Saturday, October 25, 2008

I can be with AVEC in Chicago...but damn that noise

I have dined next door numerous times at Blackbird, and on the previous night, we all tried to get into AVEC at 1130pm, its sister spot, but the place was so heaving we could barely get in the door. So we headed next door to Blackbird for an appetizer (my mussel soup was delish, as was the cheese plate, but my hosts were not too impressed with the Pork Belly appetizer) and dessert.

Knowing full well that AVEC does not take reservations, I returned the next day at 5pm for dinner before the opera, to find the place a bout 1/2 full. It is small to begin with; a long narrow stainless steel tapas bar on the left seats just over a dozen or so on very hard uncomfortable tall wooden stools. Along the right wall are tables and the same shorter stools. This must be an attempt to keep the crowds moving at AVEC ( The tables, floors, walls and cielings are all made of the same light wood making for a noisy experience, and then there is the blaring music; I am glad I was alone and did not need to converse!

At first, the bar server was friendly and helpful, but by the time of my departure at 7pm, the place was heaving with lines of 20+ outside and I could barely get my check. Avec is fine if you go off-peak and don't mind relaxed service, but it's the food that stars here. Plates are listed as small and large, which is already a problem, as the small plates are really about TWICE the size of a normal small tapas plate. I goofed when I ordered three of these, but adored every single mouth-watering bite of each:

CRUSHED TOMATO & Olive Oil Braised OCTOPUS with Baby SPINACH and ONION Salad with PANCETTA Vinaigrette was a huge plate of at least 5 large pieces of tender mollusk and tons of lightly sauteed spinach and some onions; the sauce of tomato was divine. I enjoyed a LUIS PATO white from Portugal called MARIA GOMES (the varietal) which is very full bodied and reminded me or chardonnay.

Next was the "La Quercia" PROSCIUTTO Late with Lemon, Slivered ALmonds and Marinated MANCHEGO all sprinkled generously with fresh pepper. A huge warm boule (French loaf) came with this, but I tried to avoid eating most of it. A CASTILLO de FUENDELAJON Campo de Borja from Crianza was made from old vine granacha and tempranillo making for a smooth yet robust taste.

My final plate was the ROAST PHEASANT SAUSAGE (why my eye hit first on the menu) with LENTILS, BRUSSEL SPROUTS and Candied Bacon served "agridolce: or sweet and sour style. The sausage was huge and the plate had everything loaded on including potatoes and the excellent al dente sprouts, but I could not force myself to finish, so I asked for some coffee and headed to the opera.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chicago's GRAHAM ELLIOT exudes excellence

I often have a dilemma in Chicago of where to dine before the opera as the curtain is at 730pm and the places near the opera house are not so great.

Yesterday I headed for the River North neighborhood just north of the loop and found that the newly-opened in June GRAHAM ELLIOT( starts dinner at 5pm. Lucky for me and the chef here is none other than the award winning GRAHAM ELLIOT BOWLES previously of Avenues at the Peninsula and who came up through the ranks with the likes of Charlie Trotter and Dean Fearing (Mansion on Turtle Creek).

He calls his cuisine: "Fine dining redefined" and it works just fine indeed. I only wish he would tone the music down a bit. Upon arrival my server said she would ask, but it was to no avail, as this chef likes it blaring most of the evening. When I left at 645pm, the place was almost full and the music only made it impossible to have a decent table conversation....AGAIN!

The wooden floors, black wooden tables, exposed ceilings and no place for absorption at all don't add to this, but it is a comfy spot with leather and fabric banquettes and chairs and the food is simply superb.

An amuse of warm APPLE CIDER with Calvados soaked apples and milk cappuccino foam was a welcome sight on one of Chicago's coldest nights this fall. The came the nightly popcorn; last night's was a superb GARLIC BUTTER, but this could never replace bread as it really does not work to soak up those wonderful sauces. I would not want to trade the popcorn; but can't they find some bread on request?

A citrusy glass (big Riedel stemware) of 2007 SCHLOSS HALBTURN "Velt" 1 Gruner Veltliner from Burgenland in Austria was a great aperitif and went perfectly with the ROSEMARY SKEWERED SWEETBREADS, a dish I shall remember forever. Two huge cubes of crispy sweetbreads were skewered with the rosemary and served over an apple cider-caramelized turnips, heirloom apples and a magnificent BOUDIN NOIR Puree. I had to use my fingers to finish the sauce!

Choosing an entree was hard and I went for the ROASTED MONKFISH WELLINGTON which had the wonderfully cooked to perfection fish wrapped in a pastry dough with duxelles and spinach and sliced, served over French Lentils, Glazed Carrots, Melted Leeks and another brilliant sauce of TRUFFLE COULIS; it was AWESOME! Another Austrian wine was a superb match being a red 2006 Ernst TRIEBAUER BLAUFRANKISCH also from Burgenland with a huge fruit forward nose and oddly a completely different earthy taste.

I could not resist dessert and went with my delightful server Erin's suggestions as she had guided me so well on everything so far: GREEN APPLE FRITTERS were served with a warm icing of cider reduction and Cinnamon Ice Cream with pieces of apple...they were divine and I left for the opera knowing that I will return but hoping the music level drops.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore gets bravos (mostly)

We were at a concert in Baltimore late yesterday afternoon on the north side of the city and decided to finally try PETIT LOUIS BISTRO ( which has been garnering raves for years and is indeed, a TRUE French bistro.

From the marble-like stone tabletops, the wooden floors, some etched and some stained glass and the small globe lights, one really does feel as if one is in Paris! The service is superb and friendly, and we enjoyed everything we ate.

I started with the SOUPE a LAPIN BRAISE, a wonderful broth loaded with shredded rabbit and autumn vegetables that was just what the doctor ordered on this first super cold autumn eve. Will had the CUISSES de GRENOUILLES and swore these frogs had a huge workout as they were the meatiest legs ever loaded with garlic, wine and butter sauce in the most traditional of preparations. This did call for the very nice "boule" of bread to mop up.

We drank a leathery, smoky and totally superb GIGONDAS from St. DAMIEN 2005 Vieilles Vignes to start that worked well alone or with the food and moved on to a huge 2003 Gigondas from DOMAINE SANTA DUC "Prestiges des Garrigues" that screamed for food, and was indeed, much better after our server Adam offered to decant it. Here was my major gripe with Petit Louis..the stemware. While it is RIEDEL, it is all too small for the huge reds they are selling, especially those costing more than say $80, or shall we say $300 that require larger glasses to aerate the wine while it is drunk, and to allow the nose to penetrate as well. We mentioned this to the manager and sommelieuse and they both said the owner has repeatedly refused to get larger (and more expensive) glasses as too many are broken. Yes, we heard at least two go while we were there!

We split a yummy BEET, CHEVRE and Mache salad with a light vinaigrette.

Our entrees were just as good with Will enjoying the GIGOT d'AGNEAU, a Lamb Leg Steak with a huge pile of POMMES FRITES (that's fries) and a Beurre Maitre' d'Hotel (which was really just a small slab of herb butter for taste). My CONFIT de CANARD would not have been enough of a dish alone, but was a perfect entree with the appetizer and 1/2 salad. It was a duck leg served over Local CRANBERRY BEANS in a light broth with Garlic, Bacon and Sweet Candy Onions.

We saw the cheese tray which looked quite good and went into shock when they said it was served by the portion at $4.00 each slice! So, if I wanted four types, it would have been $16.00 and this seemed a bit too much, so we passed the remaining two glasses of wine to our friend, world famous Polish contralto, Ewa Podles (who sang the recital earlier) and her husband, Jerzy, who were dining nearby and headed back to DC.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NYC's AMALIA actually annoys with noise

I am always happy to try new spots and I was very excited about AMALIA at the Dream Hotel in NYC ( on 55th Street just off of Broadway and two blocks from Carnegie Hall (two areas I hang out alot). The cuisine is Greek-influenced, but quite varied and offers up some tasty and exciting dishes, but when we arrived to a virtually empty restaurant, the music was so loud that we had to ask them three times to turn it down. This didn't ever seem to work, and as the place filled up (despite a very segmented and spread out set of rooms) and got so noisy we just gave up talking all together. Even Will & Samuel could not hear me on my cell phone when I called to say goodnight!

Speaking of decor and layout, Amalia has many rooms and levels with an eclectic feel using bird and floral wallpaper, exposed brick, exposed beams and embossed stucco patterned cielings. The wood floors and tables are comfy with swivel leather chairs that have a 60's feel of sorts. There are odd columns of steel girders (support I guess) that are encased in glass and lit from the bottom for effect.

Pita is served with an herbed oil and is quite nice, but gets no raves. The wine list is nice, but there are only 4 or so each of red and white by the glass. I started with a Greek RODITO-MOSCHOFILERO 2007 from Domaine Skouros that was very refreshing and went on to a yummy TEMPRANILLO "Paso a Paso" 2006 from Jorge Ordonez in La Mancha, Spain.

My appetizer was the COCONUT CORN SOUP which came with what they called Crab Salad (a small bundle of crab) in the bowl and LEMON BALM (a sorbet-like Lemongrass) It was quite tasty and a very large portion as well.

My entree was the ROASTED GIANNONE CHICKEN BREAST with Fresh BEAN CASSOULET, CHANTERELLES in a bit too sweet APRICOT SAUCE and my mother opted for the SAUTEED & CRISPY CALAMARI served with WHITE BEANS, CHORIZO, Piquillo Peppers and Garlic Toast which was called medium-size, but was indeed quite a big portion of both deep fried and sauteed squid making for variety.

We split the CHOCOLATE FONDANT which was intense with a WALNUT CRUST and Berries in Sangria Sauce as well as CHOCOLATE-RASPBERRY Gelato, which had little berry taste at all.

While the food was pretty good, I fear that Amalia just is too noisy for me to jusitfy a return visit.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

La Miche wine dinner is fun and friends

Tuesday night we headed back to La Miche ( in Bethesda, where our last wine dinner was a bit less than memorable. This time the event, the wines, the service and the food was a total hit.

Our wines were from ROCCHE CASTAMAGNA in Piemonte in Italy and they were all quite superb starting with a 2007 ARNEIS which was served with GOAT CHEESE & BASIL RAVIOLI with BLACK TRUFFLES. In my memory, this is the first time I have ever had Chef Jason Tepper's pasta, and he did the tasty little pillows great justice with a wow of a sauce.

WILD BURGUNDY ESCARGOTS loaded with garlic came next and was served with a BABERA d'ALBA 2005 which was an excellent full bodied red that was perfect with the dish, but it was the DOLCETTO d'ALBA 2005 that usually is a lighter red that really blew us away with its wonderful full body and intensity. This was served with a TROUT Fillet topped with crunchy PANCETTA that was a great touch to the superb fish.

Our entree was the VEAL RIB CHOP which is always great at La Miche and the other night it was in a superb MUSHROOM LEMON CREAM Sauce and served with WILD MUSHROOM POLENTA CAKE; it was a truly wonderful dish heralding the cooler weather that was to arrive today! The BAROLO "Bricco Francesco" 2003 was a huge wine and sadly not ready to drink yet, but I would love to taste it again in 5 years! Indeed, we returned to the wonderful Dolcetto for seconds!

Dessert was a GREEN APPLE SORBET that I could have traded, but was so full, I did not care and the glass of LEMONCELLO was just the perfect end to a great meal with great friends!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Philly's CAPOGIRO Gelato/Sorbetto is sensational

I forget to mention that after first finding CAPOGIRO (two downtown locations in Philly) a year and a half ago, I was able to return there on Sunday before the opera.

Since I was alone, I couldn't taste too many flavors without being conspicuous. I also kept to sorbetto since I like to believe it is less fattening.

The BLOOD ORANGE was awesome, but I settled for a mix of tangy LIME CILANTRO and sensuous ORANGE CARDAMOM.

I only wish they would open in Washington....but them I would gain even more weight!

Philadelphia's TINTO is terrific

Last night after a day in Philly at the opera, I was joined by a dear friend for a truly terrific dining experience at TINTO ( the superb fashionable tapas brainchild of Chef Jose Garces. His chef de cuisine at Tinto is David Conn and the staff all make for a friendly warm, informative lesson in Spanish tapas!

The exposed brick walls have tilted mirrors, lots of wine racks and good lighting with a cozy warm intimate feel. Our server Will took care of every need from suggesting approximately 6 plates to share, making recommendations and explaining the exciting ingredients as well. First came an amuse of MAHON CHEESE CRISPS with a Smoked TOMATO CREME FRAICHE to dip in. These crumbled to bits, but had a slight bite and were loads of fun!

We chose the following tapas and not one was a disappointment: BOCADILLOS de RES-a small sandwich of superb tender BRAISED SHORTRIBS, BACON, ASPARAGUS and Celery Root Aioli

ALCACHOFAS con TRUFAS--Purple Tulip Baby ARTICHOKES with Black TRUFFLE, LEMON and idiazabal (sheep cheese) that was one of the truly exciting surprises of the evening with tons of chokes in a rich, thick, very lemony sauce that we had to beg for bread for mopping up.

PULPO-Spanish OCTOPUS (which was just slightly chewy, but not rubbery), Confit POTATOES, Piquillo Pepper Paint and Lemon Powder was a beautiful and tasty dish that had a swash of pepper paint across the plate, foam on the fish and a little pile of dried lemon powder for taste in one corner.

VIERAS con PANCETA were two huge SEA SCALLOPS with Benton's BACON, Cider Emulsion, Green Apple over Sheep's Cheese Grits and was a mouthwatering treat with so many wonderful tastes in each subsequent bite.

Indeed, many tastes is the essence of each tinto tapas's not really just ONE Tapas, it is so many things rolled into each dish.

HONGOS a la PLANTXA was a large collection of WILD MUSHROOMS with Roasted POTATO, Shallot & Parsley in the yummiest of sauces

and finally, the ALUBIAS de TOLOSA was a small cast iron pot of BLACK BEANS, crispy PORK BELLY & CHORIZO with Braised CABBAGE.

While the dishes were varied and all so exciting they all were fairly heavy and screamed for red wine--so Will suggested a TEMPRANILLO "Valdehermeso" Valderiz from Joven 2005 in Ribera del Duero that was medium to full bodied and full of yummy flavors with hints of coffee, chocolate and rich fruit flavors underneath.

I really look forward to returning to TINTO again, and to chef Graces gastronomic temple Distrito....where my guest had eaten recently and could only RAVE about!

Well, we can now also rave about TINTO!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The HELMAND inBaltimore has potential

For years I have wanted to dine at THE HELMAND (806 N. Charles St, Baltimore, MD tel 410-752-0311) for numerous reasons. It is has always been rated by many guides as Baltimore's most popular spot (the prices sure are good) and features the cuisine of Afghanistan, one that I have never had the opportunity to try.

THE HELMAND has been around for some time and I doubt much has changed there: the wooden floors are scattered with Afghan rugs as are the mustard and brick walls. In addition there are plates, fabric squares and one native costume on the walls. There is a cozy feel, if a bit to crowded, and by the time we finished there was not a single table empty in either room.

We decided to try as much as possible and share everything, starting with KADDO BORAWNI, pan fried PUMPKIN, baked with sugar in a YOGURT-GARLIC Sauce, the operative word here being GARLIC. I adore garlic, ad this dish was strong, but we had no clue that it would revisit us all evening throughout the opera and the night! I adored the intense flavor, and even thought to try and make the sauce at home, but today I would definitely hestitate. Perhaps the garlic was raw, or just too much--Oh well! The AUSHAK was an Afghan style ravioli that sadly came lukewarm but filled with tasty leeks and served in a yogurt-mint ground beef sauce that was divine.

The bread (like in Indian restaurants) comes with a small fee (2,50 or 4.50) and is like a thick version of naan in small squares. It really works great with all the superb sauces and is worth every cent.

Our entrees were the slightly dry LAMB LAWAND which was braised with tomato, mushrooms and herbs in a yogurt and sour cream sauce that did manage to cover the meat's slight dryness. ON the side was CHALLOW, a simple rice pilaf that comes with a slightly spicy green sauce and a superb bowl of SABZY, just sauteed spinach. The combination makes for a splendid meal.

The MANTWO is a soft housemade pastry shell (very similar to the Aushak ravioli) and is spicier because it is filled with Onion and Ground Beef and served on Yogurt wit Yellow Split-Peas, Carrots and a Beef Sauce (also very moppable). The flavor was much more impressive than the Aushak as well.

Dessert could have ben skipped as the Turkish Coffee was 60% sediment and quite bitter and my ANAAR-PANEER was about as dry and tasteless as cheese gets, even though it was sprinkled with pomegranate extract and raisins. The local Afghan cheese resembles ricotta, but rely is quite unexciting. Will did better with the FEERENY, a condensed milk pudding with lots of fresh fruit.

I am really glad I finally got my first taste of Afghan food, and would truly try it again, but do warn you to be wary of the garlic and avoid the desserts!