Paris, via the Lexington Ave. Line

Long before I ever heard of Keith McNally, I was a big fan of his restaurants. In my frequent travels to New York during my previous life, I was an early adopter and a regular patron of THE ODEON, his first big hit. Perhaps its combination of French bistro/brasserie fare reminiscent of LA COUPOLE in Paris, served alongside American classics, resonated with me. Maybe it was the energized vibe of the restaurant, or the big neon Edward Hopper-ish sign promising excitement. I remember being taken by its location – a desolate, barren and scary neighborhood called TriBeCa. What really floored me, though, was the fact that Odeon looked like it had been there forever. It just seemed REAL to me.


A few years later, he opened CAFE LUXEMBOURG in the culinary wasteland of the Upper West Side. This was the pioneer of what became Keith McNally’s aesthetic sweet spot: French bistros that faithfully evoke 19th century Paris – and I mean FAITHFULLY. As Pete Wells of the New York Times put it: “…not exactly the real Paris, but the way you remember it a year after taking a vacation there.”

Full disclosure: It was about this time that I was creating BUCA, and McNally’s attention to detail drove me to obsess over the minutiae of Italian immigrants’ homes and neighborhood restaurants – the plastic flowers, kitschy trinkets and gaudy Catholic icons. The bad plaster statuary and floral carpets. The Christmas lights left up year-round; everything a visual and cultural metaphor of a STATE FAIR FRINGED PILLOW. So thank you, Keith.

My next discovery of McNally’s genius was BALTHAZAR, the quintessential SOHO brasserie, right out of central casting…and today possibly the busiest restaurant in New York (with a branch now open in Covent Garden in London). It was here that I truly began to appreciate his attention to detail. Sure, other New York bistros had the obligatory Parisian ochre walls – but McNally’s were purposely stained to evoke years of exposure to a clientele of two-pack-a-day cigarette smokers. Then there were the mirrors – not clean and bright, but distressed with hopelessly damaged silvering. The mosaic tiled floor’s patterns were imperfect and patched – from the day they were laid. And McNally bathed everything in flattering Renoir-ish light.


PASTIS soon followed in what was then another culinary backwater, the Meatpacking District. Here he capitalized on all the bistro/brasserie clichés, including the requisite Parisian “egg and dart” facing on the zinc bar. And the “decorating hits” just kept on coming. New Parisian “touchstones” beyond Balthazar’s red leather banquettes and marred mirrors included mismatched chairs, a stamped and faux-soiled tin ceiling, and what would become a McNally signature decorative device: chipped and damaged Paris Metro subway tiles adorning columns and walls.

Oh, and the food was pretty good, too.

The hits came in quick succession…. the striking, subterranean PRAVDA VODKA BAR; SCHILLER’S LIQUOR BAR (best name ever?); and the impossibly cozy, always-satisfying Minetta Tavern. As the New York Times wrote, “…McNally is the restaurateur who invented downtown Manhattan.”


Then McNally dabbled in two Italian adventures: MORANDI, a trattoria; and PULINO’S, a pizza-centric venue that opened and closed after a short run, but was quickly reimagined as CHERCHE MIDI (see my blog entry dated November 2, 2016).

That brings us to AUGUSTINE, McNally’s newest bistro and his giddiest yet. Last week, our Parasole culinary team visited Augustine, housed beautifully in the restored BEEKMAN HOTEL not far from City Hall. Note the image of the dining room – an over-the-top and gorgeous accumulation of all the visual and sensual devices that have served him so well over the last thirty years, with the addition of Art Nouveau-style glazed tiles featuring hand-painted climbing vines, tiger lilies, peonies and poppies. Pay particular attention also to the use of mosaic floor tiles.

And if there are two of you dining at Augustine, get the corner table pictured (#62). On Saturday, we started with brunch at a window table (#91; #92 is also good).

Joanne chose the Cheese Soufflé, perfectly prepared and really cheesy with Gruyere and Parmigiano Reggiano, accompanied by a horseradish fondue ($19, but worth it).

This was followed by the Heirloom Beet Tartine with ricotta, watercress and toasted walnuts – a bargain at $10. The Heirloom Tomato Salad with fresh mozzarella and charred jalapeno vinaigrette, while very good, was a whopping $19. I had Eggs in the Hole with smoked salmon, arugula and lemon creme fraiche. Avocado Toast followed with poached eggs, tomato coriander salsa and sliced avocados atop grilled focaccia (best Avocado Toast ever; $16). Finally, a perfectly “serviceable” Eggs Benedict on brioche – just fine, but just Eggs Benedict.

The Parasole folks gathered again at 6:00PM for dinner, and to reach our table we had to fight our way through Augustine’s lively bar, filled even at that early hour with drinkers and diners.

Shared dinner appetizers began with Salt Roasted Oysters topped with salmon roe. I had the Beef Tartare with yuzu, nori and a quail egg, while one of our group opted to go “snout-to-tail” and ordered the Marrow Bones with oxtail ragout. Joanne, in my opinion, had the biggest hit: Chilled Watercress Vichyssoise, drizzled with chive oil and served with buttery miniature brioche croutons – just $10 for a generous serving. Two crispy salads came next: a lightly dressed Frisée and mixed greens…and a surprise: a Waldorf Salad. Not very French or bistro-like, but delicious nonetheless.

I won’t go through all of the mains. They’re all pictured and all good. But I will mention a few standouts, including the tasty, artfully plated Duck à l’Orange, featuring juicy slices of Grand Marnier-braised breast meat layered over turnips and greens, served with a side of duck confit and orange marmalade. I had the Steak Au Poivre – fork-tender and beefy (and, as Pete Wells said, “dry aged and tender without being floppy). It was served with a generous side of crispy pomme frites – double fried (or maybe triple fried) just like in France.

But perhaps the most interesting offering at our table was a side-dish: POMMES PRESSÉ: layers and layers and layers of wafer-thin potato slices, stacked on a bed of pureed Yukon Golds and served with garlic aioli and wild thyme. I don’t know how it was prepared, but I think they deep fried the whole thing.

Apple Tarte Tatin with salted caramel ice cream, a Dark Chocolate Terrine and a surprising plate of sliced Blood Oranges with mint leaves sent us all crawling back to our hotel.

Finally, I wondered, Why the name “Augustine”?

Was McNally playing with us? Is this the same Augustine as the St. Augustine that Stephen Greenblat cited in the New Yorker magazine, who in 370 AD, at age 16, had an “incident” in a public bathhouse? “Hardly a world-shaking event,” he writes, “…but Augustine did become celibate and perhaps even obsessed with human sexuality” causing him to believe “‘that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species’” – thus Adam & Eve and Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin?


I don’t know. I was just wondering. What exactly did happen in that bathhouse?????

W.T.F.

Italy’s Finest Seafood Restaurant

Last week we discussed my favorite restaurant in northern Italy, TRATTORIA SOSTANZA in Florence.

Easily the best known city in Tuscany, Florence has the refinement, sophistication and money representative of so many of the Italian states and city states north of Rome.

Venture south, however, and you’ll discover just how poor much of Italy really is. With the exception of tiny pockets of great wealth that frequently have origins of dubious distinction, vast stretches of the south are arid and almost barren. They simply can’t support the crops and livestock that one finds in the north.

And yet…

The south has developed a cuisine that celebrates what the regions do have to offer. They call it “CUICINA ALLA POVERA” – the cuisine of the poor. And what a delight it is; different from the north, but equally as good. Think BUFALA MOZZARELLA, the world-renowned creamy cheese that comes from water buffalo raised just north of Naples. Why water buffalo? Because cows cannot stand the southern heat. Also, SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, probably the best in the world and grown only in the volcanic soil in the shadow of MT. VESUVIUS, also near Naples.

And finally, there’s the incredible bounty of the sea. Unlike the wealthy north, which relies much more on beef, pork and veal for protein, southern Italy celebrates fish and seafood, and its chefs do wondrous things with it.

That brings us to Naples. It’s a much-maligned city (often deservedly so), but if one can look beyond the obvious, you’ll find culture, beauty – and fantastic seafood – in abundance.


Situated on the east coast of the Mediterranean on the GULF OF NAPLES, the city occupies a strategic military location as evidenced by the numerous castles and fortresses that survive to this day. In a tribute to the armies of shoppers who flock to Naples, the city boasts one of the world’s first enclosed shopping centers – the vital, stunning glass-roofed GALLERIA UMBERTO I, built between 1887 and 1891.

Should you be fortunate enough to visit Naples, do sample the PIZZAS, most often made with SAN MARZANO TOMATOES and BUFULA MOZZARELLA (of course). In fact, pizza is said to have originated here. I certainly have no reason to disagree. Another must: the city’s spectacular open-air markets, brimming with “visual candy” ranging from fresh veggies to super-fresh seafood.

You’ll also want to take a day trip to POMPEII, about 20 miles south of Naples. In 79 AD, Pompeii, without warning, fell victim to a horrendous volcanic eruption that suffocated the town. But it wasn’t the fire or lava that killed the thousands of residents. It was the tons and tons of volcanic ash that blanketed Pompeii, burying people alive in their tracks. Ironically, the falling ash ended up preserving many of the city’s structures, which after 2,000 years old are remarkably intact.

Naples is a “gritty” place. The vast majority of the residents are poor (although you can find small shops housing Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada and the like in a tiny pocket of downtown that caters to wealthy tourists and probably mob wives). Not surprisingly, pickpockets and gypsies abound in Naples, and they’ve elevated their trade to an art. They’re stealthy. They’re fast. They will fleece you faster than a high school prom dress comes off. Joanne had her watch violently ripped from her wrist as we walked near our hotel. The thieves escaped lightning-fast on mopeds before we even realized what had happened.

So here’s some advice that you’d be wise to take: DO NOT – repeat, DO NOT – bring your expensive jewelry to Naples. If you need a watch, wear a $32 Timex, not a Rolex or a Cartier. That said, don’t freak out; you can easily stroll the city, especially during the daytime. Ladies, if you carry a purse, wear the strap over your opposite shoulder and hang on to it at all times. Gentlemen, keep your wallet and passport in your front pocket, or in the hotel safe. If you sport a backpack, be sure it’s locked and strapped over both shoulders.

In addition to the pickpockets and street urchins, you’ll also notice the somewhat invisible hand of the mafia lurking over the city. It announces itself in the padded meter of your taxi. It appears in the frequent garbage strikes that plague the city (until the right payoffs are made). It’s also found in the commissions that the Mafia receives from the many pickpockets it controls. Likewise, your inflated check at certain restaurants and hotels may reflect a Mafia “commission.”

Speaking of hotels, here’s another piece of advice: If you can afford it, stay at THE EXCELSIOR on the bay. Yes, it’s a bit of a splurge, but well worth the peace of mind of being secure. By the way, the EXCELSIOR has a wonderful rooftop restaurant with a Kodak view of Mt. Vesuvius. And if you’re a fan of The Sopranos, this is where Tony and the gang stayed on their visit to Italy.

Now that we have that behind us, let’s talk restaurants – MIMI ALLA FERROVIA, in particular, because it just might be the best seafood restaurant in all of Italy (and that includes LA ROSSETA in Rome).

As the name suggests, Mimi is near the train station (Ferrovia), not in the nicest or safest part of the city. Wisely, the Excelsior Hotel INSISTED that Joanne and I take a seasoned hotel car and driver to the restaurant. (By the way, our driver stayed parked out front ‘til we were finished with dinner).

The owner, Mimi, is on site and all over the dining room. As we dined, several fishermen brought in crates of just-caught fish (still squirming and flopping) and paraded it through the heart of the dining room en route to the kitchen.

Obviously, seafood reigns at Mimi’s. I do not recall ANY MEAT DISHES on the menu, but my memories are alive with visions of seafood pastas, redolent with clams, razor clams, shrimp, mussels, octopus and squid. Unsurprisingly, Mimi’s also offered various iterations of fresh swordfish from local waters (check out my photo from the market), along with tuna direct from the Straits of Messina, between the toe of the boot and Sicily. They even have the classic Sicilian dish … PASTA CON SARDE with sardines and crowned with herby bread crumbs … no PARMIGIANO REGGIANO in Naples …. No cows. And to finish, do not pass up Mimi’s intensely rummy BABA RHUM.

Do not be afraid. Go to Naples if you can – and by all means, GO TO MIMI’S. Just be careful. Be aware. And keep your antenna on high alert.

WTF

PHIL

The Abbondanza of Sostanza

During the BUCA years, Joanne and I traveled to Italy up to three times a year with our culinary teams and managers. These deep dives into Italy’s culinary heritage took us from the wealthy areas of the north to the less affluent, gritty areas that dominate the south, including the heel and toe of the boot as well as Sicily.

The thread of continuity that binds Italy is, of course, the food – the glorious food – equally wonderful from Bologna to Rome to Naples and Palermo; yet so different, sooo very different.

We’ve taken a breather for several years, but now Joanne and I are planning a trip back, this time with our grandkids. And that starts me thinking about the restaurants that we so enjoyed during our many visits.

Let’s start with Florence.


Despite the throngs of tourists, the city not only endures, it consistently charms. If it’s cold and rainy, you can easily spend a day inside the Uffizi Gallery, replete with treasures like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But if the weather’s good, put on your walking shoes and head to the Ponte Vecchio. You can spend your euros on a cameo or spend some patience dodging the Germans who congregate around the Duomo and the Baptistery with their backpacks, annoying sandals and wool socks.

Joanne and I like to stroll across the Arno to the Pitti Palace and the entrance of the Boboli Gardens, a true oasis in the heart of the city. Stroll by the Dwarf Morgant Fountain that depicts an obese naked dwarf astride a turtle, his testicles squashed against the shell. We can stroll the gardens for hours and emerge back into the chaos of central Florence well refreshed.

Pisa is nearby – a perfect daytrip. And be sure to indulge in gelato…every day, maybe twice a day. Be sure also to visit Florence’s markets and salumerias for their beautifully merchandized bounty. While at the Central Market, don’t pass up the porchetta sandwiches (from the porchetta food stall on the first floor). As you stand in line for lunch, check out the photo they posted of our culinary team.

Afterward, head to the Academia and check off another item on your bucket list: viewing Michelangelo’s David.

As evening sets in, consider where you might dine. We love RISTORANTE CIBREO, near the Central Market, led by chef Fabio Picchi. The night we were there, all his arrogance and condescension were on display in the way he treated his guests, but so were his culinary talents – which are spectacular. If you’d prefer a little less attitude, make your way to the less costly and more casual CIBREO TRATTORIA and, weather permitting, snag an outdoor table.

We also love COCO LEZZONE on Via del Parioncino, where – strange as it may sound – you can make a budget meal of a small green salad accompanied by either of their incredibly robust soups (or are they stews?), including Pappa al Pomodoro (Italian tomato/bread soup) or the Ribollita (a thicker, “bready” vegetable soup). If you want Bistecca Fiorentina, you must call in advance, but my advice is to stick with the soups. I’ll steer you someplace better for steak.

By the way, look closely at the image I’ve posted of the dining room. Note the ochre-colored stripe on the wall. That represents the high-water mark from the disastrous 1967 flood that ravaged Florence.

Dining with a group? Don’t miss IL LATINI on Via dei Palchetti for spectacular family-style fare. It’s a carnivore’s heaven – totally meat-centric, with giant sharing platters of Bistecca Fiorentina, as well as mixed grills that include lamb, chicken and pork. Note the expressions on the faces of our Minneapolis colleagues as our server presents the platter. They do not take reservations, so line up early.

I’ve saved my favorite for last: the old school TRATTORIA SOSTANZA, located on a desolate, dimly lit little street called Via del Porcellana, two blocks from Santa Maria Novella. The restaurant is tiny – maybe 40 seats – with distressed white-tiled walls that evoke a vintage butcher shop. They haven’t changed a bit in the 25 years that we have been visiting there, and I hope they never do.

Like TRAMSHED in London (see my July 20, 2017 posting), Sostanza specializes in two offerings – CHICKEN and STEAK – but here they’re so good that the restaurant doesn’t need a Damien Hirst embalmed chicken and cow installation to wow the crowds. In fact, from a culinary perspective, comparing Sostanza and Tramshed is like placing a horse next to a mouse. Sostanza is far, far better.

Bistecca Fiorentina stars here. Harvested from huge Chianina cattle (Italy’s premium breed) and raised primarily in Tuscany and Umbria, the tender, well-marbled meat is available only through state-approved butchers, ensuring uniform quality (and high prices). Sostanza grills its one kilo porterhouse over white-hot embers. It’s about $100, but serves two to three people. And I have to say, it rivals MANNY’S porterhouse.

Now, if there are at least four people in your party, get the BISTECCA, which is arguably Florence’s best. But you MUST ALSO order the PETTI DI POLLO AL BURRO – brown butter chicken. YOU MUST! The dish consists of a pair of plump chicken breasts, lightly grilled and, while still hot, dredged in flour and passed through a bath of beaten eggs, then set in a small pan with at least a quarter to half a pound of premium butter, then finished over a bed of glowing embers. It’s brought to the table sizzling hot, its brown butter bubbling gloriously.

A good piece of advice: Get a side of CANNELINI BEANS, which are a welcome counterpoint to the richness of the Bistecca and the butter chicken.

Finish up with a slice of signature MERINGUE CAKE with fresh strawberries, and by all means order a few shots of GRAPPA. Even though tourists have certainly discovered this restaurant, you can toast the fact that Sostanza embodies the uncorrupted soul of Tuscan cooking.

W.T.F.

PHIL

Staghead

Rick Nelson recently wrote an interesting and informative piece in The Star Tribune celebrating a whole bunch of good restaurants on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River from Bay City in the north to the LaCrosse area in the south.


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Grown-Up Chinese

Concluding a recent two-week stay in London…and power dining seven nights a week…Joanne and I needed a break from rock star chef gymnastics. We wanted someplace quiet and comfortable within walking distance of our hotel – a culinary cocoon where we could relax and reflect on our stay.
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