Tuesday, January 30, 2007

bravo to BEBO, Roberto roves across the river

I am sorry to have gotten a bit behind this week, it's been a very busy one for us. Our only restaurant outing, however, was the exciting new bistro started by Chef ROBERTO DONNA across the river in Crystal City (2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA) which is Chef Donna's new first home while the building that Galileo in downtown DC is under renovation.

To start with there is complimentary parking after 4pm in the garage underneath, and this location is a mere 12 minutes from our home making it a very simple trip. We hope to return again soon with Samuel, as BEBO is really a trattoria with many different options for dining, even the tasting menu that Chef Donna has become famous for is available from time to time.

We were invited by our dear friends for a very special birthday celebration, so our meal was completely pre-selected, and we adored everything from our first sips od DIAMANT BLEU 2001 Sparkling wine from FRANCESCO SCANAVINO. We sat at the large center wooden table (with not so comfortable wooden chairs, but not horrible either) the center of which is recessed and implanted with dried marigolds covered with glass. The overall color is orange with eight three-storey tall orange pillars dominating. I would prefer to keep away from the door on a cold night, despite the double doors, but once inside the warm feeling prevails, as many of our old friends from Galileo have made their way across the Potomac, especially our superb server Alberto.

Our first course was a superb SEARED SCALLOP over ARTICHOKE & BASIL CREAM SAUCE that we had to use all the available bread up begging for more! The CASCINA ORSOINA "Rosana" 2004 Chardonnay paired with this course was super-creamy and perfect for scallops, lobster, or rich shellfish.

Our next wine was a surprise and impressed us all at the table: GAJA BARBARESCO 2001 has a huge earthy intensity, but once opened for about 30 minutes turned super smooth retaining its manly intensity. The PAPPARDELLE with DUCK RAGU has always been one of Chef Roberto's signatures, as all his pastas are, and this was a terrific homemade pasta as we always had at Galileo, I only wished for a bit more of the sauce which was so magnificent.

One can not dine at any of Roberto Donna's tastings without multiple pastas, let alone risotto, and ours was a heavenly creamy and rich FOUR CHEESE RISOTTO made from Gorgonzola (just a touch so that it was not to intense), PECORINO, ROBBIOLA and PARMEGGIANO REGIANO. We were all truly in ecstasy with the Gaja and this dish, and luckily had a nice break afterwards to enjoy everyone's company, and of course, finish off the Gaja!

Our next wine could not have been more impressive: SASSICAIO 2003 BOLOGHERI from Tenuta San Guido is a super-Tuscan that we will always remember, and the RACK of LAMB off the bone in POLENTA with CIPPOLINI ONIONS in a COFFEE SAUCE with Balsamic Reduction was a novelty to all of us. We could not guess the coffee at all, and it all worked sublimely.

Since our friends brought with them a superb birthday cake from CAKES by GERARD, Chef Roberto had to lavish us with a cheese course of COPPERFIELD BLUE, a nice lighter Maryland blue goat cheese PECORINO di FOSSA from Italy that was excellent (as all Pecorino is) BRINATA, an Italian sheep cheese BUCHE NOIRE another Maryland goat that is extremely creamy and aged so
it carries a warning.

A glass of LIMONCELLO is a tradition with Chef Roberto, and this time we all partook before wobbling home, satisfied, but knowing that while Galileo may be gone for now, BEBO is back!

Incidentally, the name "Bebo" is Chef Donna's childhood nickname.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The RESTAURANT at Las VENTANAS is lovely and a wonderful last supper(Los Cabos)

We ended up making an excellent choice for our final meal just next door to our hotel at the gorgeous Las VENTANAS al PARAISO resort's THE RESTAURANT. This is one of the most elegant restaurants around, and with the weather having cleared we were able to down outside under a huge palapa with tons of those Mexican metal stars with lights inside twinkling down on us. Upon being seated diners can switch napkin colors to avoid lint, but I think the funniest thing about this area is the MAJOR competition on those little "purse holders" that they bring over and set up next to your chair so you don't have to sling anything over the seat back!

Our table overlooked a huge pool with duo guitarists playing on the other side in front of a large fire; the ocean was below in the back where at 8pm a Mexican fire dance was performed as part of a local evening at the other restaurant.

Will's frozen margarita was the size of a small house (say 14 ounces?) and mine straight up with salt was nice, but still we missed Gerardo's superb ones.

We spoke with the sommelier extensively about Mexican wines and opted for a LA LLAVE BLANCA 2002 from Vincola TORRES ALEGRE in Valle Guadalupe (northern Baja near Ensenada) which was 85% sauvignon blanc and 15% chard, but very oaked. The wine had a horrid nose and smelled bad, but in the mouth and as it opened up it was minerally with lots of fume oak, a wonderful choice. I also noted that our bottle of Casa Madero which cost $30 the night before at El Chilar, was $14 a glass here!

First cam the three salts (from France, England and the Himalayas) each one being for a specific type of food, then came the AMAZING breads: SUNDRIED TOMATO BASIL rolls that looked like cinnamon rolls because they had so much tomato inside, a super CHEDDAR JALAPENO and the best LAVOSH on earth: PUMPKIN SEED RED PEPPER and many other spices that I wanted to buy a ton of to take home--we did ask for more.

I started with the ESTEAMED (even here they have spelling issues) MUSSELS with TEQUILA, COCONUT MILK and CHILE de ARBOL with tiny croutons. These were some of the best mussels ever, plump and almost creamy; they were from Ensenada as well. I had to spoon up all the leftover creamy rich spicy sauce as well. Will opted for the CRAYFISH ENCHILADA with "Mole POBLANO" Cream & Fresh Cheese. This was a nice preparation, but the crayfish were masked by the intense mole and chili; a dish like this really needs a meat filling to come through well.

We both chose local Red Snapper dishes but two totally different preparations:

Will went for the traditional HUACHINGO a la VERUCRUZANA with Potato Puree, Tomato, Olive, Bell Pepper, Capers & Olives in the Verucruz Style, but Chef Nigel's version several nights earlier was richer and thicker, more to my liking, although this was superb.

My RED SNAPPER XOCHIMILCHO had a MUSHROOM PUREE and a CORIANDER JALAPENO Sauce that was heavenly and a small Oaxaca Cheese Enchilada as well.

On the only real sad note of the evening, they brought our entrees less than one minute after clearing our starters, so we had to speak up. We got the general response that most folks like to eat fast, but they would redo the dishes when we were ready. It is a shame that people do like to eat fast in such a glorious setting with such excellent food and service; so do speak up when you sit down, and this won't happen. An odd choice of OIL SORBET came as a palate cleanser, but it was refreshing if odd.

We were full, but could not skip dessert. Will could not decide between the CREME BRULEE TACOS with Chocolate Ice Cream, Caramelized Bananas and Coffee Foam, which was really more of a custard filled canneloni taco, one vanilla and one chocolate, but quite nice. His second choice, which the waiter brought out as a gift was the TARTE TATIN saying the Pastry Chef was French. It was the oddest tasting apple tart we both ever tasted and sadly left it apologizing to our kind server. My SOPAPILLAS with LEMON CURD, CARAMEL SAUCE and TEQUILA ICE CREAM were superb, although I felt they could have been served warm as I like my sopapillas that way. The small fried doughnuts were excellent and the caramel yummy, but the Tequila Ice Cream was creamy, rich and a yummy ending to our stay in here in Los Cabos, where it has finally warmed up as we get set to go home. FIGURES!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

EL CHILAR -finally a deal in San Jose del Cabo

On the recommendation of our butler, Gerardo, at Villas del Mar, we headed out to a final dinner with Samuel in downtown San Jose del Cabo, just 10 minutes away from our new hotel, The Marquis Los Cabos, which I honestly won't be recommending to my clients. But that aside, we arrived at the quaint modern Mexican restaurant and it was pretty quiet just after 6pm. By 7pm, they were turning folks away on a Tuesday night as the place was completely full; lucky we had a reservation made by Gerardo!

Needless to say we quickly ordered Samuel a CHICKEN QUESADILLA which he ate about 1/4 of, but still behaved wonderfully as we munched on. The restaurant has two sections and we were in the newer one with reddish and white walls, leather chairs and wine bottles and a huge wine theme throughout. Indeed, the bar at the rear was covered by paintings of wine magazines. A duo of guitarists came by, clearly willing to play for money, which the folks next to us did not seem to comprehend.

We ordered a bottle of CASA MADERIA Cepa CHARDONNAY 2005 which is one of the Mexican wines that appear on most menus and is quite reasonable. Our bottle was $30 and had a peachy nose with melon and apple on the tongue and just a hint of oak.

As we had had that wonderful and filling lunch at Esperanza we decided to split an appetizer of the CHILE RELLENO de QUESO CREMA y SALMON CURADO con CREMA de AGUACATE. The smoked salmon was superb and there was not much cream cheese, which I felt was a good point. Corn and vegetables filled the pepper (which was not spicy at all) and gave a nice crunch to the dish; the sauce was creamy avocado and superb.

We quickly asked our waiter for a rest before the entrees and he did so to perfection, but when our dishes arrived they were sadly lukewarm, though absolutely delicious. Will's DUCK ENCHILADAS had a dark corn tortilla wrap with zebra-like white stripes of cream and were served in a CHILIMOLE Sauce and served with RICE & ALMONDS. My SHRIMP BROCHETTE came with six huge crustaceans on two wooden skewers with a CREAMY CHILI CHIPOTLE SAUCE, Refried Beans, and a crumbly cheese on top (they called it cottage, but it was a bit tastier and drier--like ricotta). The shrimp were moist and delicious and the sauce had a slight punch that really made ME happy we ahd found this place.

Sam enjoyed his dessert of CARAMEL ICE CREAM while we had our entrees and it was superb. How surprised we were to find out it was Haagen Dasz CARAMEL ICE CREAM CONE ice cream with chunks of cone and chocolate! No room for dessert for us so we headed home and crashed PRAYING for better weather.

excellence at ESPERANZA in Los Cabos

Another dreadfully cloudy and cold (well 60 degree) day here in Los Cabos, so Will and I ran down the coast to one of the newest and most luxurious resorts for a look-see. ESEPRANZA is part of the Auberge Group which includes the famous Auberge du Soleil in Napa (which I just wrote about 7 weeks ago) and many other beautiful luxurious resorts. We were convinced that this is a great place and the lunch we had was simply superb, not to mention quite reasonably priced. Many of the hotels here charge huge amounts for the luncheon plates (often $20-30) and we were pleased to see most dishes under $20 and many excellent wines as well much better priced than what we have been seeing here in Los Cabos.

We split the CEVICHE CAROUSEL which holds the four ceviche of the day: DORADO with SMOKEY CHIPOTLE, WATERMELON, ROASTED GARLIC SCALLOP with CILANTRO TUNA with AVOCADO, MEZCAL, Olive Oil & SOY SHRIMP with COCONUT MILK, PAPAYA & LIME with a chili spice to boot A small side of GARLIC AOILI and also HOT HABANERO SALSA comes as well as yummy chips. All were fabulous, but the spicy shrimp and the dorado were my faves.

Will opted for the CHILE GLAZED CHICKEN TACO with SMOKED CHEESE & Charred TOMATO-CHIPOTLE SAUCE which was nice, but paled next to my GRILLED FLANK STEAK TACO with GUAJILLO CHILI which was heavenly. These both come with guacamole, red rice and black beans making this much more than a meal. Overlooking Punta Ballena and the Sea of Cortez one can even see the famous LOS ARCOS (arches) that separate the sea from the PACIFIC several miles to the west.

It was a most enjoyable lunch and place we hope to return to again.

Monday, January 22, 2007

MOSTLY can not can't at CANTO DEL MAR in the Marquis Los Cabos

We sadly departed our villa yesterday with the hopes that one of the top hotels in Los Cabos would not be such a letdown. Samuel was the most disappointed to go from a four bedroom villa with private pool and jacuzzi to a 1-bedroom suite with a sofabed for him in the living room, and a wading pool on the balcony. It is, however, quite a beautiful resort here at the MARQUIS LOS CABOS and if the weather would clear up, we would probably be very happy.

After leaving Samuel with Nora, his sitter here for the week, we went two floors down to CANTO DEL MAR, considered one of the top dining spots in the area. The teeny room hold no more than twenty diners, but we were the only two there at 7pm. Another couple appeared at 9pm, but that was it for a Monday night. We asked if Chef Thierry was in, but even he had disappeared due to the truly small crowd. The intimate setting is in a colonial style room with beam ceilings, with an excellent guitarist strumming away, but even Will felt a bit odd with us being the only ones there for two hours. CANTO DEL MAR has no menu, it is basically a verbal choice of two items on the first toe courses, then you have to hope you like the rest of the menu or?

My guess is that the wine list which lists no vintages is printed every several years as they were out of the Franciscan Chardonnay we asked for at $80 a bottle (are they really INSANE here with prices??), so we chose the $70-something WENTE RIVA RIDGE RESERVE 2003 from Monterey, Calif. which was really perfect, if overpriced.

The evening started with our first AMUSE this trip: a mediocre trio of SHRIMP on CARROT SLICE with Shellfish Reduction & Pistachio that was excellent, a Dry overcooked ROAST BEEF with Port Vinaigrette on Cucumber, and a Cream Cheese with Apricot, Black Sesame and Honey/Saffron Sauce (this truly could have come from a tacky party menu).

Will started with the SHELLFISH CANNELONI, Caviar and Fig Vinaigrette which was yummy but I much more adored my FOIE GRAS NAPOLEAN layered with DUCK PROSCIUTTO and served with Grilled Tangerine and Orange, Almonds and a Balsamic Vinaigrette on the Greens. The sad dry brioche and bread accompanying were basically left untouched.

Course #2 was a choice of soups and we both opted for the PUMPKIN SOUP with OPEN ESCARGOT RAVIOLI, Smoked Turkey, Red Pepper (where was that?), Zucchini and Carrot. It was a decent soup, but it needed an influx of Mexican spice for sure.

The local LOBSTER TAIL with PUFF PASTRY, Mashed Potato/Eggplant Puree, Asparagus and White Wine Cream Reduction with Tangerine Butter was HEAVENLY! This was FRENCH CUISINE at its best and were perfect with the Wente Chard.

At this point I started to notice that the rattan chairs were a bit uncomfortable as I was not quite upright, and the chairs were a bit too low for the elegant white lace woven cloth covered tables. A pillow was provided VERY quickly by the excellent and kind staff (I can't help repeating HOW NICE the folks are here in Los Cabos) Our LAMB with Caramelized LIME JUS, Parmesan Risotto, Green Beans & Carrots was perfectly prepared as requested and the thick rich sauce had a wonderful spice element to it. It took all evening for the chef to brave the Mexican spices and bring them to the fore; something we enjoyed so much everywhere else. We felt the CONO SUR (get the pun?) Merlot 2003 from VALLE de COLCHAGUA we chose by the glass was mediocre at best.

Desserts were split with an ALMOND SUCCESS of MANGO APRICOT CHABUZ (?) Cream, Coconut, Raspberry and Mint and a GLACE NOUGAT with Orange Jelly, Glaceed Fruits, Dark Chocolate Mousse a spun sugar SWORD with a pistachio hilt and mango and chocolate sauces(maybe there was more?). I have always enjoyed Nougat, so it was enjoyable, but Will felt that it had a grassy taste of sorts, so he opted for a mediocre glass of port to wash it down.

So-CANTO DEL MAR is a romantic and special place, with a mostly great menu (unless you get stuck with something you don't like as it is so limited), but a memorable occasion with great service to boot. Of course, we had two meals today, but as Will and Sam have both passed out and I need a bit of rest, I'll report on those tomorrow....

Sunday, January 21, 2007

musings on CABO cuisine(Cafe Sante Fe in Todos Santos; Agua at Palmilla)

Just a short summary of two other dining experiences here in southern Baja California over the past two days. On Saturday we headed north for part of the day about 90 minutes from here to the artist colony and adorable town of TODOS SANTOS. I didn't do my homework that well since the trip was very spur of the moment, and we ended up at one of the most expensive dining spots in Baja for lunch. Cafe SANTA FE is a beautiful setting with gorgeous gardens and elegant as well; the cuisine is ITALIAN with a hint of Mexican and Samuel and I split an albeit very large plate of PENNE ARRABIATA with a mildly spicy (they said they would bring extra spicy peppers on the side, but forgot) sauce made from local peppers for over $20 (at lunch!). The FRITO MISTO sported lots of deliciously fried foods in a tasty batter that was as crispy as could be, not a hint of greasiness and the RAVIOLI with Spinach & Ricotta in a Cream Sauce was also superb, but ridiculous at some $25+. We all skipped dessert knowing that our multi-course dinner cooked by Nigel would be much better and more reasonably priced to boot.

Last night we returned to AGUA at the ONE & ONLY PALMILLA Resort located seaside just below us. This is where our whole experience in Los Cabos began a year ago and we were expecting another wonderful meal. Indeed, we recently found out that an old acquaintance, Chef Larbi Daroush, who worked for many years in DC with our famed dear friend, the late Jean-Louis Palladin, is Executive Chef here, but alas it was his day off! We drove our golf cart down the hill and entered the beautiful grounds lit by giant fires in urns along the driveway. Sam got his requisite coloring books and toys from their box of goodies for kids and he was happy with his Fries & Chicken Fingers, but I don't blame him for leaving most of the fingers as they were not the best, and quite dry.

We did like the small ensemble of guitars and violin with a female vocalist that made us feel like swaying in the breezes. An excellent bottle of CASA GRANDE Gran Reserva 2005 CHARDONNAY from Valle de Parras in the Mexican wine region of Coahuilla was slightly okay and buttery and perfect for our palates and all the food. This comes from the oldest winery in Mexico dating to 1597, but I must admit it is hardly worth the $120 or so price tag. I fear the restaurant wine prices here are so inflated at 500% over US prices that it is truly a ripoff. We have even been told the market price of these wines locally is only 20% more than at home, so the markup is really unforgivable. As Sam rattled off the colors of glass on the pretty stained glass wall in Spanish, we enjoyed the superb HUMMUS and ROASTED PEPPERs on the Olive Focaccia, Parmesan Tomato Flatbread (which Sam also adored) and other breads.

I started with the ROASTED PIQUILLO PEPPERS Stuffed with GRILLED OCTOPUS, LOCAL CHORIZO in a Tomato Marmalade and CREAMY SERRANO Pepper Sauce that was superb and nicely spicy from the sausage. Will's BAJA SHRIMP ENCHILADAS with OAXACA Cheese in GUAJILLO SAUCE also made perfect use of Mexican delicacies.

My entree was less successful as the ORGANIC PORK "PIBIL" consisted of an overcooked and dry Pork Chop but a superb pulled pork with a yummy HUITLACOCHE TACO (made from the local mushroom with dabs of Goat Cheese) with an ACHIOTE Salsa. Oddly the Sweet Potato Puree appeared as diced potatoes.

Will fared much better with one of the best fish dishes Agua has: ROASTED PARROT FISH with ARTICHOKE BARIGOULE, Oven Dried Tomato, Sauteed Asparagus and Squash Blossom Tempura.

The desserts were simply gorgeous to look at but WAY TOO SWEET. The MEXICAN CHOCOLATE CAKE was flourless and rich with a DULCE di LECHE thick Caramel sauce and Ice Cream and was quite dense and intense. The BAJA LIME PIE with Vanilla Meringue was odd in that the meringue came in pencil shaped cylinders stuck vertically into the pie. The Graham-Cracker crust was superb, but again the filling just too sweet for me.

My GINGER LEMON Tea came with the prettiest teabag looking like a pyramid, but sadly the water was not hot enough, Will fared better with his Mint Tea. Neither of these were a touch on the BASIL TEA prepared by Nigel in the villa for breakfast that morning. It was loaded with spices and basil and a touch of tequila to soothe the throat. Sam adored the FRUIT RAINBOW JELLOW with Fresh Berries--he even used one of his favorite letter songs to describe it: "the 'M' says mmmmm."

We received a pretty plate of truffles, crunchy pralines and excellent DATES dipped in WHITE CHOCOLATE before heading back up the hill to our villa for the (sadly) last night before moving on to a new hotel today. More food reports coming.....

Saturday, January 20, 2007

no tough duck...or dinner in our Villas del Mar casita is creative and a coup!

Saturday night we originally had plans to dine at the top location here in Baja California, and perhaps much of all of Mexico. "C" is the home of famed chef Charlie Trotter and is located in the One & Only Palmilla Resort located below our cliffside villa. HOWEVER, upon arrival here at VILLAS DEL MAR and dining Thursday on a monstrous buffet from the most wonderful sauteed Sweet Mexican Peppers to Shrimp Dishes, Guacamole, Chicken, Salsas, Salads and so much more we were totally wowed by our English chef NIGEL FIELD who actually grew up here and boasts training at the SAVOY in London at its height in the 70's and subsequently as the Michelin-starred chef at Paris' "La Petite Fromage." Incidentally he was also highly involved in the cooking for the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

So, needless to say, we opted to cancel "C," and dine in the luxury of our villa on a multi-course meal prepared with great love and care by Nigel and his wonderful wife Mercedes. They were more than ably assisted by our truly warm, considerate and attentive butler, Gerardo, who incidentally is an architect, but also the architect of the best Margaritas in town (so much so, that every time he leaves the villa, we must ask for another pitcher to be left in the fridge!).

Samuel had his pasta meal and was quickly off to bed at 730pm in his room, and we sat down at 8 to dine for hours on what easily is the best Mexican meal on earth, and truly one of the most enjoyable dining experiences we all ever had.

After a round of margaritas we sat down at the elegantly set table with one of the most amazing glass blown 7 foot tall chandeliers hanging from the 14 foot high ceiling. Our first wine was a CHEHALEM 2003 Ian's Reserve CHARDONNAY that we had brought with us and its very unoaked essence and forward fruit was perfect with the SAUTEED GIANT (and they were gigantic) CAJUN SCALLOPS with Mango Sauce, Mango Salsa on the side and Wilted Leeks. It not only woke our palates up, but got us very excited about what was to come. Nigel did say the heat would start big and go down from there, but we didn't care...it was superb.

MANCHEGO Cheese Stuffed JUEROS Chilis came in a CREAM CHIPOTLE SAUCE and surrounded by a cooked EGG WHITE (think, Egg Foo Young) and served with SAUTEED SHRIMP and Fresh Mayonnaise. This was a novel local chili and a wonderful combination of flavors again that just elevated our enjoyment and really had us on edge for what was to come.

Our second wine was a CUVAISON 2004 Carneros CHARDONNAY which is always a winner in my book and goes with everything. For this, it was a ROASTED CHICKEN & MANCHEGO CHEESE ENCHILADA with Sauteed Zucchini, Scallions and a to die fore MOLE SAUCE made from 31 herbs, spices and chilis. While this mole employed chocolate, it was understated and truly the best ever we had all experienced.

Warm Water SOLE VERACRUZANA came next with JASMINE RICE and the traditional "Veracruz" style sauce of olives, tomato and anchovy, here with leeks and poblano chilis. What I truly liked was the extreme "thickness" of the sauce as the Veracruz tomato-based sauce is truly awful when it is thin.

At this point we opened a second bottle from home of POGGIO al TUFO 2004 ROMPICOLLO which is a mid teen $ range Chianti that worked excellently with the ARRACHERA or FLANK STEACK stuffed with PLANTAIN and served with Asparagus in a Two-chili sauce made from those local wonders: Guajillo and Arbol. Originally another course had been planned, but we had to hold off as we had enjoyed way too much. As a special request, the staff had picked up a magnificent TRES LECHES from a local bakery that again easily beat anything we had ever had before. The creamy milk-laden cake was sweet, but tasty and not overdone and had coconut and a not too rich frosting that had us all raving. A glass of BARBOURSVILLE 2002 MALVAXIA (also from home) had us ready for bed and thanking Mercedes, Nigel and Gerardo until they walked out the door. Boy, were we glad we skipped Trotter's place for dinner with Chef Field, and there was no tough duck, like when Chef Charlie Palmer cooked for us!

A side note must also be added that the staff prepares breakfast and lunch for us as well and we have had some of the most exquisite LOBSTER & CRAB SALADS, dishes and salsas around. Also, when Will came up with the brilliant idea of a huge ENGLISH BREAKFAST for yesterday, Chef Nigel dashed into the fray to prepare the most perfect of fried eggs on Fried Bread with sauteed mushrooms, sauteed tomatoes, bacon, ham steak, baked beans and Lord knows what else. Will was in heaven and we were all full moments after we woke! However, the simple piece de resistance of Chef Nigel's preparations has been the delicious homemade strawberry & mango yogurt we have enjoyed daily, especially Samuel, who adores yogurt and will now demand homemade at home, no doubt.

Again, we must stress that the staff here at Villas del Mar has got to be the friendliest on earth. We have loved them and their preparations and will be so sorry to leave tomorrow, but will be happy to know we are staying several more days in this magnificent corner of heaven on earth.

Friday, January 19, 2007

what's cooking in LOS CABOS (Mexico) at Mi COCINA

We arrived here at the southern tip of Baja California on Thursday afternoon after a long trip from the East Coast with our dear friends Juan & Mel. We immediately proceeded just outside of the quaint town of San Jose del Cabo to our villa in the gorgeous VILLAS del MAR complex. I will tell you MUCH more about the food at our villa, because it is SIMPLY SPECTACULAR, and I really want you all to come here and experience this truly magnificent place (like out of Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, as Will says) and I also want you to book it WITH ME! You may remember that exactly one year ago I wrote to many of you about our stay for the day at THE ONE & ONLY PALMILLA Resort next door to our villa here. To remind you, we were off the cruise ship for the day and had the most wonderful stay at the resort. Well, we asked about the gorgeous villas we noted above the resort and found out more and returned to what will undoubtedly end up being the BEST VACATION we have EVER HAD IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD! Indeed, while I sit here in our huge villa's dining room, our chef, Nigel (who has even cooked for the British Royal Family is fixing a monstrous multi-course dinner in the kitchen which I can smell every single element of at this very moment (so SNIFF).

OK, more on all that in later postings, to keep you excited and to be sure you don't stop reading the future emails this week.

Last night we dined in the usually romantic, elegant and beautiful MI COCINA in the CASA NATALIA Hotel in the center of San Jose del Cabo. Sadly, the rain had come for a day and a half (it rains here 5 days a year according to everyone) and they had to move the tables inside from the wonderfully lit courtyard with fountains. We started off with some of the specialty cocktails including a "Flor de Mexico" Martini made from Absolut, Flor de Jamaica Juice (concentrate of hibiscus) and lemon juice which had an herbal essence and was quite dark and tasty and a tasty Sandia Watermelon Martini made from watermelons grown locally, vodka and sweet & sour juice. The Margarita was good, but to quote Will, not a touch on those made by our butler Gerardo at the villa the previous day!

The top award of the evening goes to the bread. We felt it bested any bread just about anywhere. The warm tasty focaccia was superb, but the brioche-like popovers were melt-in-your-mouth AMAZING, both served with an excellent Chili-Shallot-Garlic Olive Oil.

The wines (which incidentally have the largest markup of virtually anywhere in the world in ALL of the local places) started with a LUIJI BOSCA SAUVIGNON BLANC RESERVA 2005 "Lujan de Cuyo" from Mendoza in Argentina that was bursting with cirtus notes. It was great with the Pan SEARED GIANT SCALLOPS (not so giant), AVOCADO TARTARE, Sweet Potato Chips and Chipotle Salsa. My superb CHILE RELLENO was a huge POBLANO Chile stuffed with CARAMELIZED PORK FILET, Sauteed Vegetables, Pine Nuts and served in a delicious light "Chile Guajillo" Almond sauce made from a local chili. The Black Bean Soup got an okay, but not much more.

We moved on to a GLORIA FERRER 2004 Carneros Chardonnay which was nice, but nothing fabulous, while Mel had a mediocre Cabernet by the glass with his slightly chewy NEW ZEALAND RACK of LAMB with PAPPARDELLE PASTA, Ratatouille and Grilled Asparagus. The SEAFOOD RISOTTO had nice chunks of local lobster, shrimp, bay scallops, crayfish and clams with an AXIOTE-CILANTRO sauce that was more tomato than anything else, and just seemed to overpower the whole dish. The only really good entree was the PAN SEARED HALIBUT with Rice, Vegetable Tempura and Balsamic Reduction.

We returned to excellence with the desserts and chose the LEMON MERINGUE TARTS and CHOCOLATE TARTS which were superb, indeed the former had some of the tartest lemon and tasting meringue ever.

We must applaud the excellent service of our server JULIO CESAR (yes, that's Julius Caesar!) and indeed everyone in the hotel/restaurant and the entire region as they all are truly the warmest, friendliest folks anyone could hope to find on a vacation in the tropics!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Samuel sups at CORDUROY for a fine finish to DC Restaurant week

Yesterday Samuel was 3 years and 7 months old and he really behaved like a mensch at his first really FINE dining experience with linens, crystal, etc. at the wonderful CORDUROY (located at the Sheraton Four Points on K & 12th Streets, NW). It's been well over a year since our last visit so we decided to take advantage of the $30.07 three course menu which has been offered an dozens of places in town during this past week of RESTAURANT WEEK.

I arrived a bit before Will & Samuel and set his place with some small trains and cars, and alphabet puzzle and crayons with paper. When he arrived he was overjoyed (almost shocked) and set out to have some fun quietly in his place. The lighting is subdued, the colors are muted and the atmosphere very relaxed at Corduory and Sam seemed to fall in at once, save getting excited when we told him the Cinderella and Superman ate dinner just the night before at the next table! I ordered a bottle of ADELSHEIM AUXERROIS 2005, a rare relative of the Pinot blanc grape brought to Oregon in the 70's. It has big hints of apple and a totally wonderful refreshing flavor; a true novel find these days, especially in the warm 60 degree weather we are experiencing. It was perfect with my LOBSTER CARPACCIO with MIZUNA Greens which had an intense lemon flavor rather than vinegar used for the "cooking" of the carpaccio that was just right. Chef TOM POWER's signature LOBSTER SALAD with Basil is always a treat as well, and Sam settled into his HOT DOG & FRIES, of course. He even ate the sliced tomatoes, but quickly told us, "You can have a lettuce," not being a greens person.

As I took him to the bathroom we saw a handsome young couple entering; he in sport jacket and she in a classy black cocktail dress. Sam immediately knew they were Cinderella and Superman, but he refused to go over and say hello. This went on all evening, as he can be so shy, until Will actually approached the couple at the next table and they discreetly gave Sam a big wave that made his day.

The entrees were easily as impressive and as Samuel finished his Hot Dog, Will adored the BRAISED BEEF CHEEKS with TARBAIS BEANS and I fell in love with the PEPPERED RARE BIG EYE TUNA with SUSHI RICE & HIJIKA(seaweed) that was dressed with a Sesame Sauce and some Lotus Slices. The huge chunk or perfectly rare tasty tuna was slightly spicy and just what I wanted. A VOLNAY from DOMAINE JM BOILLOT 2002 was available in 1/2 bottles at a good price, so we had this excellent Pinot Noir that was smooth and yummy with our entrees.

Dessert was also just as impressive, with the ever-present signature MICHEL's CHOCOLATE HAZELNUT BARS that Tom Power has the blessing of Michel Richard to serve and Sam simply feel in love with. My PISTACHIO BREAD PUDDING was just what I wanted to fill up on before we all waddled home and put Sam directly to bed.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Thomas HENKELMANN's HOMESTEAD's(Greenwich,CT) hefty ratings a bit high

Over the weekend we celebrated my Dad's 84th birthday at the renowned THOMAS HENKELMANN's at the HOMESTEAD INN of Greenwich, Connecticut (http://www.homesteadinn.com). This quaint Relais et Chateaux location just off Long Island Sound is a quiet retreat in the true style of a French Country Inn with impeccable service. I had been looking forward to dining here for many years, and the perfect opportunity arose to have my parents, my siblings and the grandchildren (minus Samuel, of course) all together for this rare assemblage.

Chef Henkelmann has the esteem of having the highest Zagat rating in all of Connecticut and one that even exceeds all the dining establishments of the Mid-Atlantic region as well, save the Inn at Little Washington (which it almost ties!). You can well imagine we were expecting perfection, as well as a truly special dining experience. While the food was excellent, I was disparaged by the overall lack of sensation I really wanted to depart with.

Our large table of nine was in a cozy booth, which sadly suffered from two air conditioning vents. being located on either side of us, so that someone always had a draft on their neck. The warm high 60 degree evening temps made the a/c necessary, but the staff did turn it off periodically, so we do not have to suffer for three hours straight. The Inn is old and quaint as I mentioned, but they desperately need to solve this problem if people are paying over $100 per person to dine.

We started with MANY bottles of excellent LANDMARK "Overlook" 2004 Chardonnay from Sonoma which is always a winner, and I was happy that everyone at the table liked my choice. When I opted to "upgrade" to a DUTTON "Palm Vineyard" Chardonnay as the appetizers arrived there was a severe delay and the sommelier brought a NON-vineyard designate Dutton to the table. When I mentioned that this was not the same wine, and definitely not the same price he came back with the "Palm" which was room temperature and we declined. I asked the price of the Dutton non-vineyard designate and he had no idea, so we quickly had to rush and get another bottle of Landmark as many of us had empty glasses and the food was arriving. This was a delay that really should not occur, and they should have simply said, take the chilled cheaper Dutton for X Dollars, and I could have opted to or not, but they did not.

In advance, I had asked the kitchen to please accommodate my nephew who is a vegetarian and eats no fish. Upon arrival, they basically offered him the ONE baby veggie starter, or the peas soup without bacon, and an entree of similar baby veggies with either pasta or mashed potatoes. I was quite shocked that a kitchen and chef of this caliber offers no truly inventive options for vegetarians. The amuses came (and no veggie option was proffered for my nephew as well) which was a tasty GOUGERE CHEESE Puff with Halibut & Salmon Mousse.

I do have to admit that the food quality was excellent and the portions quite huge. No tasting options exist, so it is basically appetizer, entree and dessert. The portion sizes would preclude any extra courses indeed. My CRISP SAUTEED SWEETBREADS with French Style Peas and PERIGORD BLACK TRUFFLE Sauce was superb, and I did marvel at the presentation of my nephew's adorable Baby Vegetable Dish which he said was perfect.

The breads were decent with Potato Bacon (of course not for my nephew) Rolls winning the top honors, but nothing worth writing home about.

We switched to a superb JEAN-MARC BOULEY 2002 VOLNAY that was a brilliant example of fruit forward and intense Pinot Noir from Burgundy. It was excellent with almost all the entrees from beef to veal to fish. My GRENADIN of VEAL with MAINE LOBSTER RISOTTO, Parmesan Lace and WATERCRESS PORT WINE Sauce was again superb. The veal loin was at least 8 ounces or more over a huge plate of risotto with a whole lobster tail atop. It was just so big, I felt imposed upon to finish it, and doggie bags are really silly when you don't live nearby. Again, I don't fault the food or the chef, just the basic concept; I truly felt I was back in the 60's or 70's at a pre-nouvelle French restaurant.

Dessert was also quite good and much more innovative (that's the word I was looking for) with my VARIATION of PEAR: Crepe, Sorbet & Mousse which I adored. the WARM VANILLA BREAD PUDDING with Apricot Filling, Apricot Sauce & Lime Yogurt Sorbet was another innovative dish, but I was quite surprised that it came cold and really was more like a tart with pudding that a bread pudding.

A bottle of ROYAL TOKAJI 5 Puttonyos 2000 was apricoty and intense and kept us dessert wine drinkers happy as we munched on the mignardises consisting of fruit tarts, almond paste tart and the oddest little delish crunchy chocolate things that had an eerie resemblance to poop (we called them poop tarts).

Would I return? Yes, but I might ask in advance if the chef would consider preparing a tasting menu, as I think his cuisine is superb, but needs some INNOVATION and excitement.

Friday, January 05, 2007

So sue me cause I keep saying SUSHI-A-GOGO in NYC at Lincoln Center

I know that you are all tired of hearing about the same places over and over, but I can't help feeling that SUSHI-A-GOGO right across the street from Lincoln Center on Broadway at 62nd St is really the PERFECT place for pre-concert/ballet/opera dining in the Lincoln Center area. My main reason for this is that sushi and green tea are just right before heading to a 3 or 4 hour opera! They fill you up, but don't weigh you down.

Last night I started with an excellent OSHIDASHI, a spinach salad marinated in PONZO with Peanut Crumble, that was just right, and satisfied my vegetable group quite well. The YELLOWTAIL/ASPARAGUS/PAPAYA ROLL was superb, but paled next to the daily special called a SNOW WHITE ROLL (don't you love the name?) of SPICY TUNA, GREEN APPLE, LOBSTER SALAD, YUZU TOBIKO and a SWEET & SPICY SAUCE on the side. Sushi-a-gogo has some of the best sushi specials around and the sauces they make for them are perfect, so much so that you forget the ginger, soy & wasabi altogether. This was one of my all-time favorites.

Sadly, they were out of the Mushroom Soup with Gyoza which is always one of their finest daily soup specials, so I will have to return again later this winter for that!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


We started off dining out for the new year on the third day of the year and made an excellent choice at NOTTI BIANCHE, which easily wins the category as finest dining closest to the Kennedy Center, as well as just a great place to go. (www.nottibianche.com). It was also fun to be on our first night out here in Washington, the newest SMOKE-FREE dining and bar zone citywide!

While NOTTI BIANCHE may have only taken home Rammy in 2006 for Best Manager of the Year, it received nominations for both Rising Chef and Pastry Chef, and I am quite confident we will see more nominations again this year from them.

The ambiance is simple, quiet, subdued with exposed cielings, mirrors and not much froufrou; it is the food that stars here. I adore the modern Italian proverb #15) that is on the entryway, "The use of cell phones interferes with the making of risotto." We allowed CHEF ANTHONY CHITTUM to do his work and just bring us several dishes; there was not one disappointment.

We started with a glass of Prosecco which was joined by a plate of three starters: GRILLED FLATBREAD with WHIPPED SALT COD that was creamy, delicious and smooth. A tasty GRILLED STUFFED SQUID with Pinenuts over ARUGOLA, and a wonderful LOBSTER CANNELONI over Shaved FENNEL and Citrus. It was hard to choose which was best, since they were all terrific.

Next came two dishes which we promptly split: BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO with SEARED FOIE GRAS, Aged Balsamic and Toasted Pumpkin Seed was a dreamy dish, and proves that more and more chefs in DC are hopping on the talented Risotto-makers team started by Roberto Donna and carried on by those who have worked with him over the years. This was paired with an excellent CAMARA white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay & Riesling that was just perfect with the dish.

The CANNELONI, stuffed with AMISH CHICKEN, SWEET ITALIAN SAUSAGE and served over Sauteed BABY SPINACH with SHEEP RICOTTA & PARMESAN CHEESE, was another brilliant stroke of mixing Italian pasta with some different American ingredients creating a superb union. The amazing KALI-HART PINOT NOIR from Monterey was simply to die for with this as well.

Our entree was again two (times two) dishes which we quickly agreed to split between the four of us, and entitled LAMB ONE WAY and LAMB TWO WAYS, thus making LAMB THREE WAYS: A LAMB STEW with Glazed Baby Vegetables, GREEK YOGURT& FRIED ROSEMARY BREAD BALLS was another ingenious marriage of styles and super-tasty too. The other plate was a simple LAMB CHOP CRUSTED with WHOLE GRAIN MUSTARD & Japanese Garlic/PANKO mixture and served with a deconstructed MINTED LAMB RAVIOLI that had a braised lamb stew under the slightly minted green ravioli layer with WHITE CANNELONI PUREE, TOMATO PASTE & LAMB JUS....another dream come true, and I don't car much for mint!

The wine was another novelty called CLA 2003 from Lombardy and is a blend of Barbera, Oltreppo and Pavese grapes with an intense plumminess that has a really sweet nose with lots of fruit like a Pinot Noir, but was excellent on the tongue, with a hint of burnt caramel.

Our server Jason was a dream in filling our glasses and keeping us informed of what was being served, but we were not ready for the lineup of three glasses each for dessert. Two of use received a flight of GRAHAM's TAWNY PORT of 10,20 &30 years old each and the other two a flight of LUSTAU SHERRY consisting of an extremely dry JARANA, an Amontillado called ESQUADRILLA and a superb sweet Pedro Jimenez called SAN EMILIO. We, of course, had to each taste all 6 wonderful pours, but agreed the sweeter sherry and the port were more enjoyable after dinner.

The two desserts which we promptly split came from Pastry chef HEATHER CHITTUM (wife to Chef Anthony) and showed her off excellently. The NOT YOUR NONNA's TIRAMISU is a "trump" on the traditional with a chocolate cylinder box of Mascarpone cream and Chocolate Pearls decorating it with a Lady Finger. It is accompanied by an AFFOGATO or scoop of GELATO in ESPRESSO. While this was novel and fun, it did pale next to the magnificent CREME FRAICHE PANNA COTTA with FLORENTINE ALMOND COOKIE TOP swimming in a luscious compote of RAISINS, CHERRIES, FIGS & CURRANTS. This is one dessert NOT TO MISS!

A great start to what will hopefully be a great year!