Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ABAC is above many (but still not better than Bohemic); back in Barcelona

My last night in Barcelona, Catalunya and Spain was hopefully going to be an amazing evening at the one-Michelin starred gastronomic temple of Chef Xavier Pellicer ( in his new digs and small hotel north of downtown (where he used to cook in a smaller restaurant near the water). The buzzer gate gives way to an oasis of paths and greenery leading to the restaurant which is modern but not too much to take away from the food. The lighting is superb with each of three rooms having 9 or 6 oval tables for two or four (I saw no groups larger than this). Above each table is a light fixture on a balance the same shape as the table but with two small pointed lights in it to light the table area. Big comfy beige leather chairs match the velvet drapes along all glass walls. There seemed to be an outdoor area for warmer nights. The linens are crisp and white, the china is Versace with a Greco-modern pattern in black, silver and white; the crystal is Zweisel styled like the modern Riedel Vinum Extreme and have the name of a sommelier etched in them. Each table has a small glass cube about 2x2x2 with two soft lychee-like spiny green fruits and a persimmon-colored gourd-like deformed pepper-like item with about 5-6 odd polyps at the top. Any ideas?

I chose the tasting menu since the appetizers and entrees all seemed to be 30-45 Euros each and the tasting was 125Euros with five courses plus desserts; made sense to me financially and offered many more tastes which I love. I chose a red wine with the help of the ever so sweet sommelier, Dani. The 100% Albarino form RIAX BAIXAS was called VENDETTA 2005 and came from the Pedra Longa Vineyards. It had a huge nose, lots of body, some minerality and a big finish. YUM.

The little touches arrived (these are not considered amuses): TWO spicy POTATO CHIPS that were flat and rectangular (about 2x5 each) and were so transparent they looked like alabaster. Large salty CALAMATA Olives from Greece and soft, less salty, but also large FRENCH OLIVES.

A deep fried VEAL CHEEK "chip" that can only be described as looking like pork rinds, sitting on a tray of rock salt, and yes, tasting VERY salty. Luckily they had good sparkling water that was NOT salty. FINALLY!

Amuse numero uno was a baby scallop covered with a slice of local jamon with a past-like spread of Jerusalem artichoke underneath it. It was indeed yummy, but not so with numero dos, called MUSHROOM ROYALE. I already worried when I saw that old disliked friend, the cappuccino foam atop the glass. It had some croutons in the foam and underneath was a gloppy cream of mushroom concoction with some long stringy mushrooms in it.

The tasting menu began with a simple but perfectly cooked COLD PRAWN CONFIT in WATERCRESS Sauce with 1/2 grape tomato, artichoke hearts, the local puffy oyster-like crackers and a rose petal. This was where the wine began to go oh so great with indeed every dish (thanks, Dani).

Course #2 was two squares of VEAL TENDON faced opposite and across from two raw CLAMS (one had a piece of grit;oops!) and a Pureed disc of BROCCOLI at the center of the "cross" scattered with tiny broccoli florets and some Ossetra caviar. Poured over this was an oddly lukewarm veal broth. It was a delicious dish save for the grit, but I think it would have been vastly improved with a warm broth.

Number 3 was one of the evening's highlights: Flash Sauteed WHOLE CALAMARI with WILD MUSHROOMS,ARTICHOKES, Chives and an ALMOND CREAM that was more of a light cream sauce. It was at this point I felt that great gourmet status had been achieved, despite the saltiness of most everything.

It was here, also. that I saw the domes start to appear; you know, those silver things all the waiters stand around and lift off at once in unison. For this reason, I was grateful to be alone, so no coordination by the staff was necessary!

I had arrived a about 8:40pm (they open at 8:30)and at that time only one other had been seated in the room behind me. By this time, around 10pm, the place was about 1/3 full, but by 10:30pm about 75% of the place was seated; the first couple that came in right behind me departed after a short dinner at 11pm.

The 4th course was a HAKE FILET with BLACK TRUFFLE and SOUFFLE of LEEK on sauteed leek. The dish seemed to smell of mushroom, but there were none and had a tasty Espuma foam of leeks as well. The 2x4 piece of fish was tasty yet quite salty, but the saltiness dissolved when eaten with the layer of freshly cut black truffles layered generously across the top as well as with the leek espuma. On the side was a crispy sliced thinly into 25+ layers Napoleon of potato that was brown, crunchy and divine. Again, a perfect pairing with my Albarino.

As I finished the white, I moved onto a half bottle of red from the nearby PRIORAT region where we had spent some of time this past week. DOFI 2006 made by Alvaro Palaceos came from the town of Grallatops in Catalonia and had huge body (huge lines--or tears as they are called in Catalan), structure and a bit of tartness, which was perfect with my main course and cheese. The wine did not beg for food, but once it opened up it was a great treat alone as well.

The main course was PINTADA, local PIDGEON in CARDAMOM Sauce served with Sauteed SPINACH, Mushrooms, Onions and Carrots with even a huge clove of cooked garlic. The meat was not as intense as the woodcock the previous week. It was tender, fleshy and tasty and the sauce was worthy of the star the chef had earned.

I take a break here as I did at dinner to report on the bathroom, as it is notable, though perhaps not a destination like the one in Vienna's Steierereck. There are cool Grohe confusing faucet fixtures which rely on touch on a red or blue light for temperature. The high faucet has an internal blue light which comes one with the water flow and was totally neat.

The cheese trolley brought French and Spanish options and I went for the 1/2 portion and chose CASA MANTEJO an intense sharp and also spicy sheep which had a hard edge and softer interior, the edge being spicier and the center sharper.

CARAT was a local goat that was ripe and creamy and just soft under the rind VACHERIN MONT d'OR from France was a mild soft runny cheese; the kind that I just ADORE. I adored them all as midnight approached and only 3 tables remained.

The pre-dessert was the chef's version of CREME BRULEE with CASSIS. It was a creamy fruit custard with an oddly crunchy top that I could not pinpoint at all. I am totally unsure of what the "brulee" or burned sugar was or of it was there.

The dessert was called TEXTURES of APRIL, I know not way. There was a small apple cooked with saffron and scooped like melon balls into cigar-like pastry, buttermilk ice cream, caviar pearls, and lemon intense cream which would not win any major awards from me. The post-dessert cookies and such were all dry and not worth mentioning; I did not even consider taking the remainders home.

Admittedly, I had drunk 1/2 the bill, but when the check came for 270Euros (125menu +water+1/2 cheese+135 wine) I was in a bit of shock. At $350 I really felt I should have returned to my newly beloved bistro BOHEMIC and pigged out for under 100Euros total! I have learned a lot about Catalan cuisine and there are many superb 1-3 Michelin starred restaurants in the region (only 1 star in the city, though), so I guess I will just have to return to give the others a chance and be sure to check some reviews beforehand.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Don't hurry to HOTEL REGINA in Villfonga del Ruicorb,Costers del Segre,Catalonia

The last night of my food/wine meeting tour was in the remote countryside of Catalan and while a beautiful setting was in store for us in the Hotel Regina's grand salon, the food was less impressive. Of course, the chance that any of you would even go to, let alone consider, this place is so remote itself, so I'll keep my comments short and to the point.

The salon has about a dozen huge wall murals by a famous Catalan artist of the mid-19th century that have a very deco feel with some Moderniste influence. The twenty or so of us sat at one huge table and were the only diners as the hotel was open only for us. It is a spa hotel and has few clients at this time of the year.

I discovered a second local sparkling water, San Narciso (how can they name a saint after a guy who was in love with himself?) which was even saltier than the Vichy Catalan brand so common, so I stuck with non-sparkling. The tiny soft dark green olives were salty and apparently the same ones used locally to make the olive oil. Each area is very proud of its oil and we had OLEAURUM which is 100% Arbequina and was aromatic and fruity with no spice or bite; it was divine with the tasty olive bread.

An array of appetizers came which included very salty JAMON IBERICO on a spear with tasty sweet melon. I was beginning to thing everything in Catalunya is salty; maybe I'm right. The ENDIVE with SHRIMP, shredded lettuce and a sauce so reminiscent of Russian dressing was unexciting, but a large spoon of Sauteed (and yes, salty) BACALAO (cod) was a treat. Our wine for the first half of the meal was a very nice RAIMAT 2007 BLANCO FRESCO from the region, COSTERS del SEGRE made from a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Xarello (one of the three local varietals used in making Cava).

A superbly delicious SEAFOOD SALAD came next with scallops, calamari, shrimp, roasted tomatos and red peppers, sauteed onion and leaf lettuces. The local olive oil and balsamic with some pepper made for a great dressing on the quite large dish. I'm glad it was large because the main course was totally inedible. As we sat down the waitress gave us three choices of how we would like our "entrecote" cooked: rare (which she clearly defined as just past raw), medium or well done. I wasn't going near another uncooked piece of meat in a restaurant that I did not know, so I went for the middle of the road. Everyone (and we were from all over the world) save a couple from the States avoided the rare option as well. The meat was somewhat akin to a strip steak and came so well done it was harder than cured ham. It had some salt flakes on it and an ugly brown sauce. Some overkilled and oily zucchini was its neighbor. The dish was beyond repair, and I was grateful for that big salad. An equally undrinkable red BRU de VERDU 2007 from the region made from Tempranillo and Syrah tasted cheap and I can't even begin to consider giving any tasting notes on this one.

Dessert was a huge cake prepared specially for the occasion and came on a trolley (we all took photos). It was a giant cake and creme Catalan-like mixture covered with banana, kiwi and berries which I needed to avoid simply because it looked like too much cream. A superb RAIMAT CAVA BRUT NATURE was served for our farewell toast and we were surprised to see it was made from the typical champagne grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, rather than the three cava grapes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bodegas BOHIGAS in Catalunya can cook (a private wine dinner in the winery)

I am sorry for the break in reports, but I had a serious bout of food poisoning (simply said, avoid eating at all Barcelona or nearby locations -I was in Sitges-of DA GRECO!).

I am now attending a 4+ day food and wine conference in Spain to promote food and wine travel her and it is FASCINATING. I have learned so much and can truly plan magnificent itineraries for anybody interested. Commericial over.

Last night we had a wine dinner at the 800+ year old BOHIGAS winery that has been in the same family since 1299!! WOW! It's a beautiful spot in the country with an ancient home, chapel and cava (the wine caves where they make the cava wine). We ate in the new area that the winery had built to promote its food and wine tourism program.

The chef carefully chose dishes from all over Spain to pair with their wines:

DUCK LIVER TERRINE with Sea Salt, APRICOT Sauce & Mousse and Field Greens with BOHIGAS ROSE CAVA. The pate was yum, the apricot a bit sweet for me, but then with my tummy, I only had a bite.

ANGLER FISH CARPCACCIO with Catalan Vinaigrette (with nuts and pine nuts and raspberries) with BOHIGAS CHARDONNAY was for me the winning dish and wine of the night...the fish was amazing as well.

LOIN OF COD PIL PIL is a northern dish that the chef tweaked to serve lukewarm in a creamy oil sauce with asparagus and cauliflower. It was nice, but everyone kept saying "pilpil" meant spicy, and this dish was about as mild as a baby lamb. It was served with an amazing white that everyone loved (some a bit more than me, were truly ecstatic) called BLANC DE TRES made from Xarello, White Granacha and Chenin Blanc, a great use of the local greats in a blend.

The main course was IBERIAN PORK CHEECKS with PASTOR MIGAS (bread crumbs) and Port Sauce. It was a nice dish, but I could not help feel that these cheeks were much drier than the moister creamier veal ones we are so used to. The wine was an ok SYRAH.

As I was still recovering tummy-wise I abstained from the dessert which everyone raved about: LEMON SABEE from Sevilla. A tart filled with a layer of chocolate, custard then covered with fruit: kiwi, raspberry, blueberry, currant, strawberry and pineapple...

All in all an excellent conception and some amazing food and nice wines, sadly only available by group booking to the winery at this time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Passadis d'en Pep is a poor place to be in Barcelona

After the best meal on earth, I am sorry to report on the worst one ever in had in Barcelona or all of Spain for that matter (as I have not traveled that much in this country!).

PASSADIS D'EN PEP (some signs are Passadis del Pep) is located not far from the ocean in the old port area and has no sign on the door, just the number "2" for the address on Pla de Palau (or Palace Square). You walk through an alley-like lit corridor and eventually see the sign on the door to enter a cavern of ancient arches of gigantic blocks of stone, ochre faux walls, wood beam and painted ceilings and lots of modern "food" art. It is a quaint and warm (literally TOO warm) setting, although tonight's temps were in the 60's. I knew that there was no menu and that they just bring food here, but what happened to me, and I fear even many of those who speak Catalan (or Spanish), was a total RIPOFF.

As soon as I had sat down the waiter popped the cork on a bottle of MAS TINELL (from Heretat), CAVA Reserva Especial. Indeed, the corks kept popping all night, often making me jolt. My first thoughts were that they just kept this stuff pouring and the "fixed price" dinner must include unlimited Cava, kind of like Sunday brunch in the US! WRONG! I was charged 14,50Euros (which isn't much at just over $18.50) for the bottle on my tab, and frankly, I can't finish a whole bottle of champagne (or Cava) by myself without getting severe gas problems! I would have much preferred to choose a wine of my own, but nobody ever gave me (or anyone else who entered the joint) a chance. I did see one waiter ask a couple if they wanted a second bottle after finishing the first (but did he tell them they had to pay?). Within seconds of sitting down the waiter brought over three plates: one with oiled bread, one of JAMON IBERICO (about 10 small slices) and one of SMALL CLAMS IN GARLIC that were as tender as could be and oddly enough seemed to each have TWO feet, rather than the usual one. Any ideas? Before I finished these plates, another appeared with beautiful seashell like snail shells (those long spiral ones) and fresh snails in butter and garlic within....they were sublime, I have to admit, as were the clams. I asked for a bottle of sparkling water and was brought VICHY CATALAN, which at first seemed fine (read on please).

After finishing all these, two more plates appeared: DEEP FRIED TINY BABY FISH each of these about 1-1/2 in long and barely the width of a coin. They were more batter than fish I think and each had an odd little black dot on either side of the front of the fish, obviously miniscule eyes. The dish was bland and unexciting, but was accompanied by the best dish of the evening, a plate of SAUTEED WILD MUSHROOMS, ONIONS and bits of ground PORK and BEEF. This was the only dish all night that did not suffer from oversalting, and then when I tasted the water again I realized how salty IT was; I have never had such salty sparkling water ever in my life!

At this point my waiter said that several more dishes were coming, but would I prefer beef or fish for the entree; I could get little more information from him, so I decided to stick with fish, thinking it lighter and knowing that is what they specialize in. The next two plates were both of huge PRAWNS with head, claws and tails all intact; one dish plainly poached with oil and yes, lots of salt, the other with sauteed onions.

I now saw another waiter picking up a beef entree at the counter and dipping his fingers in a tray of salt and liberally sprinkling the salt all over the dish. I must admit that I did not see this happen again, but sure felt that perhaps both the chef and waiters were salting every dish double-time.

A nice dish of al dente RICE with Sauteed BABY SQUID followed, but was quite oily and extremely salty, and then came my fish. I thought it was cod, but the bill (when it came) did not say bacalao, but "rape." Perhaps they "raped" me financially, but maybe someone knows what "rape" is in Catalan. The fish was plain with lots of salt, oil, garlic and some plain mushy bland zucchini, tomato, carrot and potato on the side. Only the potato was a blessing to cut the salt! It was at this point I saw two gorgeous half lobsters being brought to the table next to me. Why did I not get that option? I also started to smell the smoke from a nearby room. Smoking is generally banned in Spain in restaurants unless they have several rooms and designate one room as smoking; another reason to stick with small one room establishments.

I decided to have some lemon sorbet with an awful hazelnut biscotti for dessert to cleanse my palate of all the salt. They then brought two bottle of liquors to the table: a clear anisette-like Orujo and a decent, but strong, yellowish LICOR DE HERBS. It was a nice gesture, and I was grateful they didn't charge me when the bill came.

Speaking of the bill, I assumed it was a fixed price menu that only changed minimally with what is available in the market (even more a reason not to re-visit the place), but each item was itemized. However, I was not given the chance to decline or change anything. THAT SUCKS! At a total of over 108Euros ($140) I almost went into shellshock. Don't get me wrong, I spend this amount with no qualms, but not without having a choice or chance to decline dishes I would not even want. What really is amazing is that my glorious lunch at BOHEMIC was just over $70 and I would have gladly gone back there the same day for dinner...even for the same food! That's how much of a disappointment Passadis d'en Pep is.

Barcelona's BOHEMIC is by far the BEST--ANYWHERE in the world!!

While I wanted to write first about last night's Michelin-starred CAN GAIG, I must defer until later for that. Today, I had what may be the best meal of my life. It surely rates in the top ten, and is the best lunch I ever had on earth! You will have to go to Barcelona, and you will have to reserve as well because BOHEMIC(Carrer Manso, 42 not far from the Mercat de Sant Antoni--the large iron market pavilion-tel 93-424 0628).

Not nly does BOHEMIC not have an internet site, it seems that NOBODY here in town knows about it either. While it is a well kept secret at this point, the chef's name is circulating, and Michelin is investigating!

The small bistro has only ten marble topped tables with green and white checkered cloths, some 19th century antique touches and lots of early 20th century B&W photos and posters. It is an adorable family- run establishment with the mother and father serving and their son in the kitchen. Indeed, Chef FRANCESC GIMENO is in the kitchen with only one other person, his sous-chef XAVIER ALCALA. While Francesc can manage English, he speaks French quite well. They have a minimal English menu, since most of the tapas items change so often and are on the blackboards. Xavier speaks English quite well and will help you to translate and order as well. Tasting are available, but I needed to refrain from overeating again.

I ordered a glass of white wine as got PARDES XAREL-LO 2006 from Penedes which was full of great flavors and some minerality and went superbly with virtually every dish, so I had a couple more glasses of the same. I asked if I could taste one other wine but the AN QUIBIA from the Balearic Islands off the coast (Mallorca) was pretty bland and I went back to the Pardes, It was served with some Wasabi Peas and then two beautifully homemade rolls (one dark and one light) on a platter with long crunchy tentacles of bread on each end (like Dali's mustache!) There was olive oil and sea salt and then a small chest came which was opened to reveal five sea salts for the tapas: coarse black, finer red, a very fine yellow, a Himalayan Rock still in rock form with a grater, and a fifth salt. This reminded me of our recent visit to Naples and SEA SALT on a lower key. The music playing was mostly opera, with hints of Piaf and others making for an even better ambience.

The amuse was what an amuse should be: HAMACHI on a bed of purified seaweed and sea vegetables (as the chef explained) topped with tobiko and a white yogurt foam, perhaps in homage to the new chemistry so admired her in Barcelona. On the side was a small sorbet like whipped seaweed/sea vegetable swirl also topped with tobiko. I knew from the first bite that if the food to follow was this good, I was in for a humongous treat.

My first dish was PESOLS de LLAVANERES-CLOISSES a la Minute I una emuslsio di Menta or roughly translated PEAS & CLAMS. This dish was not only beyond divine, the presentation should get an award. A slate platter was brought with a large glass filled with the warm fresh peas in a thick broth which I have no clue what was therein. Next to it was a cast iron mini-pot filled with a layer of sea salt and then a layer of rosemary twigs; two gorgeous uncooked calms sat atop this. My server was the chef's mom, and since I don't know her name, I will refer to her as "mom." "Mom" lit a long lighting utensil of wood (I can't remember what they are called) and touched it to the rosemary which ignited and burned for about a minute, she then covered the dish with a glass top and cooked it for another minute so that the fire went out and the clams opened up. I got this on video and am still amazed at how much FUN it was. It did not end here, the dish simply put me in heaven (I later told Francesc, "je suis en ciel...") ad with a touch of the fine red salt, the peas were the best I have ever had anywhere, and apparently a fresh delicacy now in season here.

The second tapas was POP EN PORROSALDA which is local OCTOPUS in a sinfully decadent LEEK CREAM SAUCE with tiny spots of darker Olive oil for presentation effect. Again, each bite was a revelation, each taste a sensation, and I could not believe how nobody knew about this place. I arrived way to early for lunch in Spain at 130pm, and it was now 230pm and only one other couple had arrived. By the time I left at 330pm, only one table was empty!

The final tapas was a very traditional one: MADONGUILLES & SEPIA or simply MEATBALLS and CUTTLEFISH. The small meatballs were in a rich dark sauce with small pieces of the tender fish for flavor, and believe you me, these were the tastiest meatballs I ever had.

I knew I could manage no more, so I settled for what Xavier said was the lightest dessert: MUSCAT CAKE in KAFFIR LIME Sauce with COCONUT SORBET. It was just perfect with a small rectangle of the cake which had raisins and was dark, but not dense, the sauce being thin and full of lime flavor, but not overwhelming also had some cooked peppercorns in it for spice. Need I say more? A glass of local VINO NARANJA or Orange wine from Bodegas IGLESIAS (bodegas means winery) rounded out the meal before I ordered a coffee. The bartender, who pretty much stayed behind the bar, delivered the espresso, and before I could take a sip, "mom" whooshed over and placed a different cup in front of me proffering HER coffee saying, "este mio." It was superb and came with some tasty after the meal sweets: a cold egg-yolk frothy shot glass somewhat akin to a smoothee, a small miniature chocolate muffing and a superb disc of white chocolate mounted on a small stick like a lollipop and smattered with some sea salt and dried apricot. OMIGOD!

So, all I can say is, that if you get anywhere within 100 miles of Barcelona, make a detour and while you might want to eat at El Bulli, don't miss BOHEMIC!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

CAN GAIG can glow, but Barcelona's best is still Bohemic

I go back now to yesterday night, my first night ever in Barcelona (I was here a year and a half ago for only a day on a cruise ship). I had booked CAN GAIG (pronounced more like "gauge" without the "e" or better yet "getch"), Can being the Catalan for house, and Gaig the name of the famous Michelin-starred chef. I was impressed upon arrival when my coat was taken and no check delivered; a regular case at a Michelin-starred spot if you ever dine at them. I was escorted upstairs to a medium size room with about 18 tables and decorated mainly in red leather (banquettes) and black lacquer with curtains over the glass walls extending the length of the room. At 9pm, I was the only person there, and by 920pm only one more table of two and on table of four sat down; this was the entire patronage for the evening. I couldn't believe it.

After perusing the menu I wanted to try the tasting menu, b ut had an urge for a specific main course, which they would not do on the tasting, so they offered to prepare a number of the dishes at half-size for half-price, which seemed fair to me. My server/maitre d' was Anthony (I think really Antoine) who was French and had recently worked for Gordon Ramsey, with no kind comments for him! He made some suggestions, and I followed his lead.

The first amuse arrived with a small bowl of corn chips made with raspberry vinaigrette and black pepper. They were fun and had the consistency of giant Chinese noodles or pappadam. These were accompanied by a small slate with a COD FRITTER, a whipped BLUE CHEESE with Black SQUID BREAD, Almonds dusted with gold, and a CHERRY TOMATO in Olive Sauce. They were all yummy, and the cheese and small piece of bread was most interesting.

Kiko was the other maitre d'/server (there were two men in charge and two women that sometimes brought and cleared plates) as well as the sommelier and said he would gladly pair wines and keep the prices reasonable and my glass full; I loved this. First came GRAN RESERVA de la FINCA 2003 CAVA from RAVENTOS I BLANC which unlike other cavas had an okay taste and a hint of yeast, more akin to real champagne. This was accompanied by Amuse #2, a small tempura of SQUID with SQUID INK-no great prize here.

The breads arrived and Antoine rolled over a table with seven choice of Spanish Virgin Olive Oils. My favorite was a nutty fruity one from Priorat. There was also sea salt on the table (a very prevalent thing here it seems).

My first course was a ROASTED ARTICHOKE & SCALLOP dish. The artichokes were the highlight here. I loved the wine Kiko chose, a ABADAL Picapoll 2007 from Pla de Bages region and was perfect with the dish, especially since the scallop has some sea salt on it.

My second course was one of Gaig's signature dishes, but also a very traditional Catalan dish: CANELLONI stuffed with a magnificent meat stuffing that was almost like tartare and all this in a sublime BLACK TRUFFLE CREAM. This was paired with a Crianza (Tempranello) from SIERRA CANTABRIA 2005 in the Rioja region.

My entree wine was also a red Crianza (tempranello), but a much bigger and heavier one from RIBERA DEL DUERO called PAGODE CARRAOVEJAS 2006. It was tart, a bit tight at first and yummy with my intense plate the ROASTED YOUNG WOODCOCK. Chef Carles Gaig is well known for his game dishes and I really wanted to try to wild woodcock (called "becada" in Catalan). It was a finger-licking good dish, but almost a bit too rich. There was, alas, one small piece of buckshot in the meat. The presentation was quite nwild with a heavy sauce surrounding the flayed bird and a millefeuille with the ground meat of the woodcock on top. It was intense, and some of you might have flinched as it came with the bird's head (brains and all, which I was told to suck out---and they were very tasty) split in half and roasted as well and laying at the edge of each side of the plate to frame the meat. Sadly, this plate arrived within 5 minutes of my having asked Antoine to give me at least 20 minutes rest. I had indicated this numerous times, but I guess the kitchen was not listening. I sent the dish back and they told me they could only keep it warm for about 5 minutes. I was very upset and ate it 5 minutes later. Frankly, a super-uber place like this should have realized their mistake; they did nothing to correct the error. A lemon finger bath arrived and I told them I wanted to wait quite a while before anything else.

Kiko agreed to do a 1/2 cheese order and a 1/2 dessert; this worked quite well. The cheeses were PUYG CERVER a dry intense aged goat from Catalan, Saint Marcellin my favorite in the world-an oozy creamy delight from the Rhone, Reblochon and a mild Stilton. The wine was a LUSTAU EAST INDIA SOLERA SHERRY made from 50% Olorosa and 50% Pedro Ximenez. It was perfect and oh so Spanish.

The dessert was a small fluffy almost alcoholic tasting CREME BRULEE served in the Gaig tradition with a crunchy top, but also and underlying oozy caramel; it was different and fun, and not really Creme Brulee. This came with a Julian CHIVITE NAVARRA Muscat 2005 Late Harvest. I finished up and took my after dinner treats home for another day knowing that the meal was good, not amazing, but that they made some mistakes and should have corrected them before bringing the bill for 140+Euros!

Tomorrow, I am off to the countryside outside Barcelona for 4 days of meetings, touring and tasting!

chain dining in Spain!: superb MESON CINCO JOTAS is a treat for tapas

My first day in Barcelona started early with a 7am flight arrival (2 hours early--wow, amazing American Airlines!) and heading out to "walk" the city by 930am after arriving at my hotel, the elegant CLARIS. After much adventuring and architectural touring, I found myself at MESON CINCO JOTAS' original location (, which is now one of three in Barcelona and about 14 in all Spain. It is an excellent traditional tapas restaurant specializing in dishes with jamon Iberico, the local delicacy. On arrival you can see over 50 huge hams hanging in the front window and at least three different kinds are on racks at the counter being delicately and thinly sliced (think of our delis at home slicing Nova Scotia) by the "cortador" or cutter, a profession in itself. I warmed up (well it's about 50 degrees here) with a glass or two of SENORIO del CID CRIANZA 2003, a hearty Rioja that goes with everything.

I ordered the tapas tasting menu at 23 Euros (about $30 today) which included many wonderful dishes and some less exciting ones as well. To start there was a platter of Catalan Bread done bruschetta style with about 8 or so different slices of meats including the Jamon, Chorizo, Salchichoni and Morcilla (don't ask me which was which). It also included TORTA de CASAR a local cheese that has been slightly warmed to ooziness that you can spread on the small crostini crackers. There is also a plate of olives, bread and oil (this comes with all meals).

The down dish of the day was the COOKED TUNA SALAD over RED PEPPERS with a small salad of greens, some crunchy bacon-like ham and pesto oil. While tasty, it was unexciting and there were less than two bites of tuna. The hit cold appetizer was the CREAM of TOMATO SOUP (called SALMOREJO) which tasted more of yogurt than cream and was topped with egg and more jamon, YAY!

The hot courses were all top notch from the simple two small creamy CROQUETTES oddly served with some potato stix (yes like the packaged ones at home, but obviously made fresh here). The highlight of the meal was the BACALAO with SALSA VERDE a superb 5-bite piece of tender cod with a Provencal-like sauce of olives and tomato along with small shrimps on toast.

The last hot plate was two skewers each through a 1" square or so piece of meat (making about 3 bites each); the first a PORK SIRLOIN with a sweet brown sauce of PEDRO XIMENEZ Sherry with RAISINS and a filet of BEEF with a TORTA CHEESE, god-awful rich and thick cheesy creamy sauce, that was just too much (so I used the Sherry sauce for both meats).

A small dessert of a tiny FUDGE COOKIE with a scoop of CHOCOLATE MOUSSE came in an orange sauce with a tasty broiled ORANGE SLICE. Since dinner here is way after 9pm (you can't even sit down in a restaurant until 9pm), I hope I will be hungry again in several hours!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Baltimore's WOODBERRY KITCHEN cooks it up organic

The other day we headed to Baltimore to see a spectacular production of CAROLINE or CHANGE and to take out it's star afterwards. It was a wonderful evening of great company only made better by a new out of the way find, WOODBERRY KITCHEN ( located several miles north of downtown at 2010 Clipper Park Rd in a quiet renovated are made up of a 200+ year old storage building. The motto, "From farm to table..." says it all, and the decor is rustic, exposed brick, yet warm with lots of wood. A mezzanine section is balconied above the gigantic open room with an open kitchen. My only complaint about the entire place was the paper napkins; we were told that cloth is coming soon!

We started with a bottle of CHARLES JOGUET 2006 Cabernet Franc :Cuvee Terroir" from Chinon which was mild and had nice body, not a wimpy red at all. It was cold, so we stuck with red all night, moving on to a THIBAULT LIGER-BELAIR "Le Corvee de Villy" 2006 Pinot Noir from Haut Cotes de Nuits, Burgundy and finally being thrilled and wowed by an Estate Bottled WILD HOG 2004 Sonoma ZINFANDEL The wines are all superb and also organic, and Corey the manager was extremely helpful in making suggestions and guiding us. Everyone was as sweet as could be, and our only problem was deciding what to choose from the large menu. There was also a specials menu in addition to the "snacks, salads & cold plates, cheeses, supper plates, faltbreads, soups and warm plates, oysters" and more...

Since everything is local we started with 3 plates of CHESAPEAKE OYSTERS. Of the six types, we adored three: CHOPTANK SWEETS, STINGRAYS and the salty, briny WITCHDUCKS. Also yummy were the CIRCLE C's, BARCATS and OLDE SALTS. We ordered one flatbread to share: PEAR with FIREFLY BLUE CHEESE, ROCKET (odd they used the British term for arugula) & MUSTARD CREAM which was divine and more of a mini-pizza in 4 slices than a really flat flatbread.

We moved on to an assortment of hot plates:
HUNTER's SAUSAGE & PRETZEL which was a housemade sausage served with CHAPEL TOMME Cheese and APPLE CIDER MUSTARD. It was divine, and here we realized that whoever is making the breads, crusts and pretzels is a genius!
The PORK BUNS were also of the pretzel type dough and also divine with a SWEET ONION RELISH. Pastries shone with the flaky delicate CHEDDAR BACON TURNOVERS with glazed apples and sour cream on the side which were unnecessary.
Our one cold plate was the CHILLED BEETS with YOGHURT CHEESE, HORSERADISH & Dill. They were cooked perfectly with kosher or sea salt, just the way I like and the cheese was fuller bodied than I expected; a nice foil to the beets.

You can imagine how full we were after the three of us had devoured all this so we stuck with only two entrees: SHRIMP & ANDOUILLE PEPPERPOT made with Smoked Chicken, Carolina Gold Rice (which is a very round thick couscous like rice), tomato and red chile for a heavenly (and yes, filling) combination.

STOUT-BRAISED SHORT RIBS were cooked to perfection and glazed wonderfully, served with SQUASH SPAETZLE, ROASTED BEETS and Caraway. These two dishes were, needless to say, perfection with the Zinfandel. Our vegetable plate was a simple GREEN BEAN SALAD with delectable WHITE BEECH MUSHROOMS, Burdock & Soy; another organic genius creation by Chef/Owner Spike Gjerde, who must be thrilled with this less than year old place!

We left full with no room for dessert, but knowing that when we are next in Baltimore, WOODBERRY KITCHEN is a destination we will return to.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

In Grande Case, St. Martin: lovin' the lolo TALK OF THE TOWN

I have been to Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, the French-Dutch shared island, several times and have always enjoyed superb food. Today's tour of the island with Samuel brought us to the small French seaside town of Grande Case, known to many as the gastronomical capital of the Caribbean, as it is chock full of gourmet restaurants, mostly French, though now quite varied. With Samuel in tow we stopped at the open air spots in town known as "lolo" which are simply local food cooked on grills and served fresh. We loved it all.

We started with the simple JOHNNY CAKES (called "pain" meaning bread) which are more like Navajo fry bread and taste yummy with the hot,hot,hot Creole sauce in the jar on the table. FISH FRITTERS were next and a superb dish called CHRISTOPHINE which is a breaded fish dish in a hollow eggplant shell. YUM YUM.

Boudin noir was the typical French blood pudding, but BOUDIN BLANC was its local cousin made with FISH! WOW!

The ribs were the dry version, barbecued and tasty as was the chicken, and we chose yummy sides of vegetables, rice and beans, and plantains. While I use the word dry, I say this in a complimentary way, and there was a yummy barbecue sauce on the side which I chose to mix with the HOTHOTHOT sauce (just a tad) for a nice dip every now and then.

We asked where the term "lolo" came from and we were informed it was the name of the neighborhood. Well, Grande Case is about 7 blocks long, so I am not quite sure about that, but it didn't matter because we all had a finger-licking good meal of local food before rejoining our ship for two more days of gluttony before returning home.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Martinique's L'HABITATION de DILLON delights

Our second major offshore lunch was in Fort-de-France, Martinique where I had unsuccessfully tried to call the top place in town, La Belle Epoque, for weeks before our departure to reserve a table at the famous gourmet location in the hills north of town. As soon as we disembarked, the woman at the tourist board desk sadly informed us, "ferme." I was devastated. She was a gem and went through the local restaurant listings with us, but most of the finer spots are at hotels to the south and we were headed north and in town only. Many of the finer spots in town were fully booked, as lunch is the big meal here (it IS France, and the stores still close for two hours each day at noon).

We ended up just northeast of downtown at HOSTELLERIE de DILLON on Avenue des Arawaks near the famous Dillon Rhum Distillery. The neighborhood is named Dillon as well, and we think the restaurant may even be owned by the distillery.

The wooden tables and (not too comfy) chairs are mostly outside on a covered patio with a small pool and next to ours a hot tub! I guess they may have some guests (hotel or guest house). Our server was an aloof French (read: tres gay and obnoxious). My French is pretty good and Will can't manage a menu, so I asked him if he spoke English to try and clarify some local terms. His "NON" was so abrupt and he waved his hand like some queen in a bad gay movie. What he failed to tell us was that many others did speak English, which was the only real fault of the afternoon.

We found our beloved BADOIT sparkling water and while Will sipped a Coca-Cola Light, I had a small carafe of tasty dry crisp ROSE de PROVENCE, a relief in the 80+ degree heat. Only I had a starter, which I shared with Will and it was a dreamy DORADE CUIT (barely seared Dorado) in a light tasty (and not sweet at all) COCONUT SAUCE with a small salad of bright red tomato and lettuce in a Dijon Vinaigrette. The fish was superb and we marveled at the sauce, especially since coconut can often be too sweet. The tomatoes were to die for, and I wanted to grab them up and take them back to the ship as the ones aboard tend to be a bit sad.

The main courses were a gourmet delight: I had the TARTARE of CARIBBEAN FISH mixed with lentils and a DILLON RHUM LIME Sauce surrounded by capers and another much larger salad with those delightful tomatoes. The fish was exquisite and the preparation superb; there was really no rum taste at all and I loved the idea of the lentils with the capers for a salty taste.

Will's GRILLED MARLIN with a CREOLE SAUCE was a lighter version of the swordfish-like fish we know but as tasty as could be and seasoned to perfection. The sauce was a divine lemony-yellow and creamy, but not spicy and the dish was accompanied by delicious haricots verts and rice.

After coffee, we headed back to the ship hoping that we can squeeze in one more offshore meal as good today in Saint Martin.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Caribbean cuisine: St. Thomas' GLADYS CAFE loses its star

As you know we are now at sea for ten days and tend to eat most of our meals (which are pretty good) on board the MS NOORDAM. Every now and then we venture to eat ashore and chose to do so on our first day ashore last week in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. I have been there several times and there is indeed some fine dining, but mostly at night or out of town at the hotels. We chose GLADYS' CAFE which has been a stalwart locale in the Royal Dane Mall smack in the middle of town and has consistently received high ratings including an "our favorite" star from Fodor's Travel Guides. Well, based on our visit, they lost the star.

We are used to the laid back service in the islands, but came in parched from the heat and begged for water, which did not come for almost ten minutes. It seems that only the waitress can bring water; the lady who clears the table can do only that and point to the waitress when you ask for something!

The food has lots to be desired as well. Samuel's HAMBURGER was on the verge of well done shoe leather (we asked for it not past medium), Will's CARIBBEAN LOBSTER SALAD SANDWICH was about as mayonnaise-intense as it gets and hardly chock full of meat. My GOAT CURRY was well-prepared and tasty with lots of nice sides like beans and rice, plantains, etc., but the goat tended to be sinewy and was on the bone; bone which made up most of the platter. Thank goodness for the sides and tasty sauce,

After waiting for what seemed a decade, our waitress finally brought the check and we just hied out as quick as we could. The ambiance at Gladys is mostly tourists with some locals at the rowdy bar; the decor is unmemorable and the bathroom is a public one outside down the street, which one would think would have been cleaner as there was a woman sitting there collecting tips but clearly not wiping any surface in need of it. Enough said. ZERO STARS.

Friday, January 02, 2009

AZUL at Miami's MANDARIN ORIENTAL is opulent

We only had one night in Miami before we boarded our cruise ship (we are now somewhere in the middle of the Bahamas at sea) and specifically planned it to have dinner with our friends Michael & Roberto. We chose AZUL for its high ratings, but also because it was right in our hotel and hence, oh so easy; Friday night traffic in Miami Beach and Miami can be awful!

It is a beautiful elegant setting created when the hotel opened for Chef Michelle Bernstein, who has gone on to great fame, but had her humbler beginnings as an apprentice to our dear late Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate! Chef Clay Conley (sp?) is now in charge and the operation is as seamless as ever. Superb service, timing and a huge staff which oozes class seems to anticipate our every need.

We started with a bottle of KARL LAGLER "Burgberg" 2007 Federspeil GRUNER VELTLINER, after having polished off a bottle of tasty, but light, DELOACH PINOT NOIR in our suite upstairs. The amuse was a FRIED RISOTTO BALL with Black Truffle which was nice and the breads were a bit burnt (so they brought us a fresh warm batch instantly) and came with a tasty Black Olive Tapenade with Orange.

The food began to excite with our starters as we all shared a PERUVIAN CORVINA CEVICHE with AVOCADO SALAD and yummy TOSOTONES coated with a bit of honey. We decided to share this and there were only three tostones on the plate, but after a quick request from Will, three move appeared magically. The ceviche was superb fleshy fish and a great sauce.

Our "second" round of starters was even more exciting:
A spicy JAPANESE HIMACHI "TRADITO" with Peruvian Chiles, Ginger, Soy Vinaigrette and Crispy Lotus Root Salad CHAR-GRILLED OCTOPUS Salad with Cucumber, Roasted Garlic HUMMUS, Kalamata Olive, Tomato, Mint & Red Wine Vinaigrette
A loaded with MAINE LOBSTER SALALD with a tingling CARROT-COCONUT EMULSION, Hearts of Palm, Grapefruit and Avocado
and my "STEAK 'N' EGG" which was a CARPACCIO of BEEF covered with TRUFFLED ARTICHOKE Vinaigrette SALAD which was nice by outshone by its plate partner the TARTARE of BEEF with TEMPURA-Fried CRISPY EGG YOLK and Aged Balsamic. This was one of the best tartares around. By this time we had moved onto a hugely grapefruit intense SAUVIGNON BLANC 2004 from CRAUFORD "Highlander-Maroon Vineyard" that we loved with the intense flavors of the food.

Our main course wine was a PATRICIA GREENE 206 "Balcombe" PINOT NOIR from Oregon loaded with fruit, spice and some vanilla; DIVINE!

YOGURT Marinated Local SWORDFISH with Minted Yogurt, Toasted Pita Salad, Lobster and a Brown Butter Cashew Sauce was tasty and novel, MAPLE FARMS DUCK BREAST with Confit Leg, Gingered Carrots, Sesame Glaze, Cabbage and Citrus Salad was a huge portion and perfectly cooked. A big hit for all of us was the MOROCCAN INSPIRED LAMB with Harissa Marinated Loin, Lamb Shank Bastilla in phyllo with Shaved Artichoke Salad (as a substitute for the eggplant), RAITA, Grilled Lamb Chop and Pepper Salad.

My CERVENA VENSION LEG "Au Poivre" was indeed spicy peppery and came with Crispy Polenta, Bosch Pears, Spinach, Venison Bolognese and a Polenta Cube that was heavenly and made with Cave Aged Gruyere.

Our desserts were equally impressive with me going for the lighter BASIL PANNA COTTA with Tomato Marmelade, Lemon Olive Oil Sorbet (which was sublime) and Cherry Reduction. Will opted for the CHOCOLATE TRIO of Hazelnut Bar, Milk Chocolate-Lime Ice Cream (yumyum), Chocolate Banana Cake, Ginger Ice Cream and Whipped Ganache. Roberto had the MILK CHOCOLATE & ORANGE which was a semifreddo of the former and a creme brulee of the latter with Orange Sorbet. Michael was good and just tasted!

We left happy knowing that we could always eat several more meals or more each day aboard our ship.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

SEA SALT reigns supreme in Naples, FL

On New Year's Day our friends Phyllis and Michael joined us and Samuel as we ventured to downtown Naples where SEA SALT ( opened only a month ago. This beautiful setting is chic and classy yet casual with a large bar area at the front and many outside places as well as a huge dining room which actually has tables in the large open kitchen area at the rear. It is one of the nicest restaurant settings we have seen in Florida. Sea Salt is the creation of our friends Ingrid and Fabrizio Aielli who left Washington just over a year ago after selling their landmark Italian restaurant Teatro Goldoni.

Sam was pretty hungry so we asked for a plate of pasta for him prontissimo and within minutes, Fabrizio had whipped up a superb PENNE with KOBE BEEF RAGU which Sam devoured, although he did not seem to care for the spectacular meat sauce, so we all scooped it up in our spoons!

We munched on crispy FRITTO MISTO of shrimp, scallops, zucchini, calamari and more with a simple tartar sauce. I marveled at how greaseless each piece was. We started with a bottle of intensely mineral DOMAINE BELLE CROZES-HERMITAGES Blanc 2006 which was great with almost everything. It was quite wonderful to find such an eclectic wine list in Florida as well, since so many places have the same standards. Our second wine was an equally rewarding POLIZIANO 2005 VINO NOBILE de MONTEPULCIANO which was a well rounded and medium bodied red that again just goes with everything. Our final wine was an intense full-bodied yet oh so smooth DARIOUSH 2005 MERLOT from Napa.

Our servers Zach & Matt were brilliant, we could not have asked for better attention and indeed we noticed that while the place was filling up tp the brim (we arrived at 6pm) as we enjoyed ourselves, service never seemed to slack off anywhere in the large room.

SEA SALT leans toward seafood, but is not exclusive by far. The signature here is the small plate of three salts that come with the superb bread along with olive oil to mix the salt with for the bread. Our three salts were RED HAWAIIAN, BLACK LAVA also from HAWAII and INDIAN BLACK LAVA which is actually pinkish and has the most bizarre sulphuric taste reminiscent of roasted egg yolk. It was fun to taste these and use them on the food as we were reminded there are over 70 varieties of sea salt in the world used for seasoning!

TUNA CARPACCIO came with QUAIL EGGS, BOTTARGA, CUCUMBER, CILANTRO, LEMON Vinaigrette and Smoked Salt ad was topped with an herb like green called WAKAMEE (sp?). It was a divine creation as were all the dishes all evening. SQUID INK RICOTTA GNOCCHI with Ragu of ARTICHOKES & Skinned TOMATO topped with BOTTARGA and ROASTED RED & GOLD BEETS with Warm Pecan Crusted GOAT CHEESE, Mache and POMEGRANATE Vinaigrette were alos big hits. We shared a divine BURRATA with HEIRLOOM TOMATOES which I am confident has never before made its way to Naples or perhaps even the entire Southwest of Florida. Innovation of ingredients are another prime key treat at SEA SALT. KUMAMOTO OYSTERS came with the standard cocktail sauce, but also a terrifice OLIVE TAPENADE SAUCE which was light enough not to overpower the delicate bivalves.

A palate cleanser of RASPBERRY & Candied ORANGE SORBET with LAVA BLACK SALT was a novelty and a treat.

Entrees were also top notch from the SWORDFISH Crusted with CRAB MEAT, Tomato & Thyme Sauce with Baby Artichokes which Will declared as the best swordfish he had ever had! The BROILED BLACK GROUPER with GRAPE TOMATO POPS & CHIVES, SHITAKE MUSHROOMS and TRUFFLE SOFT POLENTA was another divine fish. When Phyllis mentioned that part of her fish was a bit tough, they offered to replace it immediately; since she was already quite full the charge was quickly removed from the bill. At this point we were all in heaven save Samuel who declared he was very tired and had a mini melt-down (he had been swimming almost all day at two pools and the beach and really was exhausted), so we packed up the remains of the wine...took home some yummy chocolates and quickly got Sam to bed and enjoyed the rest.

I know that Naples is on our return list again just to visit our dear friends there, but also to revisit SEA SALT, perhaps several times!