Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ack in DC it's all about ALBA Osteria (1-20-14)

We may have missed out on Restaurant Week here in DC, but we got back just in time to visit the 3-week old new brainstorm of Chef Roberto Donna, ALBA OSTERIA, where Chef Amy Brandwein (previously of Café Nonna, Fyve and of course Galileo) has taken helm in the kitchen.
A great team is assembled here in this very relaxed casual osteria(bistro) where food and wine both rule (http://albaosteriadc.com  -located at 425 "I" Street, NW). The orange contoured chairs will be recognizable if you have been to Al Dente where Chef Roberto reigns. They are cool, clean and crisp, but not super comfy; I do prefer a cushion for my you know what! There is a huge bar area in the entry area with lots of raised tables around. A glass wall separates this from the smaller dining area and open kitchen where you watch everything that's going on. There is also bar seating facing the kitchen. Whole the 1901 factory building that was here is gone, there are some notes near the restrooms indicating how some of that building was re-used in the present structure!
Our server Naulah was a gem and helped us decide, along with Chef Amy, on what to choose. The menu is varied and small plates and pizza seem to rule here alongside of pasta and several main dishes. We started with a bottle of Donnafugata Lighea 2012 which is a dry version of the fruity and aromatic Muscat called Zibibbo. It was fruity at the start, but once we married it to the various dishes it changed dramatically, even becoming more acidic at one point; quite an interesting grape for sure.
First came ROBIOLA ALLO SPECK which are fried potato sticks (think French fries) topped with gooey melted Robiola Cheese, a slice of speck and Garlic Sauce for seasoning. It's a divine take on cheese fries that easily wins.
LINGUA al VERDE was Will's give-in-to-me dish as I adore tongue. Chef Amy explained that she cooks the veal tongue sous-vide and then serves it simply over a salsa verde. All it needed was a twist of the pepper mill for some extra flavor; even Will admitted he liked this.
POLIPO was charred perfectly grilled octopus with potato, eggplant, roasted red peppers and an aioli that was the thing that made the wine get crispy and acidic; how neat was that?
TONNO di CONIGLIO is the new meat salad winner in the city. The rabbit is herb poached and served like pulled pork (which can involve an occasional tiny bone) along with Lamb's Lettuce, Hazelnut, Black Olives, Capers, Mache and a tad of Onion. I think even Samuel would devour this dish.
CAPUNET is another divine new find. Think Italian Egg Roll and you have Braised Duck with Cabbage in a Rice Flour Wrap and deep fried, but here served with COTOGNATA which is a very spicy sauce from anchovy & caper that will dazzle your mouth. This is one dish not to be missed, along with so many others.
SUBRIC are fritters made from a mash of eggplant, potato and cauliflower then deep fried and served with Bagnetto Rosso, while the superb CAVOLFIORE alla CAVOUR is a combo of cauliflower and broccoli-rabe roasted with parmesan, anchovy and sprinkled with hard boiled egg in a little cast iron pot.
I forgot to mention the wonderful bread which comes in many delicious forms from a seasoned, salty flatbread to breadsticks to various others which arrive with an irresistible cheese butter.
Our second wine was a Nebbiolo "Bric du Nota" 2008 from Scarpa in Piemonte which is where the restaurant gets its name from (Alba is a town there and where Chef Donna hails from). After decanting by our wonderful sommeileuse Jennifer it was drinking divinely.
The two pastas we ordered were very different and on the special menu, so you might not find them every day:
BUCATINI alla VONGOLE featured those hollow wide spaghetti strands that I often find myself sucking air through, which I do not like. The dish was cooked perfectly with Little Neck Clams in a rich white wine sauce, but in the future I shall steer away from hollow pasta!
FARRO E CICI was the winner with a Wheat Tagliatelle mixed with Shrimp, Chick Peas, Anchovies and Hot Peppers making for a zingy sauce that we both adored, especially with our huge big red wine.
We were full so one dessert sufficed and Nailah insisted on the POLENTA BIANCA which is a snow white rich polenta with a crunchy caramel top and a scoop of Chocolate Gelato. Take the gelato and palce it on the crunchy crème brulee like topping and you have a Corn Polenta Brulee a la Mode to die for.
We went home happy knowing that ALBA is in our future.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Le Coco's Tahiti's top spot for fab food and Tahitian treats for lunch (Pape'ete,Tahiti,French Polynesia)-1-4-13

Our final opportunity for a dinner ashore was our overnight stay in the bustling capital of Pape'ete on the largest island, Tahiti. We chose Le Coco's, an elegant spot about 10 miles west of town past the airport on the west coast. After getting lost several times we arrived just minutes before sunset and ran past the hostess yelling madly that we had to catch the sunset. I think they thought we were maniacs trying to break in. We managed to catch it, though and then sat down at our elegant table in a truly elegant setting on the shore overlooking the island of Mo'orea opposite.
There were several menu options and we could not decide as the chef here has local, French and Moroccan influences on the menu. We each chose the menu "touristique" which allows you to choose a starter, main course and dessert, plus they add an amuse, and all at a cost lower than a la carte dining. Now the entire meal with a bottle of wine, two alcoholic drinks, water, etc. came to about $550, so this is not a bargain place to dine, but then virtually every meal in French Polynesia starts at the $17-35 zone just for one plate per person for a quick lunch!
That said we started with a wonderful concoction of champagne, peach liquor, Blue Curacao and gel pearls at the bottom of the flute. These were sucked up through a straw and then kind of exploded in your mouth. While I am not a fan of Blue Curacao, it was used just as a splash for color and made a memorable drink!
Three amuses arrived and there were all spectacular:
Salmon mousse on blini with caviar
Goat cheese with Marrakech spices and espalette pepper
Foie Gras Creme Brulee with truffle.
Each of these was amazing, but the crunchy brulee truffle top on the foie gras custard was a blow your mind treat.
Both Sam & Will started with the Artichoke Soup with Foie Gras Ravioli which Samuel gobbled up tout suite....a feat considering he tries to avoid foie gras.
My Gaspacho of Algarve was poured dramatically tableside by white gloved servers (there was a lot of this all evening, and the waiters were so cute, we loved it).
It came with calamari, olive, anchovy and basil pearl barley and was bursting with flavor. This is the most ideal dish when the temperature hovers at 80 and the sun never lets up.
The sparkling water was Chateldon which was nice; the Badoit cost something like $15 a bottle!! Our wine was a divine Savigny Les Baunes 1er Cru 2009 "en Redrescul" and at close to $80 was one of the cheapest ones on the menu.
Main courses were more varied with Samuel choosing the Moroccan theme Tagine of Lamb a la Minute with Coriander Seeds, Argan Oil, Couscous, Apricot and what was called Spicy Broth. This was more of an aromatic bouillon that could be poured over the couscous, but Sam chose to have his with the rich flavorful lamb sauce.
Will had the Iberian Cod with Chorizo, Calamari, Rice, Crocus Flower and Thyme which was definitely the winning fish dish as my Roasted "Legine" with Truffle, Baby Artichokes, Cockles from Brittany and Razor Clams had little flavor past the shellfish.
It was slated as Mahi Mahi and they explained the Legine was a replacement and when I later goggled the French name was not surprised it was the ubiquitous and not too exciting Chilean Sea Bass.
Dessert was in top form with Samuel choosing the Black Pearl (this is the local treasure for the jewelry market) Chocolate with Raspberry and Rose Petals with Chocolate Fondue which appeared as a round globe of chocolate and then was destroyed by the white-glove guy pouring hot chocolate sauce over it. He declared the pop rocks-like chocolate center as a masterpiece.
Will had the Apple dessert but somehow I did not jot down the specifics. My Poires Belles Helene was a brilliant take on the classic with Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream, Salted Butter Caramel and Praline-like Almond Cookie.
For an extra treat we had the most wonderful Honey Madeleines, Pain d'Epices with Caramel & Lime Cream and finally Rock Chocolate with Pistachios. Each was a mouthful of decadent flavors and we declared the pastry chef a genius.
What a great way to end our evening dining in Polynesia.
I must also add here that we ate numerous lunches in various places and while I won't elaborate we usually had POISSON CRU, a Tahitian raw tuna (or local fish) with not sweet coconut milk used as the ceviche base, which Will & I fell in love with.
The most beautiful presentation was at Le Taha'a Resort which is a magnificent Relais et Chateau private island (called a motu) off the island of Le Taha'a where we were graciously invited one day. It came in coconut on a bed of ice with lots of side treats like coconut milk, shavings and coconut rice. YUM!
Another fab meal was the Asiette de Dejeuner (lunch plate special) at Le Relais de Josephine, a small B&B located on the remote Rangiroa atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. The quiche, smoked tuna, salad and all was a treat and we got to view dancing dolphins in the Tipatu Pass with gorgeous views to boot! This is something we will REALLY miss.

La Villa Mahana in Bora (French Polynesia)make take your breath away (1-1-14)


After heading south of the Equator and celebrating New Year's Eve aboard the ship, we arrived in Bora Bora in French Polynesia for an overnight stay. Overnight stay is the first key word meaning off ship dining opportunity. I had arranged in advance to dine at the famed LA VILLA MAHANA (www.lavillamahana) where Corsican chef Damien Rinaldi Dovio holds court over the just over half a dozen tables with his beautiful Tahitian wife managing the front of house elegantly.
It is in a beautiful courtyard of an unmarked house just minutes south of the town of Vaitape where the ship's tenders arrive. Crisp white linens, fine crystal and silver adorn the tables, although a bread plate would have been welcome for the superb warm breads that arrived. We had a large hot French boule and a banana leaf wrapped moist tasty coconut bread with a superb sea salted butter.
Mostly quiet French music or local tunes played with an occasional Edith Piaf song as well as we sipped a glass of Nicholas Feuillette champagne mixed with Peach liquor and perused the menu and chose on of the two tasting menus with accompanying wines from France.
From our table we were lucky enough to have a view into the tiny kitchen which barely held chef Damien and his assistant sweating away in the quite warm 80 degree evening. They nodded and smiled at us periodically as we gave them the thumbs up and eventually Chef Damien came out at the end to thank us; he didn't really seem to visit any other table than ours and one other.
Oddly, there was no amuse and we started with a Salade Royale de Crustaces et Caviar which was a superb top notch leaf lettuce salad (keep in mind these are rare and expensive on these islands where growing such vegetables is quite costly) with imported shrimp and caviar in a delicious vinaigrette which hinted of Tahitian vanilla.
another glass of the Nicholas Feuillette came but without the sweet peach liquor.
Foie Gras aux Epices was a gorgeous perfectly cooked piece of goose liver sitting on sauteed sweet onions and a slab of potato with divine local spices. It was made even better with the 2010 Chateau Grillon Sauternes that was drinking superbly.
Just when we though it could not get any better, an excellent Risotto de Langouste appeared cooked just right and slightly al dente with local lobster on top. A Chablis Grand Cru 2003/04 Preuses from William Fevre was a true treat, as were all the amazing wines.
We found it odd that the sparkling water of choice here was San Benedetto, and indeed throughout Tahiti and her islands we saw more Pellegrino than Perrier, and we avoided the extremely costly Badoit, no matter how much we loved it.
The main course was a Filet de Boeuf a la Vanille de Tahiti, Gnocchi a la Creme de Parmesan which was a large filet (these apparently come from New Zealand along with much of the meat and dairy products here) with a superb red wine/vanilla sauce and rich creamy gnocchi. The wine was also a revelation with the deuxieme du chateau (2nd label) 2007 Amiral Beycheville that was drinking just right after 6+ years.
Dessert was a Fondant Chocolat Noir Pur Caraibe avec Glace a la Vanille de Tahiti which would have been right up Samuel's alley, but he decided to stay on board and let us have an adult night out. It was a perfectly cooked molten middle cake and the ice cream is definitely on the world's best list. Only the Tawny Port was a bit too much with all the sweetness from the dish.
We did love our evening and were looking forward to several more lunches and another dinner while in the islands! What a great way to start the new year.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

onto Oahu and hallelujah for Honolulu's HIROSHI, super snacking at Surf n Turf Tacos (12-24-13)

Our last days to "dine out" in Hawai'i were our Xmas eve and day where we overnighted in Honolulu as our final stop in Hawaii in Kona included a full day tour with no chance for any fun food or dining.
We met a friend from DC who was born in Hawai'i and had moved back last year at SURF N TURF TACOS a couple of blocks from his house in the shadow of Diamond Head at 3045 Montsarrat Avenue (they also have a Waikiki location). This is take out fast food at its best with each item made to order with super fresh ingredients.
Burritos, nachos and more can be had here and while Sam went for the basic Cheese Quesadilla (it comes with nacho chips and salsa) we went local with the Spicy Sesame Poke Taco filled with divine fresh sushi grade fish and the Korean Kalbi Taco with wonderful charred and seasoned beef with kimchi! This is a spot not to miss.
For dinner the four of us headed to one of Hawaii's top rated spots, HIROSHI Eurasion Tapas where the food and service reign supreme. On Xmas eve at 7pm the place was heaving and it never let up during the more than three hours we enjoyed there. Kalen, our server, was helpful and gave us great ideas to start. We ordered almost everything as we could not decide.
Housemade Rice Crackers arrived with a Nori/Supadani(seaweed)/Pickled Wasabi Dip which was mayo-based and irresistible.
Samuel wanted the Portuguese Sausage Potstickers with wilted Choi Sum, sweet corn, kim chee foam and truffled ponzu sauce. You can see from the start, these are not your standard Asian tapas, but a miraculous fusion of ingredients which is indeed what Hawai'i is all about! Will went nuts about his Hitacho Nest White Ale from Japan (as he should have at $15/bottle) and Josh and I adored the Dassai Junmai Daiginjo sake that was smooth and refreshing.
We went on to other tapas which included:
Marinated Hawaiian Kampachi(yellowtail) "En Papillote" which had the fish in a phyllo pastry with shitakes, tomato concasse and truffle butter with chili pepper water-konbu broth.
Miso Yaki Butterfish with Wilted Nalo Tatsoi & Lime-Ume(plum, but not sweet) gelees on baby bok choy. This fish was indeed like butter and so amazingly flavorful, as every fish and dish here exploded with amazing tastes in every bite.
Steamed Shinsato Pork Belly has a torched brie cheese slice with ginger, shiso, tomato-scallion salad, musubi (rice) & "adobo sauce" that was crispy loaded with flavor and not fatty at all.
Sizzlin' Hamachi Carpaccio is the fish at its purest with only ginger, tomato, Mrs. Cheng's tofu & truffled ponzu. I wanted to move in forever.
We saw one more tapas at the next table and since we had not ordered any main courses, we gave in to the Sous Vide of Kona Cold Lobster with Squid Ink Pasta, tobiko, shiso, Shintaku Haricot Verts & red japaleno which was superb. Thick juicy lobster tail from just miles away in an amazing preparation that did not ruin the texture of the meat in the leas.
Chuck, the sommelier at this time had arrived and we mentioned we were having this last tapas as well as two main courses and he immediately suggested a Jermann "Red Angel on the Moonlight" 2009 Pinot Noir from Veneto, Italy. The wine list was huge, impressive and reasonable to boot and I told him so. While he was proud, he told me to tell the manager, Cheryl, who turned out to be his wife and they were the co-owners. We all had a good laugh and they laughed as well as Chuck, Cheryl and Kalen all did such a superb job constantly all evening. The wine was divine to boot.
While we made our way through all the tapas Sam gobbled up a Vintage Natural Meats New York Steak which was an excellent cut of grain-fed, no hormone beef with seasonal veggies (crunchy sea slated zucchini & haricot verts), potato au gratin and a teriyaki butter sauce that was divine, but Sam insisted the steak was so well seasoned and tasty it was indeed not needed. The meat was exactly medium rare as ordered but with a sublime seared crunchy edge.
Our two main courses were a Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Curried Cauliflower, Shintaku Haricot Verts, Yellow Mustard "air", bacon orzo and sweet soy reduction and was a wonderful Asian fusion take on the little bird we adore so much.
The hit was the Panko Crusted Mekajiki which is a local swordfish that is rare and apparently only caught for use by restaurants by one skilled fisherman. It is not available everyday and Kalen had to make sure the fish had arrived. Luckily it did.
It is a softer version of the swordfish than we know and less like the "steaks" we get at home. It is cooked with roasted Shitakes, Zucchini, Fresh Thyme, Thai Basil & Roasted Garlic Soy Butter Sauce. We were all in 7th heaven.
Well, we were quite full but Sam had to have the Chocolate Cake OOZE with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream & Chocolate Sauce and we decided to split two other desserts:
Haupia (Coconut) Lemongrass Creme Brulee with Raspberry Sorbet was a nice take on the traditional dish, but it was the MACNUT "POG" Cheesecake that blew us away.
I like cheesecake, but try to avoid it for the most. Don't skip this as "POG" is a local abbreviation for passion fruit/orange/guava combo. Add this to macadamia nuts in the cake and serve it with Liliko'i(passion fruit)-orange coulis, Dulce di Leche Ice Cream & Guava Foam and you undoubtedly have the best dessert in all Hawai'i.
What a fantastic evening had by all as we rolled back to the ship and headed south.

Incidentally our next day lunch was at a food truck on the northeast shore of Oahu--go to any of these and don't miss the local freshwater garlic smothered shrimp for a treat!
Our next port is Kiribati (Fanning Island), but we hear there is no plumbing or electricity, so I gather the dining choices are slim! See you next in French Polynesia.

Making the most of Maui at Star Noodle in Lahaina (12-23-13)

Our second island on this cruise was Maui where we visited STAR NOODLE (www.starnoodle.com) in the city of Lahaina. We knew of Star Noodle as their chef Sheldon had been on Top Chef a couple of seasons ago. While he made it to the finals, he didn't win, but we loved his cooking ideas and decided to visit. Upon arrival, we discovered that he had left and opened a new place down the coast, but the menu still had many of his dishes and influence as he opened the place.
There were many folks waiting outside, but we were told the wait would be only 15 minutes. I suggest you call ahead to try and reserve which I believe can be done if you are "on the way." We were finally seated over 25 minutes later and while the food is definitely worth the wait the serving system is erratic at best when the place is so full. Our server Charlotte gave us many ideas and Sam smelled his first plumeria flower as she sported several in her hair! it's my favorite aroma in Hawai'i.  We could not resist the special TUNA SHOULDER served raw with a spicy mayo sauce, Maui Onion, Kimchi, Takuan (pickled daikon) over rice with a lotus chip. Samuel adored the Steamed PORK BUNS which are served like an open face sandwich with Duroc Pressed Pork, Hoisin, Pickled Shitakes & Cucumber with extra hoisin and chinese mustard on the side.
Will adored his Maui Brewing Company Bikini Blonde lager while I sipped at my flight of sakes which included:
Gekkeikan Zipang sparkling
Horin Gekkeikan which was smooth and divine-the best of the five
Gekkeikan Black and Gold which was also very good
Gekkeikan unfiltered Nigori
and a very sweet Plum wine (for dessert)
Even people who despise salads would adore the POHOLE Salad of Hana Fiddlehead Ferns, Maui Onion, Ebi (dried shrimp and cuttlefish), Kombu(dried seaweed) with Sesame Dressing.
Of course, the noodles are what many come for and we chose two very different noodle dishes from the long list:
GARLIC NOODLES were a huge hit with Sam loaded with fried and fresh garlic, Dashi and Green Onion
LAHAINA FRIED SOUP had wide thick Fat Chow Funn (noodles) with ground pork and bean sprouts.
Our final treat was the TEMPURA SHRIMP featuring two huge juicy Indonesian prawns (I had only had these 5 inch long shrimp once before decades ago in Hawai'i) battered and deep fried to a crisp with a Faux'nagi Sauce (this is a veggie take on unagi or eel sauce) with Garlic Aioli and Micro Greens.
As it took so long for everything to arrive we were going to skip dessert, but Charlotte had been so upset with the kitchen she brought out a complimentary MANGO PUDDING with Senbei and Lumpia Crisp (think Asian soda cracker) which was okay but won no awards.
We would go back there for sure, but I want to find Chef Sheldon on our next visit to Maui!

Ken's Housees of Pancakes in Hilo, Hawaii serves up a helluava meal anytime (and not just pancakes!)12-22-13

Our first port after 6 days at seas was Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and we needed a meal ashore so after a helicopter ride over the volcano, we took off for Ken's where the menu is bigger than the island and the service is with many mahalos and smiles. Our server John Nee had worked there for 21 years of Ken's more than 4 decades and the place has such charm, you won't want to leave. The place was laden with tinsel and more for the holiday and many were in Santa hats. We asked John Nee for help and she offered up a ton of ideas and we finally settled on Keiki(kid's) Won Ton Min for Sam, an amazing wonton soup with steamed Chinese "Kai choi" cabbage, egg garnish, fish cake and green onions. Huge for a kid's portion and every dish was a bargain as well. Sam had the blueberry milk shake, and Will had the rich coconut milk shake, while I chose the sweet yummy Iced Thai Coffee.
My Mahi Moco Loco' was rice in a bowl with a yummy Cajun spiced Mahi Mahi topped by two fried eggs and gravy. OMG! This is surfer food without the surfers.
Will chose the Mahi Mahi Sandwich with the same Cajun spiced fish, fries and yummy sauce.
We were stuffed and headed out on an island tour for more fun.....
next island-Maui