essay shows, Achatz has thought long and hard about food and about eating. And my own take on the experience of dining at Alinea is that he has—forgive me, Jacques Derrida—deconstructed the experience. He has considered the elements that comprise a pleasurable meal and he has uncoupled them, the better to emphasize them, the better to alert you to their significance. By doing so, he highlights the synergy that can produce a truly great meal.
We all know, on the one hand, that sight is an integral element of eating anything. Why would so many chefs spend so much effort on presentation were it not so? Indeed, the hoary experiment involving eating or drinking or something with your eyes closed is still a powerful demonstration of just how critical seeing is to eating. Hell, go to your refrigerator at 3 a.m. and pull out a carton of juice. Drink some of it without turning the lights on. Can you even tell what kind of juice it is? You might be surprised. I know I was.
Smell, on the other hand, is a sense equally acknowledged to be critical to our enjoyment of food. And yet how many chefs do much—or anything—to enhance the olfactory experience other than to plate the best food they can? That’s not to denigrate their efforts by any means. Only to highlight what I think part of Achatz’s achievement is.
We had the tasting menu. Several times during the course of the evening, Achatz went out of his way to accentuate the olfactory component of the course being presented. Thus, in the course of an evening, you may find your food served in a bowl placed on a deep charger with a large sprig of hyacinth and orange peel. Even as you are engrossed in the beauty of the presentation, the server ladles hot water over the “decorations,” releasing the perfume of the flowers and the citrus. Achatz also serves duck on a pillow filled with lavender-scented air. He uses a smoldering cinnamon stick as a skewer. He hides a piece of wagyu beef (and matsutake broth) under a stack of cedar and places a rosemary stem where it will be all-but-ignited by a hot brick showcasing small pieces of lamb. Then there is the rabbit served in glasses that, until a moment before, had been filled with the smoke from burning oak leaves. Even the bread and butters (both cow’s and goat’s milk). And on and on. As the cedar and oak leaves show, the scents need not be of the food itself to enhance the experience.
(I should interrupt myself here to note that the “hyacinth” course, featuring lobster, was easily our favorite. The bowl containing the lobster also held another long, butterfly-impaling pin at the end of which was a tiny pastel-colored cube dusted with fennel pollen. Underneath, several chunks of lobster, some braised sunchoke, and slivers of orange, all wading in an rich buttery broth. The cube—Jello with a Ph.D.—set the stage: concentrated with just the right amount of acid. The lobster itself was probably the single best two or three bites of food I’ve ever eaten. “Velvety” or “silky” cannot begin to describe the lobster or the sauce: sheer unctuousness, almost obscenely decadent. Had more than three bites been offered, I shudder to think of the consequences.)
Kummer wrote: “…it was the rosemary scent mixing with sizzling lamb fat—an almost primeval emotional trigger, the kind Achatz says he wants to pull--that made this the climax of the meal…. Semiridiculous as these tricks sound, they exploit the evocative power of scent, memories of which lodge in a primitive storage area in the brain. Scent works: that lamb is the dish I still think about months after I had it. But the meal did not lack for other high points, in which artful visual and olfactory shocks were essential.”
That’s it. Precisely. By diverting your attention to the presentation, including its emphasis on not just the visual but the olfactory, too, Achatz forces you to recognize that the experience of eating a piece of beef entails far more than just eating the meat, no matter how superb the beef and no matter how perfect its preparation. It’s unlikely that you will think as much about the experience of eating at any other restaurant in the world. (Hyperbole but still largely accurate)
Our meal was not perfect. There were courses that we both agreed didn’t work—at least not for us. But the two or three such courses that happened to fail us were so far overshadowed by the astonishing achievements of the other courses that it would be churlish to complain. Given the nature of the meal, the timing requirements, the number of other diners, we were served by some four or five different people. Some were more excited by the theatricality of the presentations than others, a few of them overly so. Some were clearly reciting scripts. Notwithstanding the surprising range of seriousness about the food itself, all were engaged and engaging—save perhaps that evening’s sommelier, who was intent on both demonstrating his superior knowledge and doing so with occasionally snide condescension. Several attempts to engage him in a serious discussion about a particular pairing failed.
A word about the pairings. As with the food, it would have been too optimistic to expect every pairing to be perfect. But, notwithstanding two glasses that I flat out didn’t like (Franco Martinetti Monferrato Rosso "Sul Bric", Piemonte 1999 and Gianfranco Furtan Castelcosa Schiopettino, Venezia Giulia 2005), some of these choices were inspired. I knew I was in for quite a ride when the first glass was set down: an extraordinary concoction of champagne, Lillet blanc, and aquavit! Among the especially successful treats were a breathtaking sake (Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo, Hiroshima Prefecture) and a just-about-perfect Moscato d’Asti (La Spinetta Moscato d'Asti "Bricco Quaglia" Piemonte 2006)
As I noted, some of our servers seemed more taken with their role as magician than with recognizing that the magic was in the service of the food. But to deny the essential place of that magic would be to diminish Achatz’s achievement. Theatricality is part of the experience at Alinea. Knowing in advance what will happen won’t affect the taste of the food but it will, inevitably (and, in my judgment, negatively) alter your experience. And Achatz’s point, if I may be so bold as to presume that I understand what he’s trying to achieve, is the totality of the experience. You could go back the next night and have the same exact dinner (pace Heraclitus). The food will taste as wonderful, but the “shock of the new” will be gone. Textures, tastes, combinations, will all still be “new”—but they won’t be shocking because you’ve had them before and you know what to expect. You know that the fascinating creation awaiting your pleasure will be hot or cold, velvety, bitter, or will simply explode in your mouth. And that shock is truly indispensable. It is what makes Alinea, Alinea.
Smells and presentations are only the visible part of the iceberg, however. Achatz has taken extraordinary care and effort to think through virtually every aspect of the dining experience. He has partnered with a designer to create unique—and uniquely appropriate—“implements” for presenting and serving some of his creations. Hence the surprise that a lot of the courses come with instructions. The server tells you how to eat what he or she has placed before you, or handed to you. (And no, it’s not always intuitive.) When Achatz places the food on “plates,” the plates are similar enough to ordinary plates to deserve the name but distinct enough to catch your attention and focus it on the food in a way that ordinary plates never will. I could go on and on: the design of the room, including its lighting, colors, decorations, and even the tables and chairs. The Alice in Wonderland surprise that awaits your first steps inside the front door. Achatz has forgotten nothing. His attention to detail, his meticulousness are literally inspirational. You may not agree with or even appreciate every detail, but I cannot imagine anyone eating at Alinea and being able to walk away without having had his or her preconceptions about dining out challenged—in the best possible way. You may agree with Achatz, you may not, but you won’t think about the experience of eating food the same way, ever again.
P.S. Some may wonder, as did we, whether Achatz’s illness has affected the quality of the food coming from the kitchen. We have no way to know whether he was there when we visited, but judging solely by our meal, there is no cause whatsoever for concern.
P.P.S. I have purposely not illustrated this post with pictures. For the terminally curious, there are close to 2,000 photos posted on flickr.com All you need to do is go to the website and type in “Alinea.” You’ll see a wide range of shots, some excellent, most merely okay, but all illustrating the imagination and meticulousness I’ve written about above (as well as the serving…“implements” and plates). Or if you want to see stunning pics and a wonderful review of the 24-course tour, take a look at the blog, skilletdoux.
After a very long and fascinating process of selecting places to eat dinner during our mid-November week in Rome, we have settled on a number of classic places. Reservations are in place at Piperno, Checchino dal 1887, and Armando al Pantheon. A few others are pending (notably La Matricianella).
But the biggest problem is finding a good place to eat on Sunday evening. After trying to find out who's open when (there is often conflicting information on the net), I've narrowed our choices to the following: La Buca di Ripetta, L'Orso 80, Taverna degli Amici, and Antico Forno Roscioli. Ditirambo had been on the list but a friend and frequent visitor to Rome advises us that it has slipped a bit of late. After studying the various websites, menus, and reviews available online, I'm still not certain. So, I'm posting to ask anyone with experience of any (all?) of these places to help me sort them out. Anything you can tell me would be most welcome. Thanks!
I've spent the last several days reading various threads relating to Rome. At length and carefully. I've taken notes and I've printed things off to take with us. But I don't agree that if I read them I'll "find what people here think are best in category." I will find extensive lists and lots of opinions about what's good (and what's not) and why. But I haven't found many posts saying that X is the best restaurant for...veal...in Rome. Or the best restaurant for something else (with the likely exception of gelato).
I'm honestly not sure I understand how it's too much work to pick one restaurant that you think is the best of its kind in a category and mention it. You're welcome to ignore the request if it's that much work--and I'm sorry to have offended. I honestly thought that the request was reasonable, and I still do.
We'll be in Rome in mid-November for about a week. While I have spent countless hours researching and will continue to do so, I would be foolish not to take advantage of this board and the collective genius residing therein. Remarkably, for a couple that loves to travel and, indeed, met in Tibet, we're embarrassed to admit that somehow neither of us has ever made it to Rome before.
But I've posted too many times on Chowhound and elsewhere asking for the best [whatever I thought I wanted at the time] to do it again. Besides, that limits you to filling in MY blank. I want to get outside the box here. So, I'm asking for your recommendations. What is the best [YOU choose the category] in Rome? There is only one limitation: we'd prefer Roman (or at least Italian) food. I don't want recommendations for the best sushi or the best German food in Rome. I want the best of its category so long as the category is Roman. So it can be the best food in town, or the most romantic place, the best service, or the most expensive (or the cheapest). Let your imagination be your limit. What truly unique, extraordinary, unexpected, or special place would you send us to?
Our last night in Rome will be Thanksgiving evening. I'm tempted (but not committed) to doing your suggestion on that last night. So tell me: what's the best [fill in the blank] in Rome?
We'll be flying to Lake Tahoe in January (okay, Reno, and renting a car); it's a surprise anniversary present for the Lovely Dining Companion. (Who else would take his wife from winter in Chicago to winter somewhere else?) Our last visit there was far too brief (one night) and the dinner we had (Le Petit Pier), while pleasant-ish, was not something I want to repeat. I've done my research (such as it is) and can't seem to settle on a place. We're staying in King's Beach but we'll have a car, so we can go a ways. (That said, having just driven in from Reno in the pm, I'm not eager for a long drive.)
The reviews I've seen tend to name the same (relatively small) list of places over and over, which is both helpful and not. Thus, I gather that my short list should include the Big Water Grill, Le Bistro, Frederick's, and perhaps Plumpjack's. Opinion seems more divided on Lone Eagle. (River Ranch, while well spoken of, doesn't sound like LDC.) My problem is that few of the discussions have talked much about food and service of particular meals; they've been more like "recommended" lists. Why should we go to Big Water Grill and not Le Bistro (or vice versa or something else)?
To the extent it helps define special for the purposes of this request, price is more or less irrelevant; I'm thinking upscale, on the quieter side. No specific preference as to cuisine which is less critical than the quality--both food and service. So...where should we go on a nice (hopefully) snowy evening in mid-January?
I have posted below about a vertical tasting of Pedro Ximénez, or PX, sherry—a very sweet dessert wine—from Bodegas Toro Albalá. Since I posted here seeking advice on what to pair with the PX for the tasting, I think a report on the outcome is in order on that topic as well.
Once the bottles were finally on order, I turned my attention to the “menu” portion of the event. I have been to many wine tastings but never to a sherry tasting. Certainly never to a tasting of something as unusual as PX. I began to research. I looked on the internet, I read books, I spoke to people. Certain items—blue cheese, dried fruit, dark chocolate—were regularly recommended. Others—poured over vanilla ice cream, nuts—were occasionally mentioned but didn’t quite engender any enthusiasm on my part. Then it occurred to me that I might post in the most logical of all places, food sites. So posts went up on LTHForum, eGullet, and Chowhound. And the recommendations multiplied. Salt caramels, poured on vanilla ice cream, flan, fresh fruit, Snickers bars….Okay, maybe not Snickers, but the rest of it and more. I began to read cookbooks. Wine pairing articles and books. Spanish culinary histories.
One couldn’t just have a tasting of PX, after all. As was pointed out quite appropriately, a light meal afterward would probably be a good idea for any of a number of reasons. And if a light meal after was advisable, perhaps I ought to begin with a few small plates to line the belly and whet the appetite. So cookbook research began in earnest. Should I focus on Spain? Yes. Should my choices be limited to Andalucian food? No—but only eventually. So recipe choosing began to take up larger and larger proportions of my days. And evenings. The planning was beginning to assume a life of its own. A good life, but a life nonetheless.
Then I made a fortuitous connection. As a result of one of my postings, I was fortunate to correspond with several posters, most notably Maria Lorraine Binchet. Based in California, she’s a professional food writer with—fortunately for me—an expertise in wine and food pairings! We covered a wide range of ideas in our correspondence (some good (hers), some not so good (mine)). I posed questions, she graciously deflated my test balloons, offering along the way, a series of well-thought-out, time (and taste-) tested ideas. And I spent a little less time reading and a little more time thinking. Ms. Binchet also had the innovative idea of suggesting (no small shock to me at the time) that I actually open and taste the bottles themselves to get a better notion of where I wanted to head. Simple suggestions are often the wisest.
So I began to pare down my ideas for before, with, and after. I always knew that the tasting would be small and open (as opposed to blind)—ideally no more than half a dozen people. The serving logistics (not to mention the number of glasses) were too daunting for a larger group. Although I briefly flirted with the idea of getting a room in a restaurant and coping with the use of professionals (or even hiring professionals to take care of things at my own home), I eventually decided that simpler was easier and more fun. I knew I would enjoy making the dishes and that I wanted to be at the table, not running around in the kitchen during the tasting. So, slowly, the dishes almost chose themselves. I opted for recipes that “aged” well. Things that, prepared in advance, would mellow or improve with a day’s aging. The “before” items were also chosen for simplicity’s sake.
To take the items in order, let me first offer a few quick translations. Boquerones are very mild, white anchovies preserved not in salt but vinegar. Piquillo peppers are uniquely Spanish, mild (a little sweet), and scrumptious. Serrano ham is…well, serrano ham. Sliced very thin and aged like prosciutto, but not quite like prosciutto in taste. A true delight, though. The canape was a spread made the day before of “regular” canned anchovies, finely diced, along with pimiento, onion, and parsley. Those disinclined to anchovies would be disinclined to like the spread. Spanish chorizo is, unlike Mexican, a much firmer sausage, tasting noticeably of paprika to my palate and available for us both in “regular” and hot. Everything here was designed for ease of handling (there was plenty of LaBrea Bakery baguette slices) and maximum flavor.
What to accompany the PX remained the hardest of choices. I realized very quickly that there had to be something to clear the palate, a water of some sort, and I agreed with the suggestion of several to serve a straightforward soda water. In the event, the bubbles and slightly basic pH were the perfect foil. And the rest of my choices, as you can see from the list, were pretty much the classics: dried fruit, chocolate, and cheese. I chose to serve one cheese, Manchego, on the side with homemade carne de membrillo (quince paste)—a quintessential Spanish dish. The other cheeses were chosen, with the benefit of considerable advice, to represent the classic (Roquefort and Valdeón, a very different French and Spanish blue), the offbeat (Fiore Sardo is a pecorino from Sardinia), and a more accessible option: Idiazábal. It’s a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, a little nutty, buttery at the same time and, not coincidentally, also complemented by the membrillo.) The blues were served, as Ms. Binchet (and others) recommended, with a dark honey (in this case, one of my favorites, a thyme honey).
Dried fruit is a—indeed, perhaps, the classic accompaniment to Pedro Ximénez. Like virtually nothing else, the fruit complements and magnifies single notes in the wine. Fig is the best known, but hardly the only fruit to do so. My first assignment was to find a purveyor whose quality I could rely upon. Despite a helpful multiplicity of recommendations, I ended up choosing a company in California that delivered even better than I could have hoped. The Bella Viva Orchards (http://bellaviva.com/Dried-Fruits-and...) offered a wide selection of fruits in a different weights, making the ordering much easier. (Again, recommended unhesitatingly: luscious, highly flavorful dried fruit.)
After more dithering, I chose Mission figs, Bing cherries, white nectarines (for the acid), and pluots. The last is a cross between a plum and an apricot. I had toyed with buying apricots for some time, but also find myself personally drawn to plums (not prunes, plums). Why not split the difference? I bought a pound of Dapple Dandy pluots. (Okay, so the variety’s name leaves something to be desired. I dare you to taste them and utter anything except superlatives.) Were I to plan another tasting (not inconceivable, all things considered), I’d drop the cherries and the nectarines, I think. What I would go with in place of them—if, indeed, anything at all—remains an open question. Apricots, perhaps. Dates, also a possibility. Prunes…not out of the question either.
Pan de higo almendrado is another Spanish classic: fig cake with almonds. Since figs are one of the most common descriptions of a flavor note that the PX would evoke, anything fig-like made sense. So I offered both the dried fruit and the cake. In the event, the cake tasted (again, to my palate at least, mostly like dry figs. I got little to no almond flavor and found the dried fruit far moister and redolent than the pan de higo).
Choosing chocolates was more of a challenge. My own personal preference leans toward the lower percentages of cocoa in the chocolate. So, given a choice between a 50% dark chocolate and a 70%, I’ll go for the lower percentage every time. But I wasn’t sure what would work best with the PX. Or even whether something that would work with one would necessarily work with another. And so I looked for—and fortunately found—a range. (In fact the best part of the chocolate shopping was that I somehow, inexplicably ended up with another six or eight bars that I couldn’t use for the tasting and will be forced to eat as naked, unadorned chocolate. Darn!)
I wanted more things. I wanted to have salt caramels—both for their own sake and to see if they worked as well as some people swore they did. I wanted to try flan (orange, vanilla, maybe something else) to see how well it might complement the PX. I was curious to see how fresh fruit would work—or if it was simply the wrong choice. But after weeks and weeks spent studying, reading, corresponding, and thinking, it occurred to me that if I didn’t start planning for an actual date with real live people, the tasting would become a Platonic event, an obsession to rival Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud.”
So I started to narrow down the dishes, before, during, and after. I knew that eating something afterward would be wise, as several people had suggested, but again the problem was what. What would be reheatable? What would work with what we had just had? What would be appropriate? And so I chose the series of dishes listed above. (Actually, the original menu included two more dishes, but in the event although they were ready to go, I chose not to serve them: ensalada a la Almoraina and atún escabechado. The former is a salad of escarole with a tomato-based cumin dressing that is Andalucian in origin, or so my cookbook promised me. The tuna escabechado was simply white meat tuna marinated with oil, vinegar, capers, parsley, and onion. It tasted exactly like it sounds, although over time the capers pretty much disappeared from the taste and you got mostly vinegared tuna.)
Gazpacho is gazpacho, or so I naively thought. My cookbook (in this case, Penelope Casas The Foods and Wines of Spain) labeled this version Andalucian. I don’t know enough about regional cooking in Spain to identify what is peculiarly Andalucian about it (tomato, green pepper, onion, cucumber, one garlic clove, vinegar, and a little tarragon—no oil, no bread) but it was excellent. For the acelgas I used swiss chard (Casas also recommends collard greens) which is cooked down with pine nuts and raisins and, fortuitously, benefits from being made ahead. Even the albondigas, meatballs from seasoned ground pork, deep-fried, reheated easily and well. If I had it to do again, though, I would have made the baby lima beans [habas con jamon] just beforehand. This Spanish dish brought to mind a Roman one made with favas and prosciutto; I made mine with frozen baby limas (a real revelation to me in terms of taste and zero work compared to preparing fava beans!) and the diced Spanish ham. It did not overnight or reheat particularly well, but the combination was, at least to me, a true delight. (Though, in truth, I may have been overly influenced by the opportunity to taste the dish as I made it…over and over again!)
In retrospect, I have one regret: I did too much. As the time for the tasting approached, I began to fear that my enthusiasms had overtaken my common sense. Though I think everything turned out well, it was indeed too much. Having something before, during, and after, was wise and I would repeat that plan. But there was simply too much food with the sherries and, quite possibly, afterward. I think I’d probably serve the same items again before the tasting. They helped set the mood, offered a variety of items, and indeed lined the belly. The tasting itself should focus on the PX; the accompaniments should complement, not take over. I offered too many things. I’d eliminate the pan de higo and I’d serve only, perhaps, two or three dried fruits at most (figs and plums, most likely). I’d also serve only two or three cheeses (definitely blues and definitely include the honey option). No manchego and membrillo (though, boy, was it good!). Only two chocolates. As to the post-tasting food: I think the individual dish choices were good, but again too many. We didn’t really miss the tuna or the ensalada a la Almoraina. They were fun to learn about but I had so much fun planning that I did too much. The dishes were well chosen for variety and also well chosen for ease of service, all of them being made the day before (with the single caveat on the limas).
I thank all here who so thoughtfully responded to my initial inquiry. I learned a lot from all of you and I learned a lot from the tasting. With so much PX left, I may have no choice but to do it again!
(Several months ago I posted here seeking advice on this tasting. Well, the tasting has finally taken place and, as one measure of my gratitude for all the advice I received, I thought I'd post something about the tasting and the bottles we enjoyed.)
We all have our vices, our guilty pleasures, our secret lusts. But secrecy aside, my list just expanded. Have you ever had a wine from Pedro Ximénez grapes? Sweet. Unctuous. Syrupy. And, to use that hoary advertising language: “sinfully delicious”!
Once upon a time, just a few short months ago, I had only heard of this stuff. Although I’d had similar sweet cream sherries or sherries made from a combination of Palomino and Pedro Ximénez grapes, I’d never had wine made exclusively from PX, as it’s often called, and knew little about it. Then I tasted it and decided to indulge my new lust and share it with others. Pedro Ximénez is the extraordinarily complex, very sweet dessert wine produced in Andalucia, Spain. And once you’ve tasted it—if you like sweet things, that is—you’ll never be the same person again.
I have preferred my sherry dry for many years. My usual choice is palo cortado, a much less well-known style that falls between an amontillado and an oloroso. Fino is the driest of all. Amontillado is both darker and more strongly flavored. The next step is an oloroso. Perched between amontillado and oloroso is palo cortado. Because of the way that this particular kind of sherry develops, barely 2% of sherry that finds its way to the market ends up as palo cortado.
Digression the first: Sherry, unlike ordinary wine, is fortified with brandy following fermentation. If the wine is intended to be made into fino, yeast is allowed to grow on top. Wine destined to become oloroso gets an even larger portion is fortified sufficiently to prevent the yeast from growing. Because the brandy is added only after fermentation has already finished, all sherries are dry; sweetness is added later. Sherry is usually aged and blended in solera systems. Three times a year, about 10% of the wine from the oldest row of barrels is bottled and the casks are replenished with wine from the next younger row (each row is called a criadera). The youngest set of barrels is topped off with new wine just entering the system. The word solera itself refers to both the method as well as the oldest wine in it. It’s a time-honored system in use throughout Spain and one reason why sherry is ordinarily not vintage dated. The sherries we tasted, however, are true vintage bottles. The winery sets aside certain lots of Pedro Ximénez for aging in oak barrels. Those barrels are sealed and left untouched: never blended, never topped off. Authentic vintage sherries are rarely encountered. Occasionally, a miracle occurs. The 1945 was quite simply forgotten: a private reserve of a former owner was rediscovered in 1998 and just bottled a few years ago.
After drinking and enjoying palo cortado for many years, I thought that the time had come to expand my horizons and try an oloroso. Though I had occasionally tried other styles, primarily amontillado, I had never gone in the other direction toward an oloroso. After spending what was undoubtedly far too long a time investigating the subject, I decided on a particular maker and a particular bottle I wanted. To my dismay, when I arrived at Sam’s I found the shelf bare in the precise spot where “my” bottle should have been. I called for help. To my rescue came Jill Mott, one of their Spanish wine experts. We ended up having a lengthy discussion of sherry styles, makers, and other nuances of the trade. I was impressed both with her knowledge, her passion for sherry, and her low-key style. I walked out with several different bottles, including an Osborne oloroso and a time bomb.
I didn’t particularly enjoy the oloroso, but the other bottle exploded into my consciousness. I loved another bottle Ms. Mott had been enthusiastic about: La Noria Pedro Ximénez, a 2003 bottle of sherry made from organically grown grapes.
Digression the second: Pedro Ximénez sherry is not technically sherry at all. In the first place, Pedro Ximénez is the name of a grape variety as well as the wine made from the grape. Although PX grapes were originally used in far greater quantities to make various sherries (along with hardier Palomino grapes), Palomino eventually displaced the use of PX in traditional sherries. PX grapes began to be used to make their own varietal. The grapes are grown primarily in Andalucia, the hottest region of Spain. There, they are picked and dried in the sun, resulting in a wine that is thick, almost like syrup, with—in the best examples—a truly extraordinary depth of flavor. A good PX can call to mind everything from fig to caramel, raisin to molasses, citrus, and still other things…all while resembling nothing so much as nearly black, heavy, motor oil.
I opened my split of La Noria PX innocent of what awaited me. The taste was that time bomb I referred to. I tasted, flavors exploded. I was simply and totally unprepared for the depth and variety of what I was tasting. Too often, at least in my experience, dessert wines are sugary and end up being too cloying to enjoy. A sip or two and you’ve tasted everything the wine has to offer. In part, that can be due to a lack of acid to balance the sugar; or it might just be because it’s not a good wine in the first place. It’s also not so for a very short list of things, things like a top-notch eiswein, Hungarian tokay azsu, or Sauternes. Or, now added to that very short list, PX. There was plenty of acid and, as a result, I drained my glass and found myself inclined to taste a little bit more. So I did. Having done so, decided that this was an area worth much more careful investigation. And, as with so many other food or food-related inquiries, I also decided that this investigation would profit from other viewpoints. So I decided to buy several bottles of PX and have a little tasting.
La Noria is made by the Bodegas Toro Albalá, a distinguished house in Spain founded in 1844 that, happily for me, makes a range of top-notch sherries, including PX still available dating to 1939!
Eventually, I was able to determine that I could arrange a nice vertical tasting with bottles from four decades at this winery: 1945 Marqués de Poley, 1959 Gran Reserva Convento, 1966 Reserva Especial, and the 1971 Gran Reserva that I had already had the foresight to purchase along with the La Noria.
Unfortunately, purchasing these bottles proved to be a challenge of far greater proportions than I had anticipated. The older vintages, which are reasonably available, are only reasonably available elsewhere. Meaning outside Chicago. In fact, meaning outside the United States. But then, in one of those fortuitous happenings courtesy of the internet, I sent an inquiry to a wine shop in the Belgium that carried some of the bottles I wished to purchase. Their very nice reply explained that they could not sell/ship to the U.S. and telling me that they had taken the liberty of forwarding my e-mail to the winery itself. The winery in Spain forwarded my e-mail to Seattle and, in short order, I received an e-mail from a company I’d read about in passing but had previously had no contact with: Classical Wines.
Digression the third: As wine importers, Classical Wines is prohibited under U.S. law from selling directly to consumers. Nevertheless, they champion Spanish wines and helped me enormously with my quest for the bottles I had chosen. (For the terminally curious, they also represent wines from Portugal, Germany, dessert and aperitif wines, and specialty foods. I would encourage you to visit their website at http://www.classicalwines.com and, should they have something that interests you, I unhesitatingly recommend them.) I exchanged a number of e-mails with the company, including its president and founder, Stephen Metzler. Everyone was generous with their time and they arranged for me to obtain all of the bottles I sought at reasonable prices. Although shelf prices may have been cheaper in Europe, without the intervention of Classical Wines, I don’t know if I could ever have bought them successfully overseas, much less afforded the shipping. Needless to say, their advice and assistance were priceless to me.
How I came decided on what to pair the PX with is the subject of another (not yet completed) post. Here, I want to just briefly comment on the sherries themselves—hoping that my fellow tasters will feel free to add their reactions.
The 1945 was the greatest disappointment. Perhaps because I had anticipated it most (based, foolishly, on nothing other than its age), it failed to meet my expectations. That said, I must add that it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “bad” bottle—whatever that might be. Nevertheless, I found it disappointing in itself and distinctly disappointing in comparison to the other bottles we tasted. Most surprising to me were two characteristics: (i) I found it a relatively thin wine, lacking in depth and without the myriad different flavors and aromas we found in the other bottles we tasted and (ii) it seemed out of balance.
Digression the fourth: This is a good place to note that my usual wine-tasting vocabulary—both the words I ordinarily use to describe what I feel, sense, and taste, and the “categories” I use to sort out my reactions—was of little help here. PX is so different from table wine as to demand a completely different vocabulary. PX can exhibit characteristics that are rare or don’t exist in table wine and offer sensations for which my usual vocabulary failed me. This is, of course, neither a bad nor a good thing. But it pointed up just how unique an experience this tasting, or perhaps any sherry tasting, is.
That caveat in place, I found the 1945 to be smooth without being syrupy, sweet without being cloying. It was, I found, the least sweet of the bottles we tasted. But for quite some time I was troubled by the balance issue. Were it a wine, I would have said that the alcohol was out of balance. Indeed, that was my very first comment. But as we tasted and talked, I realized that that wasn’t right. Alcohol wasn’t the problem. Eventually, Gary pointed out that the wine had a slight odor of sulfur. It seemed odd but as I smelled carefully, I detected the same thing. A very faint but noticeable rotten-egg scent was detectable. I couldn’t locate the taste analog but given the significant role that smell plays in taste, there is little doubt in my mind that the scent, no matter how slight, helped convince me that the flavor was “off” in some way.
The 1959 was a gem. Syrupy, intense, heavy, with an astonishing array and depth of flavors. The instant that this bottle hit the tongue, there was no doubt that this was a truly extraordinary bottle. Although we initially thought of it as raisiny, longer exposure and comparison (with the 1966, in particular) led us to change our view to from raisin to fig. Fig is, perhaps, the classic flavor associated with PX. Combined with the variety of different notes we experienced—from molasses or toffee to grape—the lushness of this wine made it the top selection for some.
The 1966 was another striking wine. Although I initially preferred it to the 1959, I eventually changed my mind. Not as heavy as the 1959, it was silky and, like the 1959, presented a great range of flavors. The more I tasted it, the more I found the 1966 to be the “raisiny” one. The wine had, a great deal of spiciness, almost a tang to it. What was most impressive about these bottles was the match of acidity and sugar. As I noted above, too many sweet wines lack sufficient acid to balance the sugar and, after a few sips, the sugar predominates and one simply finds the wine cloying. No such thing happened here. The alcohol content of PX, it should be pointed out, is higher than table wine, at around 17-20%.
The 1971 was the lightest of the four bottles we tasted. This is a comparative description, though, and not in any way meant as a negative. I found it lighter in terms of both viscosity and depth. It seemed to me a more accessible wine for precisely these reasons: there was less complexity to challenge the palate and less complexity to “analyze.” I found that it was more citrus-y than the others, with perhaps some berry-like notes as well. At the same time, it had a light molasses-y undercurrent, if something can be reminiscent of molasses and, at the same time, light.
I am eager to taste more PX. The wine itself has been a revelation to me. And the vertical tasting was even more enlightening. There are other bottles of Toro Albalá that are readily available and, for the scarcer items I will work with Classical Wines to obtain what I can. And of course, there are other makers of PX as well. All of which, I think, suggests the necessity for another tasting (or two…). I am still, by far, a rank beginner in this realm—but I know that it is a realm I will enjoy exploring further.
I posted regularly for years under the same name I'm using now. Then I took a break and didn't post for some time. When I returned I had to sign up again. I did, using the same name. All of my original posts are still here; is there any way they can be connected to my current "account"?
zin1953 wrote: "If no flor develops (often because the wine was fortified to 18 percent alcohol, thus killing off any yeast), the result is an Oloroso -- dark, rich, and completely dry."
Meaning that it will "last" longer than otherwise...say a few weeks? Or am I misunderstanding. I just bought a bottle of Osborne Oloroso--I'm used to drinking Lustau's Palo Cortado--and now wonder if it needs to be completed in days, weeks, or ? Thanks.
At the moment, the thought is perhaps 4 PXs (all Toro Albala: 1945, 1959, 1966, and 1971; I'll add the 1981 if I can find it). Yes, a daunting thought on lots of levels. (And part of me even wonders if it's a good idea....) My initial thoughts have taken me in a number of different directions, from a selection of blue cheeses to fruit (or fruit-based, such as an orange flan)...to nuts (for the salt, ditto the cheese). If it's a tasting, though, instead of a meal, I'm afraid not to serve something more than simply a sparkling water, though I like that idea as well.
I've had this notion of hosting a vertical tasting of Pedro Ximenez and the idea keeps rattling and rattling around. I'm having trouble with two things: should it follow a meal or be done on its own? That's number one, and my sense is that, given the nature of the stuff, for its own sake makes more sense. I think it would just be too much to try following a full-scale meal. Second issue then arises: what to accompany? I've participated in countless wine tastings, but this isn't the same thing. Fruits and nuts and cheeses logically suggest themselves, and I suppose that all three should be available, but this kind of tasting is new to me and I am seeking all advice, experienced or otherwise.
Thanks for the kind words--and also for the helpful advice upfront.
I'll check with LDC later, but I honestly don't recall the price of the cab, though my recollection is that it was the better part of $20 (we were staying at the Argonaut at Fisherman's Wharf).
In fairness to Scoma's, the half-crab that LDC had was "only" $19 and my snapper was either $22 or $24--so they were among the more reasonable (or at least among the cheaper) options available.
And, by comparison to our fallback--Ame--even Scoma's looks like a bargain!