Monday, August 31, 2009

SHAMWARI Reserve's SARILI Lodge (East Cape nr Port Elizabeth) shows you the safari life

We arrived here midday Tuesday in our 5-bedroom private lodge with staff (there are five of us) and the newest lodge in the SHAMWARI Reserve is a beauty. Small private lap pool. superb staff and chef, and of course, the game reserve that beats all others in quality and size in this region of the Eastern Cape.

The reason lots of folks come here is that it is, unlike the east where we go soon, malaria free. Since this was created as reserve it also boasts the largest population of indigenous animals that are virtually disease-free, making it the perfect place to go if you don't feel like flying east to Mpumalanga and the Kruger area.

They have several options of lodge types here and everything is all-inclusive, so if you wish to eat at SARILI you must stay here, and you SHOULD book through me, as we get heavily discounted rates!

Anyway, after our afternoon/evening game drive (which included superb Butternut Squash Quiche, Biltong, Snacks and divine White Chocolate Biscotti with wines and drinks as the sun set) we returned and washed for dinner. We were all exhausted from the long day's drive here and then the long game drive in which we saw packs and packs of elephants (including a 2-week old), a leopard, wildebeest, waterbuck, eland, springbok and blesbok, but dinner is always a priority.

Delaire 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch was our white and was delish with the rich but creamless PUMPKIN & ORANGE Soup as well as the CHICKEN LIVER PATE which came with Fig Preserve and Peanut Sauce in a mini-salute to Thailand which was quite ingenious. During the pate, I switched to a light bodied red 2007 LEOPARD's LEAP from Franschhoek which is a Cab/Merlot blend, but worked fine with the liver and my ensuing fish. The fish was a White CAPE SALMON which unlike our Atlantic salmon is meaty and white and less fishy. It was a bit overdone and came with rice, Fresh Mange Tout (pea pods) and a superb Citrus Hollandaise. I probably should have ahd the excellent looking Seared Beef Fillet with Roasted Root Veggies, Polenta, Onion Marmelade and Butternut Chips with Rocket (test your memory and check my reports from earlier this week to see what these are!), but I was feeling full and needed some fish.

The dessert was a divine BAKED ORANGE & MARMALADE PUDDING with yummy Clove Ice Cream and Candied Orange, and they graciously gave me a 1/2 portion on request.

We were off to bed early as we had to rise just after 5am for our game drive this morning. On this drive we saw a pride of two female and one male lions, white rhinos (including a little lad of 3-4 months), a dazzel of Burchell zebra, warthogs, red hartebeest,blesbok, gemsbock (oryx), impala, waterbuck, kudu, numerous birds and springbok, which was also my breakfast dish upon return.

We had a superb brunch at 1045am upon return after a 4+ hour drive (and 2 site inspections of other lodges) and I chose the magnificent CORN & SAFFRON Fritters with SMOKED SPRINGBOK & Cucumber Salad. The fritters here are fried, but ever so lightly and much thicker, almost like a biscuit, making them perfect for breakfast. The springbok, as it was smoked, was as lean as eat could be, and reminded me of the best quality pastrami one has ever eaten back home! We used some of Mrs. Ball's Chutney here and there and on the accompanying meat and cheese platters and I have got to buy this stuff to bring home. The Original is as mild as chutney gets, but I hear the "hot" is truly spectacular. I even purchased a small bag of SIMBA's Crisps (that's potato chips) flavored with this chutney to bring home, as Samuel will appreciate the Simba lion on the package, I hope.

Well--we are off to an animal rehab center then to Port Elizabeth, our last visit in the East Cape before heading to safari in the east. I hope to be able to send these out, as we have no access here in Shamwari today.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Zachary's at the PEZULA Resort in Knysna, South Africa gets 3***'s

Our final night on the Garden Route kept us just across the estuary from Phantom Ranch at the magnificent PEZULA Resort & Spa high atop the Knysna Head (the land barriers that almost block the Indian Ocean from flooding the estuary) with views of the lagoon, the town and the ocean as well. IT is a small, but very luxurious resort and is the home to ZACHARY's named for the owner's late dog that traveled the world and visited many countries and continents and apparently (even as a dog) was known well around the world's restaurants!)

Well ZACHARY would be proud as the setting is cushy and elegant with about 12 tables, some overlooking the twinkly lights of Knysna below, large bronze leaf-like mobile sculptures and a modern outdoor fountain/steel sculpture beautifully lit that was mesmerizing as the water circulated. I sat at the end of the room, all alone, and was the only customer all night. The four others in our group had decided to do room service due to exhaustion, but I, in the service of you, my readers, felt a proper dining experience was in order. This was one of the best meals I have had here so far, and ranks high on the all-time list. Each table has an orange protea with orchid sprays on the serving tables, the 5 star bath alone boasts native woods of purple with granite, marble and magnificent native made vases (two looked like zebras). The linens are crisp white, the crystal is Schott and the service is impeccable.

I chose the "Chef's Experience Menu" which listed three courses plus amuses and petit fours for an amazing 275 rand ($35 en with the dollar dropping daily). The wines were extra, but Norbert, the manager, made sure I was well taken care of by Fiky, the Muslim sommelier, who does not drink but knew each wine intimately by smell. Since nobody else was there, Norbert spoke with me at length and I discovered (even thought Sunday was his day off) that the chef Geoffry Murray was from NYC and indeed ran the well-known BOOM there years ago. Fiky laid out an array of glasses as he had a different one for each varietal, something you don't see often these days--even one for rose! I started with two wines to choose from and since the Chenin Blnac from DeMorgenzon 2007 in Stellenbosch had a slight bitof residual sugar, I chose the CAPE POINT Sauvignon Blanc 2--7 form just south of Cape Town (Cape Point region) which was super citrusy in intensity with hints of green apple. The Amuse was a SALMON TROUT, Cream Cheese & Salmon Caviar on Sourdough item that lacked ingenuity, but was quite tasty. Salmon Trout is a local fresh water fish from the Franschhoek area in Wine Country that is less salty and less fishy than what we call sea-based smoked salmon as it is a trout relative, but quite different, yet very tasty when it is high quality, and this was the best.

The water (though charged) is filtered and bottled in house and the sparkling has the softest effervescence ever. The breads were divine with a seeded health bread and a yummy biscuit as well as French bread, which I did not taste.

My first course was to be a choice or raw or baked oysters and I asked for both, which was no problem for a small charge. The 3 raw MOSSEL BAY WILD OYSTERS came from about 30 miles down the coast and at $3.00 each were okay, but won no raves. The oysters from here are neither salty nor briny, though they are mid-size in range and a bit fleshy. I much preferred the 3 that came poached in sparkling wine with Buttermilk Potato Cream, Leeks and Salmon Caviar as they burst with flavor and melted in my mouth. The Sauvignon Blanc was nice, but Fiky insisted I try a SOLMS "Wijn de Caab" Lekkerwijn 2006 Rose which was a blend of Viognier/Mourvedre/Grenache from Stellenbosch and was a dream with the poached mussels.

My main course was GRILLED ELAND FILLET which is the largest of the antelope family and we actually saw them on our game drive today (we are now at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve). The meat was flavorful, not to gamey and totally tender. It was crusted with GRANOLA and served with diced dried red fuits a yummy CELERIAC PUREE with a puddle of Pinot Noir Sauce in the middle and surrounded by a thicker set of PINOT NOIR and BLACK CHERRY sauces. Rainbow chard was underneath the meat and was much softer and less forward than Swiss Chard. FIky wanted me to try two wines again so I tasted the DIEMERSFONTEIN 2003 "Heaven's Eye" made from Cabernet Sauvignon/Cab Franc/ Shiraz & Petit Verdot from the Wellington region which was so earthy I said it needed a much bigger game meat. The GALPIN PEAK 2008 PINOT NOIR from Walker Bay, where we had just come from earlier in the week, was the most divine Pinot from South Adfrica with huge fruit and great intensity and flavour.

The pre-dessert was a BACARDI Rum Jelly with Mint Pesto and Lime Sorbet which may not sound too attractive, but was indeed a refreshing and light palate cleanser.

Dessert was a CARAMELIZED BANANA and ALMOND FINANCIER with a slash of Prune Puree, Sesame Brittle (more of a tuile), Whiskey and Maple Jelly Tots (think of giant DOTS of jelly that look like sliding jiggly boobs) and GIANDUJA Ice Cream which was one of the best I have ever had. Fiky arrived again not being sure of my preferences and proffered the two choices of wine: RUDERA 2006 Chenin Blanc Noble Late Harvest from Stellenbosch was simply perfect, but the HANNEPORT Soet (meaning sweet) Detlefs 2006 from Breedekloof was just was too sweet to even consider with food or even alone; I think it needs a huge hunk of foie gras and noting else. The Petit Fours were three percentages of chocolate and I was not to fond of this choc-intense layout, but a glass of AMARULA Liqueur, the South African national sweet drink was divine as I waddled back to my suite and weighed myself to see I had
gained back all the weight lost on my diet last month. OOPS!

South Africa's Garden Route offers up many kinds of cuisine in Knysna-Featherbed Nature Reserve

As the purpose of my trip is to learn about what South Africa can offer my clients, some of our trip includes specific excursions that should be on every itinerary. The Garden Route is the are along the Indian Ocean Coast located between the Wine Country and the city of Port Elizabeth, also known as the East Cape as this is the area east of Cape Town (which is in the West Cape). The small town of Knysna is in the center of this area and offers many different diversions, great shopping, superb food and accommodation, as you witnessed in my review of Phantom Lodge yesterday.

We took a superb excursion yesterday morning to the FEATHERBED NATURE RESERVE which includes a 30 minute or so small ferry across the lagoon (which is really an estuary) located just inland from the Knysna Heads, two tall headlands that allow a small sliver of water to flow into the "lagoon" creating a brackish water area that reaches as far as 10 miles inland! As you cross on the ferry, the local oyster beds are pointed out and apparently over 1 million oysters are below us!

On the far side we are taken to the top of the Western Head on a rickety tractor 4 x 4 and then you take a 2.2km hike all the back down through amazing nature, flora and spectacular views of the entire lagoon, surrounding mountains and Indian Ocean coastline.

At the bottom on the morning hike (ferry departs at 10m and returns at 2pm) you are treated to a superb buffet of local and regional cuisine from a chef who I applauded just simply for the best Spiced Roasted Potato Wedges I ever had in my life! Other dishes include Chili Calamari (these are much large rings than we see at home) with mild slightly sweet chili sauce. Cold Breaded Curried Fish (another very delicious item from the Cape Malay cuisine), Lentils that were seasoned with Turmeric, Chutney and other spices for a simply divine dish, Roasted Butternut Squash (all the veggies were indeed of the best quality and with the tastiest result), yummy roast chicken legs,

Beef with a light Mushroom Sauce, Kudu Stew with Rice and a plethora of desserts, which I kept away from and instead enjoyed the fresh fruit. A table of many salads from Greens to Waldorf (apples/blue cheese/strawberries) and more were also all dressed reasonably (often, a big problem for a buffet). A glass of ROBERTSON Merlot, from the inland wine region to the north of us was priced reasonably and even the cappuccinos were great. All in all, if you can make the steep walk down hill (they give you walking sticks), the meal is a great reward!

I'll eat my hat at WIMPY's in Sougth Africa

As you all know I almost NEVER eat fast food, and for years have frowned upon most of it. I always assumed the European WIMPY's chain was just as bad and now have got to eat my hat, at least for their South African product.

We were taking a long drive today and didn't have time to "dine" so we stopped in Riversdal at the roadside WIMPY's. Upon the suggestion of our fearless leader Jenny, who has invited me on this trip, I ordered the 1/2 roasted CHICKEN with PAW-PAW and CHIPS. The chips (that's FRIES folks) were not so great, but the chicken was tasty and the paw-paw, a spicy Portuguese BBQ-like sauce was loaded with chilies (which Jenny says it should not have) and was a big hit at our table. The WIMPY's brand ketchup was indeed wimpy and ran to a loose watery texture, so I tried the chips wirth the paw-paw sauce and it was a great improvement despite their very boring whiteness. The creme soda was quite good but an odd tinge of bright green (think Chartreuse liquor).

Anyway, it was fun for us all and we are now at the PHANTOM FOREST ECO LODGE in treetop dwellings and will soon dine at the FOREST BOMA where we understand the vervets (tiny monkeys) often visit for dinner!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

the PHANTOM FOREST eco reserve really exudes excellence

Last night we climbed a small road to heights above the Knysna (pronounced "nice-nah) estuary (lagoon) and settled into an amazing luxury resort perched on walkways in the natural forest. You must stay at PHANTOM FOREST to eat there as it is closed off from the world after dark, and really is an amazing semi-adventurous experience. We dined with the reserve's quasi-eccentric but totally delightful owner, Kat, who hails from Scotland, speaks like a Brit and created this brilliant eco reserve to teach us all about how easy it is to preserve our ecology. She has built the resort from alien (non-native plants) poplars which were wrongly planted by the early Europeans who settled here. We sat in the bar and drank HAUTE CABRIERE Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend 2008 from Franschhoek which was odd enough to begin with, as it was a white wine dry and refreshing from red and white grape blend. The little WONTON DUCK hor's d'oevres that came with them were superb as well.

Down in the FOREST BOMA restaurant (they have two restaurants, the second a Moroccan spot called oddly enough Chutzpah, which Kit insists is her way to improve relations between the Jews & Arabs.

Dinner started with CURRIED APPLE and WATERBLOMMETJIES Soup which is a water lily-like cabbage. It was a simple but divine soup with lots of flavor and made me want more. The Twice Baked Butternut Squash Souffle with Caramelized Walnuts and Watercress Salad was cheesy and tasted superb as the Calamari Fritti with Sundried Tomato and Basil Aioli was a huge thick but not tough squid imported from Patagonia in Argentina (Kat likes their calamari the best). At this point she also ordered us up a couple of bottles of her favorite wine, THE CHOCOLATE BLOCK 2007 from Franschhoek as well was full of spice fragrance and dark creamy chocolate overtones. The Beetroot Risotto was divine but my MOROCCAN spiced ELAND CARPACCIO with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Olive Oil, Zhough (Moroccan spice) and Sumac Paste with Parmesan Shavings was revelation of local ingredients. Eland is another venison/antelope relative and maybe I will figure out all the differences between these and kudu/springbok and the rest by the end of the week!

PAWPAW (local term for Papaya) SORBET was a superb palate cleanser. The main courses were quite varied from a delicious Pan Fried WARTHOG FILLET with Gorgonzola Polenta, Almond Mange Tout(Snap Peas) and Cider and Thyme Sauce to my sadly a bit tough GINGER & QUINCE GLAZED Smoked DUCK BREAST with Creamy Sherry Lentiles and Wilted Spinach, Ginger Jus as the presentattion and ingredients were indeed all fine. It was like a Chinese lacquered duck and only the fact that i was a bit chewy was a problem.

CAMEMBERT CHEESE with TOFFEE APPLE was a nice local cheese with a mini-toffee apple on a stick on the side for fun.

The desserts were divine and came with Kat offering again the VIN DE CONSTANCIA dessert wine. I opted for the MALVA PUDDING (you will recall this from a week ago) and AMARULA Toffee Sauce with Toasted Hazelnut Ice Cream. Amarula is a sweet liqueur that goes great on desserts and I actually had it today at breakfast with my OATMEAL and it was even more divine, despite the fact the vervets (tiny monkeys) were attacking our table at every chance hoping to get a scone or piece of bread. They were funny, but Kat hates them and upon her arrival, her tiny dog scared them off for good.

What fun, what a treat and despite the duck, this place is a real adventure in every way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The PAVILION at The Marine in Hermanus holds standards high

The afternoon ride brought us back to Hermanus at the top of the bay (where we spotted a huge pack of baboons at the road side into town) and while we could not find any whales (they seem to hide when the sea gets calm), I did spot three dassies scurrying along as we promenaded along the magnificent Cliff Walk. For those of you unfamiliar, the dassie or rock hyrax(sp?) is about the size of a groundhog and is the only living relative of the elephant family. They are furry and adorable and will bite.

We changed for dinner and sat with our hostess, the hotel general manager in the elegant PAVILLION (named for the more than century old light fixtures taken from a defunct beach pavilion miles west of here). This beautiful hotel is the property of Liz McGrath, well known in the travel industry as the only woman who owns three Relais et Chateau properties. As as aside we visited The CELLARS/HOHENORT the other day as it is just minutes south of Cape Town and were treated to delightful drinks by their manager in The MARTINI, a quirky bar that serves over 150 martinis (it is apparently ranked third in the world by the number of martinis on the menu). Incidentally, I had a BASIL GRANDE with fresh basil from the garden, Grand Marnier, vodka, Cranberry juice and more...The third property we shall visit later as The Plettenberg is to the east on the Garden Route. Mrs. McGrath oversees every inch of decor and makes sure that her hotels are comfortable places, and the Pavillion exuded that feel with lots of space between tables and comfy chairs with modern, elegant, yet chic upholstery. The breads were offered and the crisp lavosh was great as was the Tomato/Olive Foccaccia; I could not eat the other three as I wanted to save my appetite.

An amuse of Pan Fried QUAIL with AVOCADO Cream over Brioche in a Red Wine Balsamic Reduction came and was a clear pointer that the chef was going to tantalize us all evening. Baby King Oyster Mushrooms were a garnish and the small leg and breast were perhaps bigger than the normal amuse, but we all polished off each bite voraciously.

Our wine was a BLANC de NOIRS which we usually think of as sparkling, but in South Africa it is a Rose style and this used 5 red grapes that were fermented without the skins. The 2007 BOCHENDAAL brings grapes from the western Coastal Region (north of Cape Town near the Atlantic) and is a huge fruity wine full of flavors and just shy of very dry. It was a perfect pairing with the balsamic from the quail and my TIAN of PRAWN and AVOCADO with Prawns Mousseline, Gazpacho and Ink Caviar. I had no clue what to expect and was thrilled when the bowl came with a small amount of gazpacho in the bottom, a tasty timbale of prawns held together with a light mousseline (it was the texture of a tuna tartare, but firmer due to the cooked shrimp). Atop were small pearls of "caviar" here made from agar, lecithin and squid ink for color that looked like caviar, but tasted more like tiny soft gelatin with a hint of fish infusion from the squid ink.

For my main, I chose the Grilled Free Range CHICKEN BREAST with Pan Fried FOIE GRAS, Boulangere Potatoes, King Oyster Mushrooms, Sauce Perigorde which also came with Carrot Puree and the sweetest little pieces of battered deep fried SWEETBREADS. The presentation was perfection and the tastes divine. The chicken was in two roulades with the foie gras atop one and the sliced almost creamy potatoes under. Every bite was a treat. I also tasted the MUSHROOM RISOTTO which was sublime, but oh so rich and raves abounded for the CAPE WHITE SALMON (which is nothing like the red Atlantic salmon we have at home) and the filet of SPRINGBOK, another type of local wild venison.

While some opted for dessert, I sipped my glass of 2007 SOUTHERN RIGHT PINOTAGE, the red wine I had with my chicken, another great varietal found only in this country that I have always had trouble figuring out, especially with the lower quality ones we get back home. This was a big red which worked beautifully with the richness of the sweetbreads and foie gras in my complex culinary treat.

We will seek out more whales this morning before leaving on the Garden Route to the east.

feeding on the flora and the food at GROOTBOS Private Nature Reserve near Hermanus, SA

Another day in South Africa took us south to the Indian Ocean coastline and east to Walker Bay, the famous home of the Southern Right Whales, which can be seen just by walking along the coastline, While Hermanus is the main city and resort here (and our spot for the night), we passed the city and rounded the bay to the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve about 30 minutes away. This huge reserve features over 750 types of native flowers and plants and is a wonder in itself just as a reserve as they promote so much good within the community when it comes to education, jobs, going green and more.

The property has two lodges, the more traditional "old fashioned" Garden Lodge where children under 12 are welcome and the sleek new Forest Lodge for adults and teens only. We lunched at the latter (guests are welcome from outside) and as everyone greeted us with smiles and handshakes (this is very common at hotels and restaurants) sat down in the all window room perched above Walker Bay with stupendous views of the cliffs, shoreline and whales (if you have good eyesight or binoculars).

A glass of SOUTHERN RIGHT Sauvignon Blanc 2008 right from the Walker Bay wine region was a great refreshing, crisp, and less citrusy style. It is named for the whale which is on the label as well. Southern is obvious, but "right" came from the term the hunters used to show it was the "right" whale to hunt, as opposed to the humpback. For lunch there is a small buffet of salads for starters which included Couscous with Goat Cheese, Watercress. Tomato & Goat Cheese, Multi-color peppers with greens, miniature corn cobs and more. I have to start by saying that even though we are still in winter, the spring flowers are in bloom everywhere due to the temperate climate (think San Diego) and every vegetable we get from the juicy red tomatoes to those that are cooked are the freshest and best in quality.

Since we were back at the ocean, and the meals have been so big, I chose the Grilled KINGKLIP (the deep sea flaky thick fish I had the day before) with MUSHROOM RISOTTO and CAPER Beurre Blanc Sauce. The sauce was rich, yet salty and tasty and loaded with fresh capers and the risotto was rich as well and quite filling. I tasted a DeWesthof CHARDONNAY 2005 from Robertson, a region way inland from here, which was a bit to rich and creamy for the saltiness of the sauce and went back to the Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc for my fish as well.

Dessert was a dreamy three bite treat of PASSION FRUIT PARFAIT which was a small timbale which came to the table slightly frozen (semi- freddo like) but softened quickly (panna cotta like), so you could get two textures if you timed your bites right. A small burnt orange slice hovered atop this as it sat in a small bed of fresh passion fruit (another thing about all the fruit--also every bite is ripe and fresh; no hard melons here!)

Walking from the lot to the lodges and through the miles of walkways, we saw dozens and dozens of protea and rare spring flowers in bloom, as well as umpteen different birds. It was a great way to revel in nature and enjoy her bounty.

fun in Franschhoek, lunching at ICI at Relais & Chateau's Le QUARTIER FRANCAIS in wine country

We left Cape Town and headed east yesterday morning with wine tasting stops along the way (If you want an amazing Bordeaux blend to age get the very pricey ERNIE ELS (yes the golfer)'s divine). Our lunch stop was here in Franschhoek (meaning French corner) where the Huguenots settled centuries ago. Le Quartier Francais has a true French country feel and the area has a real feel of Napa decades ago before it got busy, but with taller and starker mountains surrounding.

The inn has a highly rating dining room open for dinner only called the Tasting Room, but we ate lunch at ICI on the terrace at a gorgeous marble table with huge upholstered comfy chairs.

The wines were local, as everything is in the region and from MORESON Winery nearby, but have been made a little fun by the property for their table wine. The white, a Chenin Blanc 2009 is called Miss MOlly Hoity Toity and the red was a Merlot 2008 called in In Your Bed (it features a label with a dog jumping into your bed). The red was super with my starter of EISBEIN & FIG TERRINE, Pear Chutney and Grilled Ciabatta. This terrine was a chunky treat of local pork (Eisbein) that was loaded with flavor and again a wonderful use of the local ingredients. The Crunchy BILTONG, Radish & Celery Salad with Pumpkin Seeds and a BUCHU PARMESAN Cream under it was another local novelty.

The biltong I mentioned before is the local version of jerky, here crispy like bacon bits. Buchu is another native herb with hints of mint, lavender and eucalyptus and has these huge oil glands on the tiny leaves (it was used as a diarrhetic at one time) but with a bit of cream and parmesan it was a tasty treat at the bottom of the bowl. Saldhana Bay MUSSELS with White Wine Cream & Roasted Garlic were irresistible as well.

Most of us had the Pan Roasted KINGKLIP with Potato & Artichoke Ragout with Caper Salad and adored this fish found only here at the tip of Africa. It is a thick fleshy deep sea fish, yet mild and flak with loads of flavor and the preparation did it such amazing justice. The Wild MUSHROOM RISOTTO with Preserved Lemon, Rocket (Arucola) and Parmesan Salad was a rich treatment of this pasta dish that was also adored by all as we tasted. The Slow Cooked POR BELY with Dried Tomato and Polenta Spatzle was heavy of course but featured almost fatless belly that was crispy on the edges and also a hit with us all.

We wanted to leave, but dessert was a necessity and I tasted the divine STICKY BRANDY PUDDING with Green Apple Puree and Toffee & Date Ice Cream, a modern yet ingenious take on the traditional British pudding. A cup of BOURBO VANILLA Kohisan ROOIBOS Tea was yummy and even said it would boost weight loss...I WISH!

We all knew we would come back to Le Quartier Francais and ICI as well as the elegant African-styled TASTING ROOM!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

La RESIDENCE in Franschhoek, South Africa wine country reeks of royalty and divine dining

We only had one night in Franschhoek and it was at the top place for a million miles around. LA RESIDENCE ( opened just over 1-1/2 years ago and hosted Elton John on opening night in a marble mounted platform bed suite overlooking the mountains and a pond with imported black swans. One of our group was in this suite, but I was in a more subdued elegant space much less "in your face" and just as luxurious and ostentatious.

Should you wish to dine at LA RESIDENCE, you must stay at the property (dinner is not included and prices run just about $1000.night)and you would want to book through me to get our special rates. We could probably arrange a dinner for you here also as my client if you are booking a South Africa trip and decide to stay somewhere else in town a bit less pricey.The hotel has only 11 suites and is considered most private.

Earlier in the day we visited another property which was a simple villa with 6 rooms, but it was nowhere near as nice, even though Prince Edward and Jude Law had stayed there!

The dinner was served in the main hall with a multi-thousand piece 1/4 ton crystal chandelier above us which had been brought from India (some maharaja's palace or such). The fire roared, the setting was pure elegance and Evan (who doubles as butler/server/bellman and more) was the best waiter anyone could ask for anywhere. Our host was Edward, the General Manager, who regaled us with stories of the owners, their journeys and how the place came to be. They own three similar "homes" and we will stay in another and visit the third (more on that later).

Having eaten so much I started with the BEETROOT and CHEVIN (local goat cheese) Salad with Orange Reduction which was just right and served with a CHENIN BLANC 2009 VREDE EN LUST from the neighborhood. Vrede en Lust translates and happiness and lust, and we were all in that mood--very happy and lusting after a lifestyle like this. CAULIFLOWER and Fairview BLUE CHEESE Soup made use of the local cheese which is milder blue and simply superb, the soup was rich and thick and made with no cream at all--GREAT!

My main was the ROASTED Rack of KAROO (also local and highly regarded) wit ONION Mash, Steamed Broccoli and Rosemary Jus. It was four perfectly just past rare chops and served with a 2007 MERLOT from GLENWOOD, also right nearby in the valley. This is like Napa twenty or more years ago before it got crowded!

Dessert was a divine LAVENDER PANNA COTTA with GOOSEBERRY Compote which was also just right. For those of you who know the FRESH gooseberry that we or Europeans call the Cape Gooseberry (in French, "L'amour en cage" because it is in a cage of leaves) to have it fresh here as fruit for breakfast on the buffet or in many desserts is a real treat.

We finished off with a bottle of PELETIER ICE WINE from Niagara Canada which I had brought as treat for our voyagers and we all ran off to our suites to revel in them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The SQUARE at Cape Town's Vingage Hotel is victorious

Our final night in Cape Town was about 15 minutes south of he city center in a very unmentionable (roomwise) hotel called The Vineyard with truly magnificent gardens outside many of the rooms and if you are facing the right way (as we were) great view to the rear of Table Mountain. Our biggest treat at The Vineyard was dinner at The SQUARE, a two story open space that used to be outside but was connected between the historic manor and the hotel and made into an elegant dining space with giant silver cylinder chandeliers filled with dozens of wire strands with tiny white opaque lights at the end.

We were greeted by our sommelier Chris, who takes special parties through a mini wine tasting which consisted of WATERFORD Sauvignon Blanc 2009 from Elgin & Stellenbosch (a mixture of grapes from two regions) with huge unripe passion fruit and gooseberry taste and lots of tart acidity. The WATERFORD ESTATE Chardonnay '08 from Stellenbosch was even better.

I started with the SPICY PRAWN Salad which was more like a light Caesar with about six small but quite spicy shrimp, some hard boiled egg halves and lots of garlic croutons (Sam would have loved that). It was nice to get a salad for a change as we had been eating so much, but missing our greens. The wine that Chris paired was a divine ELGIN VINTNERS '07 VIOGNIER which was super creamy and had huge legs which was ingenious with the spice of the shrimp as well as many other dishes on the table such as spicy Asian appetizers and curry.

I could not resist the Char Grilled GEMBOK, related to venison, but slightly less gamy and only a bit chewier, served with Creamed English SPINACH, POTATO FONDANT (which was more of a large pancake), a superb APRICOT & VANILLA Chutney all in a Veal Jus. The meat was seasoned amazingly and had great flavor, but alas again, the dish was so large I could not finish it all. It has become a joke daily now to chide our hostess Jenny, as she said from the start that the serving sizes here would be much smaller than at home.

Everyone at the table raved about each dish and there were many happy faces around.

I chose a lighter dessert which sounded healthier, KITTY's GUAVA & MEUSLI Crumble with Homemade Vanilla Custard, Creme Anglaise and Caramel. This was more like a thick yogurt dish one would have for breakfast and the guava was just at the right ripeness, ever so sweet. Chris brought out a bottle of rare 1995 Vin de CONSTANCE from KLEIN CONSTANTIA, a winery just in the region to the south of us. At first this dryish dessert wine had a Vin Santo essence, but the Muscat d'Alexandre grape opened up quickly and fruit sweetness came through.

It was a very special treat as while this is on the menu by the glass for about $15, that was only much more recent vintages. Apparently the rare 1995 is a treat an can cost more than triple that! YUM YUM and thanks to Chris for ending my meal so well.

One & Only's MAZE by Gordon Ramsay rates high

Wednesday's lunch was at the beautiful new ONE & ONLY resort on the waterfront where not only Gordon Ramsay has come on board, but Nobu is across the way. You all know how I feel about Mr Ramsay and his cooking, but here he has created a menu that will only impress. The setting is a three-story open room with three-story glass wine cellar on one wall, an open patisserie kitchen and main kitchen on the back wall and a view of Table Mountain, the canals of the resort and it's tiny private island accommodations across the way.

An amuse (huge again) of SMOKED SALMON, Dill and some Mascarpone for binding and texture was superb on the crisp grilled bread slices. The sommelier proffered two wines, one paired with each course and was instantly declared brilliant by me. SEQUILLO "White Blend" was a Rhone-like wine but here with mostly Chenin Blanc added to Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Rousanne was a 2007 wine made by Eben & Niko Sadie from the very warm Swartland region to the north along the coast. Huge legs and flavor came from the glass and filled my mouth as I discovered yet another treat that I kow I can't buy at home! I had this with a SOFT SHELL CRAB, SPICY MAYO & Walnuts. This appetizer portion had TWO good size lightly battered and fried crabs which hail from Japan and compare nicely with ours from home. The sauce was indeed spicy and there were sliver of jalapenos everywhere, but never did it overpower. At home a starter would rarely have more than one crab and I was beginning to think that every plate here is huge.

My second starter (I was beginning to get the hang of it here) was the Roasted HONEY & BALSAMIC QUAIL with Walnuts and a Pear & Saffron Chutney. This plate had three halves (at home a starter would never have more than one whole bird) of tasty fresh and meaty quail from the nearby wine region, where we head today. The ingredients made for great tastes and flavors and the wine paired was a RUDERA ROBUSTO (someone said this sounds like a cigar name) CHENIN Blanc 2007 from Stellenbosch. The wine is normal chenin blended with a bit of the same grape left for late harvest and affected by botrytis. The ever so slight sweetness of this small amount of "dessert" type wine was a brilliant foil to the balsamic in the dish.

Some other quite amazing dishes at the table were the multiple CAESAR Salads with fresh CRAYFISH (everyone was going light), a superb YELLOWTAIL fish, and our host's yummy fillet (but how can he eat it well done?).

One of us had a tiny scoop of CINNAMON Ice Cream which got more than raves while the rest of us munched the tasty Macaroons of Chocolate, Lemon and Pistachio with passion fruit jellies on the yummy petit fours tray!

While the chef in charge has created a wonderful menu, I have to give credit to those in MAZE who execute the dishes to perfection. A small note that the prices are VERY REASONABLE as well, although the value of the US$ drops daily!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ELLERMAN HOUSE's elegance is exquisite (Cape Town)

Our first full day took us to the exclusive Relais et Chateaux ELLERMAN HOUSE just south of downtown on the Atlantic Coast. I omit he website, as it is not open to the public. You can eat there if you are a guest in one of the few amazing rooms, or maybe if you book your trip to South Africa through me I can possibly arrange this experience! We had a simple lunch outdoors on the patio overlooking the ocean and perched high above it. This area reminded us all greatly of the French Riviera, so you can guess how outstanding the view was. We had a PECAN STREAM 2008 RoseMary from Stellenbosch (where we go tomorrow) and it was quite tasty for a 10% level alcohol wine with an almost light Sauvignon Blanc flavor. A delicate spiced BUTTERNUT SQUASH soup started us off and the bread tray was as amazing as the view with everything from flatbreads, breadsticks and multiple choices of soft fresh breads all made in house.

The array for lunch was ARTICHOKE-SCALLION Quiche as well as a traditional BACON-ONION Quiche. Three sets of finger sandwiches were as English Tea as they get: Smoked Salmon, Cucumber & Butter and finally the most divine EGG SALAD ever on earth.

A Caprese-like Salad had almost sun-dried TOMATOES that were about 1/2 dried and still juicy with Fresh Basil and shredded Mozzarella. The meat was a tasty SMOKED CHICKEN with CASHEWS and Pea Pods which was served at room temperature salad-like and had a very Asian feel with a bit of delicate spice.

Our host insisted I taste a superb ROSE of PINOTAGE 2008 from L'AVENIR in Stellenbosch which was perfect as the day was heating up (it was now about 75 degrees) and we were basking in the glorious sun. All the crystal was Spiegelau and each setting was as elegant as could be with snap-to-it perfect service. None of us could consider dessert, so I looked at the Petit Fours had a great cup of Cappuccino and we sadly continued on our way.

Cape Town's Table Bay Hotel's THE ATLANTIC offers an awesome array and more

Tuesday evening, we were hosted by our own hotel in their elegant ATLANTIC Restaurant ( with many of the tables with harbor and Table Mountain views (at least until it is dark out!). The chef Conrad Gallagher hails from Ireland, but the ingredients are again local and fresh. Our white wine was a Chardonnay-Colombard blend 2006 WATERSIDE WHITE from Graham Beck, a winery that exports much to the USA. I am not usually a Columbard fan, but here the blending was minimal and softened the chard to perfection. The red was a fun FUNDI which I never did find out the vintage or the origin of. A certain amount of the proceeds of this 80%Cabernet/20%Merlot blend go to the Cape Wine Academy to help students).

I started with the TUNA TARTARE which one of us actually had as a main course, and the portion was huge indeed, A gorgeous beet red dish of tasty tartare was topped with a raw Quail Egg and the plate had two slivers of sauces: a mild Harissa Paste and a Dijon Mustard Aioli. Next to this were two huge thick slices of barely seared TUNA CARPACCIO with parsley crust and there was also a slice I of yummy grilled Potato Bread on which I would put the tartare in scoops for a fun crunch.

Lychee Sorbet was a palate cleanser and my monstrous main course arrived scaring me a bit (because the starter was so big and so good, I had eaten every bite). The WHOLE LINE FISH of the day was a RED ROMAN which was indeed superb. It is a flaky, slightly fishy, white fish that was divine in the slightly rich LEMON BEURRE BLANC sauce. Baby Carrots and Asparagus abounded, and I tried to get through much of the dish, which I ate carefully as it was a whole fish, and hence slowly, and managed to avoid 99% of the bones.

The only disappointment of my meal was the cheese platter. It was a truly gorgeous presentation of three cheeses, but again a portion large enough for me to share with five others and still have leftovers! The tastiest was the BEETROOT CHEDDAR which had a small bowl of fresh mango with chili on the side for pairing, which was nice, but not ingenious as some cheese pairings I have described to you before. The FARIVIEW Blue was also tasty but not as ripe as it should be and a served a right out of the fridge way too cold. It was paired better with Poached Figs. The FAIRVIEW (these are all local cheeses) CAMEMBERT suffered too much from being nowhere near ripe enough.

Exhausted and full, we all headed off to bed after another day of gastronomic gluttony.

I do have to add that guests of this beautiful hotel (as in most hotels here) get a (yes) monstrous breakfast buffet. It was so huge I had to videotape it. There were tables upon tables of wonderful foods from sushis to salmons to 8 yoghurts and more than twenty fruits, pastries, breads and about two dozen silver domed cafing dishes of eggs, sausauges, bacon, potatoes (3kinds), stuffed tomatoes and more.

Monday, August 24, 2009

more on CapeTown GOLD RESTAURANT-entertainment too

The proper restaurant website is and I completely forgot to mention there was a complete show throughout the night featuring the guys dressed in giant puppet like costumes (one a native, one an antelope or such), there were many dancers and a dance of two male warriors as well as the entrance of the king and queen (people with giant masks) and a gorgeous soprano who sang the whole time.

She was joined by the waiters and the drummers and the whole staff really got into it as we did too. So much for my prejudice against folkloric shows as this was a real treat and a perfect intro on our first night in South Africa.

Cape Town's GOLD MUSEUM Restaurant offers fun and food from Africa

When we travel we often avoid the folkloric tourist shows, not really because they bad, more because they are loaded with a lot of older sad folks just lacking interest. Not so on my first night ever in South Africa at the beginning of a two week business visit to promote travel here.

After a day of scouring the waterfront shops and enjoying a bag full of varied BILTONG for lunch, I was pretty hungry. Oh, what's biltong? It is the South African equivalent of jerky, but less chewy and more flavorful. At JOUBERT & MONTY, only biltong and dried sausage is sold and it is a plethora of local animals that are featured. The beef was simple and tasty, but I also enjoyed eland, ostrich, kudu and springbok (venison) in both the biltong and sausage styles. The ostrrich sausage was my favorite as it was so tender and so lean.

In the evening we four travel agent were joined by our hostess, Jenny, who organized this trip and is the sales rep for Giltedge Tours which is the company that we use for most of our clients coming here (they ARE brilliant). We drove around for a short evening tour and ended at a beautiful 200 year old home which is the home of the GOLD OF AFRICA MUSEUM ( in downtown Cape Town. We were a bit late for the entire "experience" so we missed the tour where you get a glass of champagne with gold flakes, but we did tour the interesting museum after dinner. Everything is fixed price here (and since we are guests, I don't know the costs), only alcohol is extra, and when in South Africa wine is an important part of every meal! We were greeting by a giant human in puppet dress outside (photo op) and then many of the guests that had arrived before us were taking drumming lessons inside. James, our server, explained that the menu was set and the Cape Malay/African cuisine is served family style. The white was a crispy not too citrusy SAUVIGNON BLANC 2008 Special Cuvee from SPRINGFIELD ESTATES in the Robertson area, a region which I had never heard of before. It was a great pair with the SPICED TOMATO SOUP made with GREEN CHILIES & GINGER and served with a pastry twist on top for crunch. The red was an amazing PINOTAGE (a varietal I discovered years ago, but that we often seem to get lower quality of in the US) 2008 from DIEMERSFONTEIN in Wellington (another new region) with intense chocolate and coffee overtones which was perfect with our stronger meat main courses.

PRAWNS (we were told the South African ones are smaller than what we are used too, but they were about 25 count size) with CUCUMBER which had a nice light BBQ style sauce painted on them. BOBOTI SOMOSA is a phyllo pastry style somosa stuffed with boboti, a local curry dish of meat and potatoes. These were served with a divine APRICOT CHUTNEY. MAIZE NUT FRITTERS were also tasty (if a bit dry) and the sauce made them perfection as it was an APPLE MINT YOGURT which was thick for dipping and alleviated the dryness. These fritters are called MUKHOMO and are apparently a very traditional peanut encrusted tribal snack.

A small bowl of SMOKED FISH called SMOORVIS came next and is largely made with rice, onion and fresh tomato. It was not large and it was a bit on the boring side.

The main course was a plethora of bowls each filled with native dishes that all had wonderful spices and flavors:
The MIXED VEGGIES with GINGER was actually one of my favorites. I could not figure out everything in it, but there was broccoli, cauliflower, a crunchy cabbage and many more, all cooked just right and flavored perfectly.

My second favorite was PAP & SPINACH, a ground maize dish cooked like porrdige and then small bits of spinach mixed in. IT has a thick chinese-rice like consistancy, but is packed with great flavor, as was every dish indeed.

APRICOT studded COUSCOUS was served with a bowl on the side of cooked ROOIBOS (which you may know from the red tea we get in the US). Rooibos is actually a red apricot (they call it nectarine here) and is a sweet blast of fruit also not to be missed when visiting. West African PEANUT CHICKEN was the least novel of the dishes, but tasty and loaded with yummy sauce.

The final big hit dish was a SPRINGBOK ROGHAN JOSH which was simply a thick venison stew which I loved to spoon on the flat fry bread here called ROTI.

Dessert was a MALVA Pudding which is a small slice of sponge cake that has sat and absorbed sugar syrup (with alcohol, yay!) and sits in a small bowl of rich sweet custard (think of the kind used in all those traditional English puddings!).

We swayed through the museum, headed back to our hotel on the harbour and crashed fast!

A big day of touring today, and indeed every day for my stay is ahead!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The LEDBURY in London takes the lead in UK dining

Sunday Lunch as we would call it (Sunday Dinner in the UK) has long been a tradition, but seems to have died. While London offers many great lunch spots, my concierge highly recommended the Sunday Dinner at THE LEDBURY ( in Kensington very close to the Portobello Road Market and Knotting Hill Gate. The weather in London for my 2 days had been gorgeous and on Sunday the temperatures were close to 80, so the outdoor seating was all set up. I got a table just inside facing out and the front wall slid open so a fresh breeze wafted in. The decor at The Ledbury is modern but simple with beautiful wooden inlay floors and super comfy leather chairs. It was definitely the nicest place I had been, and I only had just sat down. My server brought a bottle of Speyside Glenlivet sparkling water from Scotland which was refreshing and one of the best waters I have had (although Badoit is still #1). The menu had a tasting option, but I stuck with the 40pound 3 course; there was no a la carte. A small square slate was brought with a Beetroot Meringue filled with Foie Gras sprinkled with Pain d'Epices (a gingerbread-like spice). The meringue was soft and melted instantly. I knew that I was in for a fabulous treat.

Peter, the sommelier from New Zealand, was a dream come true. I only ordered two glasses of wine, but he insisted I try many of the wines and the pours were large while the prices were low (6-10 pounds per glass or so). Sarah, my delightful server (everyone in this place just looked beautiful or super handsome and they all did a super great job) led me through some options and I settled on my first two courses. Another plate arrived (I didn't notice anyone else getting this) of Hand Dived Sea Scallop Carpaccio surrounded with Seaweed Oil and topped with Frozen Horseradish, Apple Jellies and Kohlrabi. This dish was leaning towards the chemical chefs of today, but not heavily. The ingredients were all super quality and each one alone had fun tastes as well. The frozen horseradish was shaved and cool and refreshing while the jellies were like little pearls; the kohlrabi added a wonderful crunch.

The bread arrived and I swooned over the BACON & ONION Brioche which was shaped like a small cinnamon roll and instead of sweet swirls had soft cooked onions and soft bacon inside. Even the plain rolls here far outdid the bread at Le Gavroche the previous night.

For my starter I tried a dish that has apparently become a signature of genius chef BRETT GRAHAM from Australia. He came from Square to open the Ledbury over four years ago and has easily won a Michelin star; frankly I think he should have two or more, as the innovativeness and excitement of the entire meal outshone Le Gavroche and its two stars. CELERIAC BAKED in ASH with Wood Sorrel, Hazelnuts and a KROMESKI of WILD BOAR is indeed a dish that requires extensive description. The celeriac root is covered with ash burnt from bird's hay and encrusted in bread and salt and cooked this way in the oven for 45 minutes. When it was completed, Sarah brought out the "croute" and cut it in front of me on an elegant wooden board. The aroma filled my nose and my mouth was watering, but she had to take the root back to the kitchen for the dish to be completed. It was sliced thin and surrounded by dollops of Truffle Mayo with Fresh Hazelnuts on top. The "kromeski" is a shredded wild boar patty of sorts that is lightly breaded and sauteed; think of crabcake made of boar instead. It has a great flavor and all the ingredients of this dish whether alone or combined with the various elements were blow-your-mind palate pleasers. By this point I had already fallen in love with Chef Graham's cooking and was thoroughly upset I had not come here Saturday night for his tasting menu.

Peter, the sommelier, was pleasing me to no end as well, first with a glass of Vin de Table de France, MENU PINEL, Originel 2006 from Julien Courtois in the Loire Valley. He told me this was a very rare varietal has low production, is unfiltered and therefore a bit cloudy. It reminded me of a Rhone white blend but with an amazingly larger taste which Peter knew was the perfect pairing for the celeriac, truffle, and boar! BRILLIANT!

Having survived a tasting menu the evening before, I went for the lightest main course which was FILLET of JOHN DORY (Saint Pierre) Poached in Brown Butter with Dried Orange Dust, Toasted Almond Milk Foam & Puree, Broccoli & Crab. This divine fish dish sat on a mix of broccoli and local crab emuslion and there were also fried-like broccoli heads on Poilin Toast that were superb. The milk foam was just that, but the puree was thicker and this was like a light almondy cream which I loved for the tender yet full-flavored fish. Peter had no trouble convincing me to enjoy the 2007 GRUNER VELTLINER "Steinsetz" from Schloss Gobelsburg in Kamptal Austria, a simply perfect summer wine, but also insisted I taste a rare unfiltered 2008 red from Chile called PAIS from CLOS OUVERT in the Maule Valley. It was a light red not designed for aging and was quite refreshing with light body as well.

It was very hard to choose a dessert as there were many fruit-centered options and I was told that Chef Graham made all the breads and pastries as well....WOW! I opted for the PASSIONFRUIT SOUFFLE with SAUTERNES Ice Cream upon Sarah's recommendation and got a fairly large perfectly cooked yummy souffle to which she quickly sunk the scoop of unreal gelato-like ice cream. The souffle had a yummy rim that was somewhat like graham-cracker crumbs for a bit of extra flavor.

Sarah popped a second dessert in front of me saying she wanted me to try another, "since you couldn't decide!" The FRESH FIGS with BANYULS Reduction, Honey & Olive Ice Cream and three small FIG DOUGHNUTS (really centers) were some of the best figs I have ever had. The plate was huge, so I had just one donut and polished off the super delish fruit. I forgot to mention the novel and interesting plates used throughout the meal that somehow seemed to mimic each dish as well.

Peter proffered a pour of 204 RECIOTO della VALPOLICELLA CLASSICO DOC, Azienda Agricola La Giaretta which was a rich sweet red wine that was a perfect finish to my meal .I told him how great it was that he also offered a superbly aged 1989 Chateau Rieussec Sauternes for 18 pounds a glass(which is quite reasonable). I opted to take the mignardises home and gobbled them up after dinner on my flight from London to Cape Town last night: Edlerflower Marshmallows & Mango Pate de Fruits were nice, but the EARL GREY Tea MACAROONS were outstanding and the WHITE CHOCOLATE Cardamom TRUFFLES with Macadamia Crunch were perhaps the best chocolate truffle ever.

I know that the next time I hit London, I am headed right for Chef Graham's Tasting Menu at The Ledbury! I can easily officially declare he is my favorite chef in Britain!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

London's LE GAVROCHE lovely and traditional (and with two Michelin stars)

I have been wanting to dine at Le GAVROCHE ( in London's Mayfair for years and finally made it to this two Michelin star gastronomic destination where Chef Michel Roux Jr has been in charge since 1990, when he took over from his father who opened the place in 1967 (in another location). There is history here in this elegant townhouse where the dining room is cozy and comfortable and downstairs. While I was close enough to chat with a young couple from the Hampshire coast next to me (Stefi & Chris), the place is not crowded at all and the noise levels are subdued.

These days the Michelin folks are pretty stingy with their stars in the British isles (most seem to be going to Spain) and indeed, I have always disagreed with the only 3-star award in London proper going to the truly obnoxious TV star Gordon Ramsey. I love the novel and chemical designs of many of the up and coming chefs, but Chef Roux is about as traditional as it gets with regard to French cooking, as you shall see.

I chose the "Menu Exceptionnel" which is a 95 pound (without the mandatory 12.5% service fee) for the multi-course tasting without wines (or just over $175) which is low for Michelin stars these days. I opted out of the wines (55 pounds for 8 small glasses) and ordered a bottle of JEAN NOEL GAGNARD 2000 "Clos de la Maltroye" CHASSAGNE MONTRACHET 1er Cru which was a divine French chardonnay with minimal oak, but tons of flavor, and a great pairing with the many fish dishes that began the menu. Sadly, huge (really really huge) bouquets of giant stinky lilies were all over the place (Chris next to me hit his head on the every time he got up!) and these interfered with my being able to really small the wine! I mentioned this to the sous-sommelier and he kind of shrugged.

The bread was uneventful, though I loved the choice of salted or unsalted top quality butter and the French sea salt. The adorable silver has the little handles formed of the little gavroche, the street urchin we have come to know so well from Les Miserables. This with crisp linens, crystal and china make for an elegant setting, if a bit old fashioned. I asked for sparkling water and thought it was odd they offered up San Pellegrino, especially in a French restaurant and in the UK where both countries offer better and softer options. I mentioned this and the sous-sommelier immediately offered up an improved choice of BADOIT (which you know is my favorite). The amuses were a BLUE CHEESE MOUSSE on Crouton and a divine SOFT POACHED QUAIL EGG on CELERIAC REMOULADE in Tartlet.

The tasting menu began with SAUMON Mi-Cuit au Paprika, Point d'Asperges et Vinaigrette de Truffes. The just seared salmon was superb and the vinaigrette loaded with chopped fresh black truffles and a slice of one large one as well. A piece of crunchy salmon skin stood up vertical making for a very nice presentation.

SOUFFLE SUISSESSE was an egg-based souffle as light as air but as rich as hell as it was cooked twice and covered with melted cheese and sat on a bed of DOUBLE CREAM (cream in the UK--and anywhere in the world--just does not get thicker than this!).

The COQUILLES St. JACQUES "a la Coque" Parfumee au GINGEMBRE come traditionally cooked in the shell and opened tableside. These are really just large cooking shells as they have been removed and cleaned. It would have been divine if these fresh local scallops had their coral, which is so rare today. The ginger sauce was light and not too intense and a julienne of leeks added even more flavor.

FILET de BAR POELE, Coulis de Poivrons Rotis, Polenta, Croutons a la Tapenade et Rouille was an excellent small block of seared sea bass on polenta with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis. The flavors got every excited with the large narrow crouton which was half coated with olive tapenade (black) and half with the garlic rouille (off-white).

While everything was delicious so far, few of the dishes jumped out at me and screamed Michelin stars until the ESCALOPE de FOIE GRAS Chaud et PASTILLA a la CANNELLE arrived. This was a superbly cooked (and quite large piece) of Duck Foie Gras served with the most magnificent Pastilla I have ever had anywhere. Pastilla is the Moroccan pie-like dish usually made with pigeon (or chicken) and here was a slice made with duck confit, flavored with cinnamon and all tucked into a delicate phyllo pastry slice with a dash of powdered sugar (as is traditional). The menu called this in English "Crispy Duck Pancake" which is way off, but no matter as it was the highlight of the meal.

The meat course was a simple single CARRE d'AGNEAU ROTI, Beignets de FLEUR de COURGETTE, Jus a l'Estragon and while simple was a perfectly cooked Roasted Rack of Lamb with Tarragon Jus and those divine and so short seasoned Zucchini Flowers here battered and deep fried to perfection. I had a glass of the BARBARESCO "Loreto" 2003 Cantine SCRIMAGLIO which was the red wine paired with this from the tasting, and while it was nice and worked well, it was nowhere as impressive as my Montrachet.

The French and British Farmhouse cheese trolley is one of the largest I have ever seen. It is hard to choose when thirty or more cheeses are rolled out, so I consulted for a long time with my server, the very handsome Italian Fausto, who spoke Italian, French and English with me. He was actually under the table captain, who did not do much, and seemed to be taking charge of most things all around in many languages with great flair. We ended up choosing a British goat BOSWORTH ASH that was creamy and slightly aged but not to excess, the kind of goat with a darker center with flavor rather than all creamy white and boring.

CAMEMBERT CALVADOS was a just runny and ripe camembert with a hint of the apple brandy and a kind of breadcrumb like crust (which I think was where the brandy was infused) that was an exciting new cheese for me, and one I doubt we shall ever see in the US.

CHAMBERTIN was another intense, but not overpowering French that will easily be added to my list of all time favorites.

I tasted the croutons here which were nice, but the 10 pieces that came along with celery, quince paste and a very peppery plum compote just seemed so much for one person!

The final cheese was my always all time favorite and reminded me of my trips to the south of France and cheesemaker Renee Richards at Les Halles (in Lyon) where she served all the great chefs of the region. ST MARCELLIN is inedible in the US due to pasteurization. Last night it was soft, rich, creamy runny and loaded with flavor....another highlight (as was the entire course) of the meal.

Dessert was SABLE BRETON aux FRAISES, Glace a la BANANE et RHUM BRUN which was really just a shortbread cookie with strawberry and a yummy Banana/Rum Ice Cream (really more of a gelato).

The Petit Fours was a huge tray of Tuilles (2 types), meringues and two candied L'amour en cages, those yummy fruits we see so rarely in the USA, but are always prevalent in Europe.

My coffee came with a fancy container of Caramelized Pecans and Nougat of which I had one small piece each and rolled back to my hotel a couple of blocks away, knowing that traditional French cuisine is still safe at LE GAVROCHE.

London's ARBUTUS is our new West End choice

My first meal in London was in the theatre district/Soho at ARBUTUS where chef Anthony Demetre has introduced exciting modern bistro fare as well as some heavier dishes. At lunch there is a 15.50pounds (Just over $25, which includes tax but has an optional 12.5% tip atop) fixed price 3-course meal, but I felt that was a bit too much for me as I had a big dinner coming tonight. I opted for two starters and they were both superbly exquisite.

A SCOTTISH ANGUS BEEF TARTARE was one of the best ever (due to the excellent quality of the deep red, almost beet colored, meat) with a raw egg yolk atop and some olive oil and paprika scattered around. Capers were mixed in for flavor and the seasoning on the meat was just right that nothing was needed, condiment or such. My second starter was one of the "new bistro" items and was novel indeed: SQUID & MACKEREL "BURGER" was just that and somewhat of a "fish cake" and served in a light broth-lke sauce with RAZOR CLAMS, Parsley Puree, Baby Cress and Purple Basil. It was simple, yet divine and tasty. Wines by the glass are found here, but the deals are in the wines offered by the carafe of 250ml, or 1/3 of a bottle. The prices are reasonable (for the UK) and the wines varied on the list. I chose a JOSE PARIENTE VERDEJO from Rueda (Spain) that was akin to a Sauvingon Blanc in that it was very citrusy wiyh a huge gooseberry nose.

The decor at ARBUTUS is simple and nothing to write about with the tables a bit close, but I had a window table and there was nobody in the table next to me. If you need to use the loo, you do have to descend a steep staircase (London is awful for the handicapped), but I loved the Dyson hi speed hand dryer as the air comes out quick and cooler so as not to damage your hands. The service is friendly and the place is reasonably quiet, another hard find in this busy noisy, way too trendy area.

Tonite--I hit my two Michelin stars at LE GAVROCHE where I have yearned to go for years...hope it's worth it!

Monday, August 17, 2009

DC's DINO's offers delicious deals

We have always loved DINO ( and last Monday was a total treat especially with the deals being offered. I have stressed that DC is full of deals now and DINO has $35.09 3-course restaurant week thru Sept. 13! plus 33% off all wines over $50. Check out al their deals at their website.

We sat down to a selection of amazing appetizers NOT TO BE MISSED. PROSCIUTTO e PESCA BLANCA con SABA is a divine White Peach wrapped in sublime Tosini prosciutto that is ever so soft and sweet. It is served in a sauce of balsamic and molasses that is simply perfect. We also fell in love with the PESCA GRIGLIATA which was the same divine fruit with pancetta, duck stock, onion reduction and a scoop of mascarpone.....U CAN NOT SKIP THIS DISH!

We opted for the wine deals and started with a spectacular HOFSTATTER 2000 (yes 2000) "Steinroffer" Lagrein from Alto Adige in the north of Italy; a great red that deserves attention. Our second red was the PRIMA TERRA "tonos" 20006 from Cinque Terra that is a conglomerate of wonderful grapes with lots of fruit and was best with the fish dishes we had.

Appetizers were all a hit from the CAPRESE which has super bufala mozzarella and top notch tomatoes. I chose the 1/2 pasta starter of PAPARDELLE con STRACOTTO di CONIGLIO which was papardelle with rabbit, onion, celery carrots and herbs. It was good but easily beaten by the STRACCI con ANATRA an amazing pasta "rags" with house cured duck prosciutto which was pan crisped and sauteed with mixed spicy greens. This was a superb pasta dish and ranks very high on the ultimate DC pasta scale. Speaking of pasta, Samuel gobbled up his PAPPARDELLE with WILD BOAR SAUCE (he gets more adventurous each day!) and then adored two of the three fruit sorbets (Cherry Black Raspberry/Plum). Which he liked I am not sure of because he gave the third scoop to our friends' nephew who said it was delish!

For main courses two of us had the superb PESCE SPADA al POMODORO a freshly flown in Hawaiian swordfish grilled with Pennsylvania organic tomatoes, garlic, kalamata and served with sauteed pea shoots. The CINGHIALE DOLCE FORTE is an novel and interesting preparation of rare seared Wild Boar Strip Loin with a Tuscan "mole" sauce made with cocoa, garlic, dried fruit, pine nuts and red wine. While akin to Mexican mole it was less intense and had a totally different flavor and was simply delish with the wonderful meat sliced thin and cooked perfectly. It was served with Tuscan potatoes and Cavalo Nero, a black cabbage very similar to chard in consistency.

Desserts were irresistible and we chose from a perfect Tiramusa, a nice Torte di Pistacchio, a Tuscan style cake with pear sauce and whipped cream and the simpl divine SUSINE ROSSO al RICOTTO, four Pennsylvania plums oven roasted and served atop ricotta cream with a black peppercorn gelato. Need I say more?

Cheese is always special at Dino, as Dean has the best selection of Italian cheese anywhere in the city. We tried three semi-hard to hard cheeses:
BRATE NERO a cow/goat/sheep mix that was mild and tasty
ASIAGO VECCHIO that was harder and tarter and
PECORINO sheep aged 4 months that was a toasty as a superb

Incidentally, the three course meal allows many options including cheese or dessert or two appetizers and an entree..and it all includes a small glass of either Moscato, grappa or limoncello to send you on your way.

The six of us went on our way all quite happy knowing there are some great dining deals especially at Dino.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Alexandria's a la LUCIA does up dinner with DONNA(Roberto, that is)

Those of you who remember GALILEO know the name of Chef ROBERTO DONNA well. Those of you who remember his I MATTI in Adam's Morgan may even remember the dozens upon dozens of tasting dinners he held there over the years. Last night, Michael Nayeri, the owner of A LA LUCIA in Alexandria ( and Roberto's manager at Galileo for its entire existence hosted a dinner that was wonderfully reminiscent of the old days, yet just as fresh as could be.

Chef Donna, who will return to Washington with his newest venture this fall, was in great form, and the superb staff of A LA LUCIA were at their always best serving the superb food.

Despite the heat, the menu was perfectly thought out and nobody left feeling stuffed or full. The portions were perfection as was each bite.

CARPACIO di POLPO con SALSA VERDE e INSALATA di PATATE was a carpaccio-style sliced Octopus Salami with Green Sauce and Potato Salad that was cool and refreshing.

Rather than do the wine pairings (the meal was $85++ and the pairings were an extra $35++ each) we chose a bottle or white and red. With A LA LUCIA's August special (check which nights these are valid) of 25% off on all wine, our white came to $24++ and the red to $45++, so at $69, we paid exactly the same as for the pairings but got 2 whole bottles instead of just 5 smaller pours. Our white was as TABURNO 2008 FALANGHINA which was also refreshing and tasty with an intense perfumed nose, and our red a divine BAROLO ELVIO COGNO 2004 which was drinking perfectly and even tasted superb alone as we sipped it after the meal.

As we sat down, we were also treated to a refreshing glass of complimentary Prosecco; it really did feel celebratory as we all toasted Roberto on his new venture.

Roberto Donna can't be surpassed when it comes to pasta, and last night it was MEZZELUNE di MOZZARELLA e POMODORO SECCHI alla Crema, large half moon shaped raviolis filled with smoked mozzarella and sun- dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce. Nobody dared asked for parmesan cheese as this dish was simply perfect as it was.

CERNIA in Padella con Purea di PISELLI, COSTINE all'Aglio, salsa di Pomodori was a perfectly sauteed filet of BLACK SEA BASS with Pureed Peas, Swiss Chard, Garlic and Tomato Sauce. The fish skin was crunchy and oh so gorgeous and the two sauces made for different flavors.

COSTOLETTE d'AGNELLO al Forno con i CARCIOFI e PATATINE, Salsa Olive Nere was a slightly rare roasted Rack of Lamb with Artichokes and Fingerling Potatoes in Black Olive Sauce. The artichoke was a huge heart and beautifully cooked with added lemon as well.

While this all sounds very filling, as I said the portions were not huge and we did take time to meet and chat with our new friends at the table who were all very nice. The dessert was as light and cold as you could wish. PESCHE in Zuppa di FRAGOLE e Gelato alla Vaniglia was fresh PEACHES in STRAWBERRY SOUP with a scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream. We were all quite happy with this delightful chilly and tasty send off, looking forward to the grand opening of the new GALILEO as well as to returning to A LA LUCIA, where the food is indeed always top notch.

Monday, August 10, 2009

ENOLOGY is enough if you seek American wine

After the Crabcake Competition last night Will and I decided to head to Enology ( at 3238 Wisconsin Ave-just near the Cathedral) to try some more wines.

Since Enology is only 4 minutes or so from our house, it is a great place to go when we have some spare time left on the babysitting clock. We sat at the bar and chatted with the adorable bartender Corbin, who made many suggestions as we decided what to savor.

Will was in a white mood and chose a flight of wines called Southern France featuring the grapes of that area in US wines (Enology serves on US wines):
Freemark Viognier
Qupe Marsanne, both from California
and Whitehall(VA) Petit Manseng were the flavors of the day and Will liked the latter the best and the Marsanne (with its intense flowery nose) the least.

I tried a flight of California reds that Corbin created just for me to go with the cheeses we ordered. GRACIANO from Bokisch Vineyards 2005 in Lodi was a great starter fairly full bodied and tasty with the lighter cheeses. MONDEUSE Au Bon Climat "Bien Nacado Vineyard" 2000 from Santa Maria Valley which was lighter and less to my liking. It was interesting to note its age!

STUHLMULLER Vineyard 2006 from Alexander Valley CABERNET SAUVIGNON is a find of a wine that drinks beautifully now and was divine with the blue cheese.

Our cheeses were:
THREE SISTERS "Serena" from Lindsday, Calif a niceflavorful cow
UPLANDS, Pleasant Ridge RSV from Wisconsin
and the always delightlful (but too blue for Will) POINT REYES "Original"

We had lots of fun chatting with the guys who work there about wine and stuff and finally made our way home knowing that Enology is near and easy to get to any time.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

New Heights always hits new heights and Samuel ate rabbit!

While Daddy was away overnight, I decided to return to New Heights ( in Woodley Park with Samuel which still after 23 years since its opening holds a special place in my heart (and tummy). It was around this time that I really started getting into the DC dining scene and fell in love with New Heights, its chefs (many of whom have become special friends) and its owner Umbi Singh, who along with his wife Kavita, have always been the most gracious of hosts.

I used to dine at New Heights monthly when it first opened, as there was not anywhere near as much competition at that time. Today, while the competition is rife, New Heights always soars in every department from cuisine, service, decor to ambience. The serene setting overlooking Rock Creek Park makes for a wonderful indoor, and now outdoor, setting and even Samuel liked the way the window pots brimmed with flowers bringing the outside just to the other side of the pane.

I had seen Mr. Sietsema's recent rave and took note of the addition of small plates to the menu, which is always a plus when dining with kids in a place where a children's menu does not exist (although, I am sure they would prepare anything should the occasion arise). I was able to convince Samuel to try the "Duo of 'Chicken,'" with the "chicken" in quotes because Samuel does not yet read too well and the menu actually read DUO of RABBIT. While I knew he would probably not touch the terrine, the thought of a croquette intrigued Samuel and he gobbled up the shredded rabbit vociferously with praise. This was a cylindrical croquette that really had almost no breading and was indeed superb from subtle pan sauteing to alight crisp. It came with Preserved GREEN TOMATO (which was a bit too sweet for Sam), Endive (which was superb, and he would have none of) and the Terrine with a superb homemade mustard that I gobbled up.

I had ordered the small plate of GRILLED MACKEREL with SAOR & Caper Salad. The Saor Sauce was laden with Golden Raisins and had a superb flavor for the crispy tasty fish. I had a glass of DANIELLE ANSEE Loire Sauvignon Blanc 2007 which was a nice pairing.

My second small plate was another delectable treat of BRAISED PORK BELLY, MUSSELS & OCTOPUS in Smoky Broth with CHICK PEA AIOLI. The combination was divine and will Sam "yecched" at the octopus tentacles, the meat was tender and tasty and the pork belly not fatty at all...indeed it was crispy and crunchy, just the way I like it, adding great texture to this perfect combination. A glass of POUILLY FUISSE Grand Vin de Bourgogne "Aux Chailloux" 2006 was a great pairing to match smoke and smoke!

Samuel insisted we get another plate of croquettes (without the terrine or accoutrements) and our attentive, friendly and delightful server Maliek complied very quickly. All the staff at New Heights has indeed always been top notch throughout the years.

For my entree I chose the MANCHESTER FARMS QUAIL TWO WAYS with Roasted PEACH, PARSLEY VELOUTE and Black Truffle Vinaigrette which came with a very large roasted quail stuffed with the rich veloute, and a loin in roulade wrapped in bacon. Both were superb, and Samuel had several bites of the delicious little bird as well which made me so proud of him as he LICKED the plate with the rabbit on it! Oddly, though, he would not taste the cornbread or the grain bread. A glass of ONIX PRIORAT (Grenache & Carinena) 2007 had a slight spice and rich aromatic nose of chocolate and wood that was a perfect pairing as well.

Samuel devoured a bowl of BLUEBERRY & PASSION FRUIT Sorbets democratically declaring that PS 7's and New Heights' passion fruits sorbets were both equally good. It came with some mini-biscotti which he said were good only when piled high with sorbet, and proceeded to lick the plate dry and clean again.

We headed home very full and very happy, knowing that New Heights is in good hands with Chef Logan Cox who seems to have really heightened the menu and impress my palate!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

PS 7's plows into August with a perfect menu and pre-Rest Week deals

Call ahead and check at your favorite eatery around DC, because while Restaurant Week with its infamous deals may be two weeks away, many hot dining spots have extended their menus for a week, two, or even the whole month.

Chef Peter Smith has done so at his elegant restaurant PS 7's (777 I St, NW - and for something akin to $35.09 (I forget the exact amount you can dine quite well and beat the heat, too.

We decided to take Samuel and he was thrilled with the $10 starter of HOUSE MADE PETITE HOT DOGS (with ketchup, mustard and relish) and Salt- Scented Shoestring Pommes Frites. These three 5 inch long dogs came in tasty brioche buns and Samuel's eyes lit up when the elegant plate came. Of course, he, like us, could not resist the warm breads that came just prior: Mixed Herb Focaccia (Samuel gobbled extras of this), Cottage Cheese Rolls and my always favorite the APPLEWOOD SMOKED BACON BISCUITS that just melt in your mouth.

While Samuel quaffed his 7-Up (or was it Sprite), we enjoyed a bottle of MULDERBOSCH 2008 Rose from Stellenbosch in South Africa. A tasty, quality dry rose made from Cabernet Sauvignon made me get even more excited about my upcoming trip to South Africa!

I stuck with the pre-Restaurant Week menu and ordered the starter of TOMATO & SAFFRON Steamed Prince Edward Island MUSSELS with Sweet Peppers, Parsley and a large Toasted Croute. It was not a huge portion, but definitely large and I finished off almost all the tasty medium-bodied broth as well. Oddly, the two(yes, they needed two!) elegant, but way too small, tiny square bowls provided for the shells were a total misfit.

Will ordered a la carte and chose the SCALLOP CEVICHE with Spiced Citrus Pot au Feu and Fennel, which was a superb light and elegant as well as "creamy" dish, but a bit too much fennel for my tastes.

For my entree on the deal, I had a superb CORNMEAL FRIED TROUT with an excellent LEMON-BUTTER Sauce, French Beans and a dab of Ginger-Tomato Confiture. I would have liked a bit more of the confiture for taste as it was indeed superb. The fish was top notch and fairly light for the hot season we now have as well.

Will went for the ALASKA HALIBUT with Roasted King Oyster Mushrooms, Shrimp, Scallions and Watermelon-Ginger Vinaigrette which was also a super fish.

We had two glasses of wine with our entrees which we passed back and forth: Chalone Estate Chardonnay 2006 from Monterey which is always nice but a very odd tasting Sauvignon Republic 2007 Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River which Will could not smell (it was weird) and I disliked the taste of, especially with the trout!

Samuel enjoyed three miniature scoops of divine PASSION FRUIT Sorbet (he had eaten the fruit fresh in the Dominican Republic and loved the tasty sweet seeds!) and licked the entire plate, while Will and I shared the dessert off my "menu" prepared by uber-Pastry Chef LEON BAKER (who apparently has been on board since the beginning of the year!). The STRAWBERRY ROLLOVER was a slice of frozen "roulade" with lemon cake, mascarpone cream and a center of strawberry sorbet. It was a great summer dessert in that it was very light and totally refreshing.

Don't forget to take your kids into the bathroom as there are goldfish bowls in the wall which will excite them to no end; well, it did Samuel!