Tuesday, July 31, 2007

munching in MONACO--cuisine at CASTELROC

On our day ashore in Monaco earlier this week we were so lucky to be able to plan to meet my dear client and friend, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore and her darling sisters (they are ALL THREE darling!) Kathy & Wendy. While touring the town, we ended up at the Place du Palais in front of the Prince's Palace right after the 11:55AM changing of the guard. The top recommended place around fro dining is CASTELROC which turned out to be a real treat, and 1/2 the price of the previous day's awful lunch at La Posta Vecchia and this was for SIX people instead of FOUR! Indeed Sam's STEACK HACHE (hamburger) and FRITES (Fries) was a superb burger seasoned and cooked to perfection and included an ice cream for an amazing 11 Euros (quite a deal compared to several pieces of bland pasta the day before for 50% more!).

The location is right on the square facing the palace and the sea with breezes flowing and a wonderful terrace setting that was still classy with linens and crystal (I loved the odd oblong water glasses!). We all chose local plates of small Monagesque (not, Monacan, please) specialties. Mine included a selection of them all featuring a Spinach quiche with flaky amazing pastry various "petits farcis" or onion, zucchini and tomato with stuffing and the truly native BARBAGUIANS a beignut pastry like bowtie filled with spinach. The plate was completed by another tasty local dish of farina or cous-cous mashed into a thick French fry like oblong. A delicious Rose and the best butter and fleur de sel (salt) for the bread filled us up. Even the coffee (cafe au lait) was superb and came with a plate of fabulous chocolate mini-souffle like muffins and mini-palmiers (flaky Elephant ears).

Yesterday's pizza in Pisa was good but uneventful and tomorrow we will hopefully have a tapas report from Barcelona!

ALAN at sea somewhere south of the French Riviera.

Monday, July 30, 2007

pass on LA POSTA VECCHIA on the Italian coast of Lazio near Rome

Today, as we had a break between two 10-day back-to-back cruises in the Italian port of Civitavecchia here on the Italian coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea we decided to visit LA POSTA VECCHIA just 30 minutes away (and less than an hour from Rome, and under 30 minutes from the Rome Airport as well. This property attracted me due to this wonderful seaside location and the fact that the 17th century Post House was owned by J. Paul Getty until it became a luxury hotel of some 19 rooms. It sits next to a castle on the coast and is truly a gorgeous setting.

Lunch, however, was not as enjoyable an experience as it should have been. While Sam gobbled up his PENNE al POMODORO, I was in shock with the 15euro ($21+) for a child's portion that was extremely small to boot. We loved the delicious homemade breads especially the Rosemary Focaccia with nice large chunks of sea salt, and the delicious JALE Chardonnay from SICILY was a superb reminder of our first visit to this exciting and fabulous island the day before (sadly, we had no time to dine on Sicily--just grab pastries and do a quick wine tasting on the slopes of Mt. Etna--where we had some of the best coffee ever at the summit!). Anyway, The amuse can be described as odd at best and a sad foreshadowing of what was to come. The chef has a penchant for the now passe in the USA "foam thing" and we got a tomato skin in a foam of mozzarella that simply had no taste and was quite boring. If this was an amuse, I wanted no more amusement.

The ROMBO e GAMBERONE appetizer was described as a carpaccio of shrimp with other items and peach as well...it was mushy and totally disgusting in texture.

The ACCUIGHE FARCITE BACCALA was anchovy with cod that was much better, but one must consider the former priced as an appetizer at 23 euros ($32+) to be a rip-off. We tried the pastas as entrees and the GNOCCHI di RICOTTA were quite nice, but no prize winner, another pasta (I can't remember the name) was bland and quite small, while my TAGLIOLINI were coated with a superb cheese sauce making it the winner of the day in a meal that was so sad for the most part.

Finally, the sticker shock would have set in for even Mr. Getty with a 2 scoop gelato dessert for Samuel costing 15Euros ($21+) and the entire bill for four adults and Sam came to 258 Euros with beverages or a cool $363 (or about $90 per person for under 2 courses each) which I have actually NEVER spent on a 2-course lunch before even at JOEL ROBUCHON in Paris!

As we sail away, I can only hope for better prices and food in Monte Carlo for lunch tomorrow!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

PROTO-dining in Dubrovnilk for $$$$

Our first port on this 20 day Mediterranean voyage was DUBROVNIK, which I think anyone would fall in love with instantly. After a three hour walking tour and another 1/2 hour on the city walls in the 95 degree heat we were ready to chow down.

I had several suggestions from tour books, magazines and even the on-board port lecturer. We decided to listen to our private guide (which I WON'T DO next time) and dine at PRONTO in the center of the Old City. A simple wooden ceiling restaurant with linens, china and good service, we were in extreme shock when we saw the prices on the menu. Yes, the kuna (local currency) is 5.4 to the dollar, but when the appetizers are all over $10 and entrees tending to $30 and up for lunch in a city when the huge ice cream cone is under $2,00 it is daunting to say the least.

Luckily, the food was excellent. As always, the "cover" includes bread for about $3.00, but here also included a simple amuse of a small piece of bread with marinated anchovy, lemon, olive and tomato that was a true amuse...a hint of what was to come--excellent seafood. The wine was a POSIP KRAJANCIC dry aromatic Croatian white from the region that excels in wine (this IS where Mike Grgich, the famous Napa winemaker came from!). was tasty, but we had no clue what type of varietal or what it was akin to. The waitress said it would be great

with our seafood choices, and she WAS right on. The COLD OCTOPUS Salad featured tender large cylinders of meat with olives, tomato, potato and olive oil and while simple truly accented the fish itself. The SCAMPI ADRIATIC STYLE was served with Melon and Avocado, which apparently is eaten in small rock-hard scoops locally, something I can still not fathom, as when I tried to chew it I was forced to spit it out; rubber is not my favorite consistency for avocado. I would love to know if any of you know any Croatian folk that can verify this odd culinary fact? The sauce was a light mayo base with dill. The cheese platter had gorgeous olive-oil drenched SUN DRIED TOMATOES and two types of cheese: a crumbly OLIVE OIL CHEESE (that we never did get a name for) and a magnificent harder cheese from the nearby island of PAG that was a local treat, especially for us.

The entree of SHRIMP ADRIATIC STYLE was completely different from the "Scampi Adriatic Style" starter above and had larger local shrimp in a tomato-based almost puttanesca (slightly spicy) style with super polenta and a drizzle of balsamic over the top of that. We had more touring so skipped dessert and had wonderful (though not as good as Italy) gelato (the melon and green apple choices were refreshing) around the corner!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Congrats to CAMPONESCHI (7/19/07)-Rome's perfect pizza at La BRUSCHETTA

Our final night in Rome took us to the elegant CAMPONESCHI situated on the beautiful Piazza Farnese which has special significance to me being an opera fanatic. It was in the Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) facing our table (as we sat outside) that in Act II of Puccini's opera Tosca that our heroine stabbed to death the evil Baron Scarpia. I completely felt the drama as children played in the piazza and we glanced around at the various historic buildings.

Our meal was indeed an operatic production as we were treated to some of the best olives on earth (marinated with lemon and pepper) and the most amazing Bufala Mozzarella that was bathed in heavy cream as we sat down. After a tasty Campari & Tonic, we tried a tasty VERMENTINO di GALLURA 2006 from Sardegna (Sardinia) that is made from the FUNTANALIRAS grape varietal that was another refreshing white wine we felt was just right to start a meal with. The bread seemed to fare better here than in many other places as well. The tables were covered with thick ivory linens and a silver charger with a doily was at each place with handsome china and crystal as well. I had forgotten to mention that the crystal the previous night was pretty inferior and that even at lunch yesterday my simple glass of white table wine was served in a decent glass at the RISTORANTE di CAMPO di FIORE just a block away. Indeed on a sidebar, yesterday's lunch, while quite pricey, was truly a treat. Samuel wolfed down PENNE alla POMMODORO (that's Italian for Tomato Sauce) and loved the sparkling lemonade. Will had a tender and refreshing CUTTLEFISH SALAD while I reveled in my SPAGHETTI with CLAMS in a spicy garlic sauce. What made this dish special was that the sauce was very buttery, rich and slightly thick as opposed to the runny clam sauces one tends to find.

Meanwhile back at Camponeschi, I started with a beautiful presentation of LOBSTER in RASPBERRY VINEGAR Sauce with Black Truffles. A claw and tail were large and succulent meat in a beautiful presentation with "lobster head" adornment and antennae: the black truffles were actually melded into an aoili for dipping. The MILLE FEUILLE of RED MULLET was marinated and the cute fish perched atop a salad that was like seaweed in an aquarium (it looked like it was swimming!) and served with a WAFFLE of PECORINO CHEESE & Vinaigrette. MIXED STUFFED SHRIMP were Deep Fried in ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS and stuffed with SEA BASS. A creamy versus crunchy dish with remoulade that could have been an entree it was so huge. Our server ANWAR suggested the TOCAI DEL COLLIO FRIULIANO (from Friuli in the north) 2005 from SCHOPETTO that was a treat--so crisp yet floral and tasty with the seafood. We thought we had done something wrong when the Cypriot Ambassador, a large man with a huge party sitting at the next table, got up and moved inside, but we were told he needed the A/C! His mansion faced the Palazzo Farnese and was impressive as well.

When in Italy one must have the pasta course (or secondi) and we chose some new ones for a change. TROFFIE (coiled & short) with PRAWNS and "FOSSA's" Pecorino Cheese was okay, ROMBETTI (short papardelle) with SCALLOPS and PORCINI Mushrooms fared much better and my most novel NEAPOLITAN STYLE PASTA in BEAN SOUP with SHELLFISH consisted of shreds of pasta in a thicker-than-bouillabaise-like soup with tons of shellfish and fish that was slightly spicy and most tasty. The winner was Juan's simple RIGATONI alla CARBONARA which was a beautifully "ridged" rigatoni served with the traditional egg and bacon, which here was a spicy delicious speck.

Entrees were all excellent with Mel & Juan opting for the French CHATEAUBRIAND with Bearnaise sauce and Will & I heading the fish route. He chose the TURBOT with PORCINI Mushrooms and Potato and I had a superb GILTHEAD SEA BREAM (also Dorado, called Orata in Italian) with Artichokes in a very light ANCHOVY SAUCE. The fishes were superb and so fresh. We switched to a rich CERVARO DEI MARCHESI 2004 from ANTINORI in Umbria that was creamy and rich and brilliant with the fish and between courses, while Mel & Juan opted for glass of house red that was good as well,

Desserts brought what I thought was a mediocre TIRAMISU due to the excess of cocoa and too much cream, a superb VANILLA SOUFFLE (there are many French dishes on the menu) and some yummy mignardises such as a Pastry Cup with Cream & Strawberries and simple MADELEINE Cookies. DRIED RHUBARB Pieces were deemed a digestif as we coiffed our LIMONCELLO and headed back to the Excelsior Hotel for our last night before packing and boarding the ship yesterday.

I must also write about a small pizza place around the corner from our hotel called LA BRUSCHETTA E.... which features pizza, pasta, bruschetta and more for some of the best prices in Rome (and prices ARE HIGH). It is located just of the Via Veneto at Via SARDEGNA 39/41 and may just have the best pizza Rome offers. The five of us had a total of 4 meals there since just kept going back for lunch or dinner. The pizza with ANCHOVY, SQUASH BLOSSOMS and MOZZARELLA was a hit as was the SPECK & SMOKED CHEESE. Samuel, of course, always chose the Margherita(tomato & cheese) but "without the leaves, please" as he seems to now not care for fresh basil leaves. The antipasti of vegetables is huge and superb and the berry tart a treat for dessert!

On board the WESTERDAM now for 20days we find the food to be excellent and won't be communicating with you, save for a lunch here or there off the ship worth reporting! Keep cool and eat well!

Next stop: DUBROVNIK

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hostario dell'Orso de Gaultiero Marchesi; some raves for Rome's one Michelin-starred historic spot

Buon giorno tutti from Rome, Italy where we have started our month-long European jaunt, and while we will be on board our cruise ship for much of this time, we intend to get some pre and post-cruise fine and local dining in.

One of yesterday's highlights was a stop at GIOLITTI, perhaps Rome's #1 gelateria, and it was no disappointment whatsoever. We were happy to brave the 10-minute wait and make our way to the dozens and dozens of choices of clearly the creamiest and best ice cream around. Samuel opted for the simple yet fruitiest STRAWBERRY, while I took a combination of WHITE CHOCOLATE and FRUTTI di BOSCO, literally meaning fruits of the woods, but here a combination of wild berries with small chunks of fruit in the berry delectable gelato. Will, feeling a need for refreshment from the 95 degree heat we have been having daily, stayed on the fruit side with PINEAPPLE (actually with chunks of fresh pineapple) and a tasty LIMONCELLO, that fabulous tart lemon after-dinner drink that we can't forget to enjoy while here! Giolitti is a must not miss stop on any gastronomes tour of Rome and is only blocks from the Pantheon or your no-way-I-can afford-this shopping area on the Via del Corso.

Since the 14th century HOSTARIO dell'ORSO has been operating without closure(save for during the two world wars) as in inn on the banks on the Tiber River just blocks from Piazza Navona. Located on the amazingly narrow and adorable medieval-like Via dei Soldati (#25c) the restaurant also sports a piano bar and disco. During the summer the dining room is moved to the entry level with the tables outside, and I am confident that the one Michelin-starred chef GUALTIERO MARCHESE barely makes an appearance during this season from June to September. Nonetheless, he has created a menu that survives the summer heat and makes the most of the wonderful fresh ingredients we have come to love so well in Europe. We started with a glass of Prosecco and enjoyed four small amuses which included a refreshing high quality grade raw tuna with a wild blueberry on top that was a bit bland, pasta-based cornetti (horn shaped) filled with ricotta cheese and herbs (which we giggled at as our server Roberto pronounced it "harabs" making us think he had said it was filled with "Arabs!" Pineapple and Salmon was an interesting combo, but the hit was the tiny pastry filled with a creamy Black Squid Sauce and tiny chunks of Octopus.

Our first wine was a SANNIO FLANGHINA 2006 from Santiquaranta-Molinara in Campania of the south of Italy. I can't recall ever having this sauvignon-like refreshing wine which had a huge grassy nose with a sharp refreshing essence on the palate that dies fast and makes a great aperitif. When our adorable serving assistant showed me the bottle, I could not help saying "I like the bottle...and...." but left it at that. Our second white was a revelation from ASCEVI LUWA in the north region of Friuli, a 2005 COLLIO SAUVIGNON (Blanc) "Ronco di Sassi" that also had a huge nose and was drinking a creamy basket of citrus fruit. The manager/sommelier Luciano knew we were happy, especially since he had recommended some excellent wines so reasonably priced in the 30-40 Euro price zone (I should add that while the Euro now costs about $1.38, the buying power of one euro is perhaps barely equal to that of $1,00).

The several types of bread and biscuits could have easily been forgotten, but the breadsticks were delish. A second (well, really the fifth) amuse came in a gorgeous Ginori bowl (with the concentric) striations around the rim in the form of a superb miniature tomato filled with a puree of Italian white beans and some small pieces of tuna (that were so salty, I could have sworn they were anchovy!).

The main meal started and we all chose to order a la carte rather than opt for one of the many tasting menus (going from a vegetarian option at the price of somewhere around 50 Euros to the chef's choice at 145 Euros) which just seemed to be too much in the heat. The starters were SEARED SEA SCALLOPS on a salad with a zingy GINGER & PINK PEPPER dressing, GLAZED QUAILS and their EGGS, my refreshing and light Carpaccio of SICILIAN RED PRAWNS with Seasonal Vegetables and the largest chunk of FOIE GRAS I have ever seen on a plate with MELON SOUP, PINEAPPLE & PISTACHIO that there seemed to be enough of for everyone to share multiple bites of.

The pasta courses were enjoyable, but not truly revelations as I would have hoped. Will's RABBIT RAGU (I forget on what type of pasta) was the lightest ragout I have ever tasted, and actually was quite nice for the summer, the HOME MADE TAGLIOLINI with a light creamy sauce of SEA URCHIN & TOASTED ALMONDS was also good, but needed some zing, perhaps a small piece of fresh sea urchin or a touch of caviar. The heaviest was the BASIL & POTATO GNOCCHI with EGGPLANT MOUSSE, TOMATO & Smoked Cheese, which was amazing, but just to rich for me. Our friend, Mel could not stop raving. We did notice that while Hostaria sports a Michelin star and the staff is kind, helpful and courteous; they seemed to be a bit rushed and busy at times (perhaps someone didn't show up for work?) and they often cleared the plates haphazardly and not at the same time (a pet peeve I find bothersome). The worst offense, however, was the men's room that clearly needed cleaning despite its adorable risque prints on the wall.

We all gave in and ordered the highly recommended by Roberto VEAL "ROSSINI" di Gualtiero Marchese which had a filet topped with a large piece of foie gras (from Perigord in France) and a magnificent nose of Italian BLACK SUMMER TRUFFLES as the four plates wafted towards us. A small dish on the side held some yummy spinach with raisins and pine nuts that we wished there was more of. The meat was perfection, but it was the truffles that made it "over-the-top we are all very happy now campers." Luciano suggested and amazing 2004 MONTEPULCIANO d'ABRUZZO "Aldiano" from Cantina Tollo that was simply perfect with the food and as I said to our adorable assistant server "It's bigger than what I expected"....to which Mel responded, "It's what we pray for." Now giggle a lot, but it was so funny, because this drop dead gorgeous guy spoke a halting English and clearly could not understand the innuendos, but we were all so happy it did not matter.

After a nice break (everything was served at perfect intervals) we opted to share a cheese plate which came with a nice TALLEGIO,an UBRIACO from Tuscany that packed a small bite, a boring TOMINO (I was told also spelled Tommino sometimes) from Trentino on the Adriatic north of Venice and crumbly tasty PARMEGGIANO REGGIANO and one of the best GORGONZOLA's I have ever had that was mild yet so rich and creamy it resembled a French triple-creme. Four fresh fruit sauce accompanied the cheeses. Luciano again recommended a perfect dessert wine in a TERRE die CHIETI PASSITO 2004 from Tollo in Abruzzo that I would enjoy
after any meal because it is sweet, yet not too intense (especially in the heat, which still was strong at almost midnight!).

The desserts were a wonderful MEDITERRANEAN CHOCOLATE (it was dark, yet not bitter or intense) and TOMATO JAM CUSTARD CREAM with Balsamic Vinegar that got stars just for the jam itself. A LEMON TARTKET with WILD BERRIES, LIME JELLY and Meringue and some creamy flavor-filled homemade gelati. The mignardises were promptly finished by the four of us and included a spoon of SPICY GUAVA Gelled Fruit, a boring chocolate cup with cream, a superb BABA Au RHUM (which Roberto told us originated in Naples), but the piece de resistance was a small bar of CHOCOLATE covered in COCONUT that I saved for last and made me feel that while the meal was perhaps not all perfect, there were so many sweet moments, the overall experience was a truly great start to a month abroad with two great friends, Juan & Mel.

Incidentally, after dinner Roberto gave us a quick tour of the gorgeous upstairs dining room which has original frescoes and some amazing original wood beam ceilings from the 15th and 14th century.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

1789 still superlative with Rising Chef Winner Nathan Beauchamp

First I just want to say that this will be my LAST posting here in the USA this month. We are off to Europe where you will get some periodic fine dining experiences, but we will be onboard the Westerdam, so I don't really talk much about their food, as fine as it is. I also want to thank our dear friend PETER VOTH who has created a BLOG for all my reviews which may make it easier for you to find specific ones. The address is http://phyllistines.blogspot.com

Last night we joined four friends for a fabulous meal at 1789 where they are running a $37-or-so 3-course summer special which includes the regular ala carte menu, and what a selection of choices that is (with surcharges only on the lamb or beef fillet!). All this comes from this years winner of the Rammys RISING CHEF award Chef NATHAN BEAUCHAMP.

We had a bad bottle of Cotes du Rhones blanc which we quickly sent back to try instead a POUILLY FUISSE 2005 DOMAINE des VIEUX MURS which was crisp and refreshing with some nice fruit and a touch of oak. It was super with my FRESH PORTUGUESE SARDINES so lightly breaded and sauteed over a bed of ONIONS with GOLDEN RAISINS & PINE NUTS. Ther fish were not salty at all nor bony and I just reveled in their flavor.

The other super appetizer at the table was the STEAK TARTARE with QUAIL EGG, Caperberries and Flatbread.

We were thrilled to be treated to some extra appetizers which included PAPPARDELLE with Dandelion, Homemade Sausage and Toasted Garlic, a yummy VEAL SHORTRIB with Grilled Corn, Smoked Paprika and Pickled Shallots, a Risotto with again Roasted Corn (a regular appearance), Basil and tasty CHANTERELLE toped with sliced of SUMMER TRUFFLES. All are on the menu and brought raves!

The first red wine we chose was a light bodied Pinot Noir/Sangiovese which was not as great as we had hoped but was nice between courses...it was IL BACIALE 2004 from Monteferato. Our final red was a big improvement and full bodied and warm from PIRRAMIMMA in McLaren Vale, Australia a 2003 PETIT VERDOT that would make anyone happy with its rich berry flavors.

The entrees were all impressive and very filling as well. KIROBUTA PORK CHOP with Fried Green Tomatoes, Bean Salad & Aged Balsamic and YELLOWFIN Rare TUNA with Arugula, Piquillo Peppers, Botarga and Fennel (a great lighter summer dish), the SCALLOPS and my excellent ROASTED VEAL TENDERLOIN & SWEETBREADS with Market Carrots, Basil and a rich but not overwhelming Madeira Sauce.

Desserts are no less impressive from Pastry Chef Fabrice Bendano. There was a Chocolate DOME for chocoholics and a RASPBERRY "Napoleon" with Conbava (like Meyers Lemon) Sorbet and Hibiscus Essence, a BERRY TART with super Sorbets of Blackberry & Strawberry and my beyond superb, over-the-top, yet-so-simple GLAZED APRICOTS with VANILLA SHORTBREAD, RASPBERRY SORBET and PISTACHIO ICE CREAM all served in a giant brandy glass with a crunchy sweet pirouette-type cookie that made me want more...but nooooooo...this week I have eaten too much!

See you all NEXT WEEK in ROME!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

McCormick & Schmick's - seafood and variety

We were invited out to dinner last night with Samuel and I suggested McCormick & Schmick's on K Street as it has been years since we went and Samuel always seems to like fish. Oddly, the children's menu has no fish or fish stick type option, so we went for the standard CHICKEN FINGERS and FRIES. He devoured the latter and ate much of the chicken, passing on the included ice cream, so we knew something was wrong. Indeed, he had a fever when we got home, but is fine today!

Meanwhile, one our first past trip to McCormick & Schmick's I was quite amazed at the quality and VARIETY of the seafood. The preparation and taste is not at the level of say, DC Coast or Kinkead's, but is should be considered as an option on occasion. We enjoyed a refreshing LOIMER "Lois" 2006 GRUNER VELTLINER which hade huge apple notes and went very well with the fish dishes. I started with a superb bowl of STEAMED MANILA CLAMS in WHITE WINE & HERBS which were as tender as could be and I had to mop up every bit of the delectible sauce. I had considered the Mussels in Red Curry, but our server (after specifically asking) warned me they were a bit small that day! Will enjoyed the FRIED COCONUT SHRIMP with TROPICAL FRUIT SALSA and the Gazpacho got a rave as well.

The GRILLED SOCKEYE COPPER RIVER SALMON with Swiss Chard & Hen of the Woods Mushrooms was only marred by being slightly overcooked for my taste, but the fish itself was superb, flaky and tasty. The SEA SCALLOPS Seared with CAJUN SPICES and Pineapple Sauce were only mildly spicy and just the right amount. Since we were celebrating Will's recent acquisition of US citizenship, he felt required to order the HALIBUT FISH & CHIPS which needed a good dose of vinegar, but were moist and beautifully fried.

My ALMOND CRUSTED TROUT with LEMON BUTTER was a beautiful huge piece of fish totally encrusted and also just cooked about a minute too long, but still fine. The tasty accompanying mashed potatoes didn't compare to PS 7's the night before, nor did the basic veggie accompaniments of asparagus and julienne carrots.

I couldn't help feeling that while McCormick & Schmick's has variety that for many items the finer dining spots in town can do so much better.

Monday, July 09, 2007

PS 7's pretty spectacular for new DC dining

It's funny that I completely forgot that Saturday was 7/7/07, but was reminded with an adorable choice of tasting menu on arrival last night at PS 7's (777 I St, NW -www.ps7restaurant.com). PS 7's opened last year and was nominated for best new restaurant and best pastry chef for this year's Rammy's, and I am confident after last night's meal, that we will see many more nominations in the future.

Chef/Owner PETER SMITH was executive chef at Vidalia for many years where he garnered a James Beard Award and now has his own home in a subdued elegant setting with brown putty earthy colors, smoked glass, votive candles and while there are high ceilings for airiness, the noise factor is subdued. The feeling extends to the rest rooms which are oddly dark with black tiles and very low lighting and the most adorable pair of goldfish bowls (with fish) mounted into the walls! I loved the sunken glass sinks with lighting from underneath.

The warm feeling does not stop with the decor, as the staff is very friendly and helpful as well. There are a number of novel and rare ingredients which are carefully explained. When we asked about the TONKA BEAN, it was Chef Smith himself who appeared to welcome us and show us the bean and break it in half for us to smell. It turns out to be akin to vanilla rather than a legume and looks like a smoked almond.

We ordered one bottle of each color to share with our guests and both were super hits in their own ways in the $40 range. The creamy (from oak) J Vineyard PINOT GRIS 2005 form Russian River is a wanna-be chardonnay with more fruit, yet that odd oak flavor that makes it so wonderfully creamy and great for most fish. The SARAH's VINEYARD 2003 "Besson Vineyard" ZINFANDEL from Santa Clara (Gilroy, California) had a 16.4% alcohol level from Old Vines and really was a flavorful (you could not taste the intense alcohol) wine with lots of berry fruits and only a hint of pepper, but some mild spices; a great wine for any meat on the menu.

Our meal started with an amuse (shooter glass) of CHILLED ASPARAGUS SOUP with Lemon LAVENDER CREME FRAICHE which was cold and so refreshing in the 95+degree heat! Indeed the lavender theme was carried through the meal and was quite nice for a change.

The appetizers were all top notch from a super-rich yet not too creamy LOBSTER BISQUE loaded with chunks of lobster to two very complex presentations that really were not only beautiful but intriguing: BABY BEET SALAD with Crisp FRIED GOAT CHEESE NAPOLEON, Honey & Grapefruit Marinated BABY BEETS and the Beet & TONKA BEAN Vinagrette. Even more fun was Chef Smith's version of the DPJ or "Duck Peanut & Jelly" made from CRISP DUCK CONFIT& Toasted SPICED WALNUTS sandwiched between POTATO TUILES with PICKLED MUSCAT GRAPES and DUCK PROSCIUTTO & MIZUNA. How fun this was!

The warm bread arrived as well and it was literally impossible to resist, so we asked for MUCH more. There were COTTAGE CHEESE & DILL mini rolls and CARAMELIZED ONION & WALNUT mini rolls,but the touch of heaven was the perfectly flaky APPLE BACON BISCUITS that melted in our mouths (over and over indeed!).

I opted for the $47 Three course 7/7/07 menu (there was also a $57 four course) as this was a holdover from the weekend and most welcome to my palate. I started with LOBSTER STUFFED SQUASH BLOSSOMS with Braised BABY LEEKS and NEW POINT COMFORT OYSTERS (from the Rapahannock Northern Neck of Va.) in a Tarragon & Oyster Cream. It was called Oyster "liquor" but this is misleading as it contains no alcohol. The dish was heavenly with the huge blossoms fried to crispness and filled with a mousseline like lobster filling. To top it off that J Pinot Gris was brilliant with this rich shellfish preparation.

My entree was the CHERRYWOOD SMOKED PORK which comes (as many of the dishes do) in a trio format on a large rectangular divided plate. On one side was GLAZED BABY TURNIPS, in the center the Smoked PORK over MUSTARD GREENS with Cracklin's in Pistachio Oil and on the other side a superbly crunchy slice of PORK BELLY (which I often find too fatty, but here was perfect) over CARAMELIZED ONIONS. Each element was wonderful and made the dish a brilliant whole.

Other plates at the table were the SAUTEED SEA SCALLOPS with MOREL Mushrooms, very spicy ASPARAGUS, House Cured Bacon, Market Corn and Black Plum Vinaigrette. A side order of Mashed Potatoes were creamy and rich.

The POPCORN CRUSTED HALIBUT is another novelty in ingredients with Wilted WATERCRESS, SMOKED (Pop)CORN, House Cured Bacon, CIPPOLINI Onions, and that TONKA BEAN-POPCORN EMULSION. It disappeared so fast, I failed to get a taste but the emulsion was delish.

Will opted for another trio which was the BRAISED VEAL BREAST with WILD MUSHROOMS a la CREME, ROASTED SWEETBREADS and Pommes Dauphin. This was one of the largest entrees I have seen recently and was superb to boot with rich (and huge) sweetbreads and tasty tender veal.

Desserts come in Little Sins for $7 and Big SIns for $12. We tried three little sins which were the VANILLA LEMON CREME BRULEE, the ICE CREAM SUNDAE of Chocolate Ice Cream, Fudge Brownie, Bruleed Bananas, and Caramelized Hazelnuts. If we thought that Pastry Chef NAOMI GALLEGO had succeeded here we were blown away with the simple MINI-DONUTS with Dipping Sauces. My menu included a spectacular dessert of STRAWBERRY-RHUBARD TARTINE with Lavender Creme Fraiche and STRAWBERRY RHUBARB SORBET. The excellent oblong flaky pastry of hazelnut broche was covered with wonderfully marinated fruit (fresh chunky compote) and sat on a sweet slash or raspberry sauce.

We got a plate of mignardises that we sampled but ended up packing up fro home. There were so many options it was mind-boggling. Starting with the RASPBERRY DARK CHOCOLATE and COGNAC DARK CHOCOLATES to MUSCADINE TRUFFLES, Chocolate covered Hazelnuts that were divine, Mandarin or Peach Jellies (a bit too much sugared for me), LAVENDAR MARSHMALLOWS (more on that theme!) and finally the piece de resistance that I think must end every meal at PS 7's, Naomi Gallego's brilliant SALTED CARAMELS.

Kudos to our server Nick who was informative, pleasant and just plain great and the whole staff who made this meal even better. I know we will be headed back again soon!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

EXTRA VIRGIN varies but satisfies

With yesterday being 7/7/07 I thought we would have a memorable meal, and while the food at EXTRA VIRGIN in Shirlington (Arlington, VA) was very good last night, the service was a bit lackluster. Chalk it up to our server being new or such, but we just needed a little more attention like having our wine poured and getting our courses well properly spaced. I asked for time in between and it almost became over 30 minutes!

Three of us ordered the excellent GRANCIO SOFICIE or Tempura "stile" (that's how THEY spelled it) Soft SHELL CRAB over Arugula with SPICY Tomato Sauce.It was really a crunchy saute with no batter on the crab really emphasizing the shellfish itself and luckily the yummy but very spicy sauce was on the side. The fourth appertizer of simple MELON & PROSCIUTTO turned out to have been in the fridge so long it tasted like it, so they quickly switched it to the Crab on request; well handled and super efficiently!

We started with a refreshing VERDICCHIO from Marche (Italy) 2005 Castelli di Jesi from Garofoli and went on to a wonderful also crisp VERNACCIA di SAN GIMIGNANO 2006 GEOGRAPHICO. With these 90 degree temperatures and such yummy seafood, it seems the only way to go these days.

Our entrees were all superb fish dishes from the BRANZINO in PADILLA (Roasted Sea Bass with Sweet & Sour Eggplant in Yellow Bell Pepper Sauce) to the excellent fleshy Pan-Seared GROUPER with a Yellow Pepper Sauce and a huge VEGETABLE TIMBALE. My SPIGOLA in PADELLA con CARCIOFI E PORRI was a buttery sauteed fillet of WILD ROCKFISH in a lemony sauce of Olive Oil (it said spicy, but was not) loaded with ARTICHOKES & LEEKS.

It was odd that we mentioned we were all headed off to Italy next week and one of the waiters who knew us from before had the chef bring out a plate of complimentary desserts: TORTA al CIOCCOLATO is a warm almond and chocolate cake that is rich, yet not gooey like a fondant, with a scoop of vanilla gelato. The APPLE PIE got varying reviews from all of us, but the AMARINA GELATO made from Amaretto & Cherry was a treat, novel to us all!

We headed to the theater (once we got the bill) after a round of coffee, espresso and excellent cappucino.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Restaurant 2941 always a number 1 for me

We returned to 2941 (Falls Church, VA) after more than a year and realized how much we had missed under the toque of Chef Jonathan Krinn at this beautiful establishment, which now boasts a huge new Salvador Dali sculpture in the gardens (I asked why the couldn't afford to fill all the holes in it :-)).

We were in the excellent hand of server DAVID VORHEES, who won Outstanding Restaurant Employee of the year at this year's Rammys and every second was sheer enjoyment from the first sip of PHILIPPE GONET BRUT ROSE Champagne poured by Sommelieuse Kathy to our last bite when we were the last folks to clear out of the place (as it so often seems to be when we go there)!

Indeed, the ONLY thing that went wrong was that our first bottle of sparkling San Benedetto water was flat. How often does one get to send the WATER back? Quickly rectified, we laughed a lot about it.

The first amuse was a SEARED YELLOWFIN TUNA with ROASTED YELLOW PEPPER, SCALLION and a SHERRY-GINGER Sauce that got us excited, but not a much as what followed with the DUO OF SONOMA FOIE GRAS with a seared FOIE GRAS with CARAMELIZED BLACK MISSION FIGS on one side, a slash of 25 year old Balsamic dividing the plate and a TORCHON of FOIE GRAS with Fleur de Sel and a dab of APRICOT CHUTNEY....it was genius on a plate and so decadent we gobbled up every last drop.

The main tasting menu began with HAWAIIAN KAMPACHI TARTARE with Lychee, Kaffir Lime, Market Radish, Habanero Pepper and Basil Seeds. I loved hint of heat and all the exotic fruits and flavors that combined to perfection especially with the perfectly paired RIESLING KABINETT-Weingut JJ CHRISTOFFEL ERBEN, Urziger Wurtzgarten 2005 from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Region of Germany.

The CARAMELIZED SEA SCALLOP was smothered with OSETRA CAVIAR (I know we got more than average), MAINE LOBSTER and a WHITE ASPARAGUS NAGE and served over a :macaire" or Potato Pancake with Frizzled Leeks. It was another heavenly dish with a rich butteriness to every bite with magnificent shellfish and a magnificent SAINT JOSEPH BLANC 2005 from Domaine Coursodon in the Rhone that e just had to ask for more of between courses.

GENTLY SAUTEED Atlantic TRUBOT was a firm fish with a SWEET ONION FONDUE, those long awaited CHANTERELLE MUSHROOMS, Capers and a Brown Butter Emulsion. The acidity of the accompanying PULIGNY MONTRACHET 2004 from Domaine BZIKOT in Burgundy eventually mellowed as the wine opened up.

The TOURNEDO of ELYSIAN FIELDS LAMB had a distinct Mediterranean feel with Capiscum (Red pepper), Summer Squash, Nicoise Olives and Lamb Jus. It was delicately paired with a VINO NOBILE di MONTEPULCIANO 2003 from Caterina Dei, a winemaker I would love to taste more from.

The main entree was an amazing combination and even moreso with genius double pairing of wines (Kathy insisted we try a second wine along with that from the menu). The SPICED MILLBROOK VENISON LOIN had a peppery spicy topping and the preparation was of WHITE PEACHES, GARDEN PEAS, LONG SQUASH and MAPLE SMOKED BACON with Oyster Mushrooms. The slightly sweet peachiness of the sauce was amazing with the PAX "Cuvee Christine" 2005 Sonoma Syrah while the ZINFANDEL(with big fruit and pepper) from PELLEGRINI FAMILY VINEYARDS "Eight Cousins Vineyard" 2005 in Russian River really paired to perfection with the spice of the meat.

AMARETTO FRENCH BRIOCHE TOAST with Vintage Port Reduction and Black Cherry Frappe (in a shot glass on the side) was dessert number one and paired with a glass of BANYULS 2004 from Domaine du Mas Blanc in Roussillon. We persevered to conquer the amazing dessert number two of CARAMEL CROUSTILLANT GLAZED BANANA with Vanilla Creme Brulee, but the rest is a bit hazy. The magnificent BRUNDLMAIER RIESLING BEERENAUSLESE Zobinger 2000 from Heiligenstein in Austria may just be a new favorite for me with its intense richness and that always loving apricot flavor.

The Blackberry Shortbread and Cream Candied Pistachios followed with the requisite COTTON CANDY and we hauled ourselves home with extra cotton candy for Samuel and a couple of loaves of bread. One can never forget Chef Jonathan's dad's (Mal) bread which consisted of Chocolate Cherry, Olive, French, Pumpernickel, Jalapeno Garlic, and a new super APRICOT PISTACHIO which I am going to munch on right now!

I can only say that I won't wait a year before heading back to 2941!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

STARFISH Cafe can be a bargain

We moseyed over to Capitol Hill the other day and discovered a wealth of adorable little spots including STARFISH CAFE at 539 8th St, SE which has exposed brick, bright lively colored fish paintings, eclectic, yet cute decor with tables of woven mats underneath glass tops and wooden chairs in need of cushions. There is a cute bar up front under the visage of the Virgin Mary!

Start with a mojito or margarita with her, and then go onto the inexpensive yet tasty wines in the $20 range such as the DURBANVILLE South African 2005 Sauvignon Blanc with gooseberry flavors and a hint of grass or the NEWHAVEN 2006 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that reeks of grapefruit.

Some of the dishes are a downright steal and bargain, others not so. Try the TOULOUSE STUFFED MUSHROOMS with Anduille (that's how they spell it) Sausage and Crabmeat with a hint of Hollandaise. They are deep fried, as many of the items are, including the spicy HUSHPUPPIES, so watch your fried calorie intake! I would probably avoid the CHILLED SEAFOOD PLATTER which can be ordered as an entree or split as an appetizer. We easily split the $20+ dish three ways with four plump BLUE POINT OYSTERS, 4 "Cajun" SHRIMP (which were simply your everyday boiled large shrimp with cocktail sauce, but plump, juicy and tasty), a bowl of miniature crab claws that are more of a pain if you can find the meat and avoid the fin, and finally an order of the tasty SCALLOP-SALMON CEVICHE (which can be ordered by itself) which suffers only from too much shredded lettuce.

We also tried one of the CRAB CAKES which cen be ordered ala carte for $7.00 each and a 5 ounces are quite large and tasty, and while they don't compare to the haute cuisine cakes at DC's top seafood emporia, they are a real bargain!

Our entrees were the SOFT SHELL CRAB SANDWICH which has one huge fried crab on a bun with SPICY FRIES on the side and at just over $12 is another bargain. For twice the price there is a SOFT SHELL PLATTER with two of the huge crustaceans, GARLIC MASHED POTATOES and a hint of ASIAN PLUM-GINGER-BUTTER SAUCE (more would have been welcome). These are indeed some of the biggest softshells I have ever seen, but they were breaded and deep fried just a tad too much.

The VEAL OSCAR is a cream dream with Crabmeat, Asparagus and Hollandaise, but I think the desserts carry cholesterol warnings! DULCE di LECHE BAKED ALASKA is less indulgent with Raspberry & Vanilla Sauces and has ice cream cake with piles of tasty caramel meringue. CHOCOLATE TORT is a triple chocolate mousse torte with the same two sauces and Whipped Cream--ask no more.

While Will and I sahred the Baked Alaska, we were still quite stuffed and wished we had not ordered so much...good advice for next time!