“Steak Night” In Central Illinois

“STEAK NIGHT” IN CENTRAL ILLINOIS

The past two weeks I’ve posted about a couple of pretty fancy restaurants in London and in Paris. But a part of me always feels like an imposter in places like that – as though the maître ‘d is going to say, “Ah, Roberts. From Keewanee, Illinois. I have a lovely table for you back by ze kitchen.”


…or maybe down in a dirt basement like the one in my childhood home, where three generations of us lived under the same roof – my grandma, my aunt and uncle, my parents and me.

At the time, I didn’t know that we were poor. Nor did I know that my town was little more than a boil on the buttocks of Illinois. After all, we were the self-proclaimed “HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!” (Could Paris or London say THAT?)

As our families sat down for dinner each evening – each and EVERY evening – I had absolutely no idea that great care had been taken to economize and “stretch” every recipe and dish to feed all six of us. All I knew is that there was always plenty of food – food that I have nothing but fond memories of.

All of which brings me to a “GO-TO” dish that we had on almost a weekly basis.

SALISBURY STEAK.


I knew nothing about the history of the dish, of course. It’s said to have originated in Hamburg, Germany, a city known for minced and chopped meat, a preparation method that German butchers had borrowed from Russia. It’s called the HAMBURG STEAK. In Sweden, it’s called PANNBIFF and the meat is a mixture of pork and beef served up with cream sauce and Lingonberries (Swedish meatballs, anyone?)

Don’t ask me how it got there, but even Hawaii has a version, called THE LOCO MOCO. As near as I can tell, the only difference between it and a SALISBURY STEAK is that the LOCO MOCO is served over a bed of white rice.


In our house rice played an important role…as did breadcrumbs…and oatmeal…and Rice Krispies. Unbeknownst to me, all four were used as “extenders” to the ground beef in order to bulk it up and therefore serve bigger portions to more people.

No surprise here, but France had a fancy iteration of the dish called HACHE DE BOEUF: ground sirloin mixed with Gorgonzola cheese, eggs and anchovies. A drum roll please….and everyone…. a loud chorus of “La Marseillaise,” s’il vous plait.

But back to reality and good old SALISBURY STEAK…


BTW, the ground beef was always fashioned into an oval, not a round. I suppose that was to make it look more like a steak.

I paid no attention to my Mom’s recipe but I imagine it called for onions, garlic, eggs, the aforementioned “filler,” and probably ketchup. Most always it was accompanied by mashed potatoes, frozen peas (Birds Eye, no doubt) and occasionally macaroni (or perhaps spaghetti; that was all the local A&P carried. Certainly no flat noodles or foreign shapes).


I have since learned that some recipes call for a fried egg on top. Sounds good, but none of that nonsense in our house. Once in a while some carrots and potatoes would find their way onto the plate, but that’s it!

Around that time, the A&P started carrying SWANSON’S FROZEN TV DINNERS, and possibly next to roast turkey, Salisbury Steak was the top seller. God, how I lusted for a TV DINNER! Maybe because we had just gotten our first television set, a gift from my Dad’s boss, and a set of TV tables, from cashing in Gold Bond Stamps.


At any rate, the Swanson’s frozen TV dinner is said to have diminished the image of Salisbury Steak. But not for me. In our house, Swanson’s was a step-up.

Then again, Swanson’s didn’t add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP to its Salisbury Steak the way my mom did. Nor did its TV dinners come with a six-to-eight-inch-tall stack of sliced Wonder Bread like my mom placed at the center of the table. There was no greater pleasure than sopping up the mushroom gravy with slices of soft, white, store-bought Wonder Bread.


Now, there is something of a ritual and culinary disconnect that went on in our house every spring. My Dad and my uncle Don and I would head out early every Saturday morning in May to forage for MOREL MUSHROOMS – always to the same place: a woods outside Galesburg, Illinois, where a friendly farmer allowed us to search year after year. And search we did. We had our secret spots in the forest around certain fallen and rotting trees. And if there were “JACK-IN- THE- PULPITS” growing nearby….we’d hit the morel mother lode.

I am not exaggerating when I say that we’d return home around noon every Saturday with two or three A&P grocery bags chock-full of just-picked morels. And guess what? Saturday night dinner on those days was always Salisbury Steak with Morel Mushroom Sauce!

One more thing: As a Saturday daytime treat for us foragers hungry from “the hunt,” My mother would take a pound or two from the grocery bag and toss ‘em into the kitchen sink full of ice cold salty water (the salt to get the bugs out of the spongy tops}.

Once thoroughly soaked, dried and bug free, she’d toss them into a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a fistful of salt and a quarter pound of butter. Fifteen minutes later, my uncle and my dad and my mom and I would sit down at the kitchen table, each of us with a platter of these pan-fried beauties – each of them with a can of BLATZ BEER, and me with a bottle ROYAL CROWN COLA and sometimes a MOON PIE.


WTF

Phil

A Hél of a Meal in London and Paris

Some years back, I was in Paris and had picked up Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code for some travel reading. Part of the book is set there, and in the course of following some of the story’s clues around the Left Bank, Joanne and were led to the SAINT-SULPICE CATHEDRAL, home of the Rose Line, a central element in the story.


It was lunchtime and since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to try HELENE DARROZE, the famed second floor restaurant on Rue d’Assas that opened in 2001 and promptly won two Michelin stars. More about that later.

Hélène Darroze is an Alain Ducasse alum from Gascony in southwest France, home of the fat LANDES CHICKENS that actually rival the world renowned BRESSE CHICKENS from Burgundy.

In 2008 she opened her second restaurant at the prestigious CONNAUGHT HOTEL in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. Her menus in Paris and in London, while not identical, are very similar in tone and attitude, with several signature dishes featured at both restaurants. But the décor is quite different at each location. Both dining rooms are warm and comfortable, but the Paris location has a decidedly more contemporary flavor, whereas the London outpost exudes a sporting and “old-money” British vibe.


If you have kids and remember Pixar’s animated studio film, Ratatouille, the character Colette was modeled after Hélène Darroze.

One thing that I like about Darroze is that while exercising serious cooking skill, she brings wit and whimsy to the table. For example, the “menu” arrives in the convoluted form of a Chinese Checkers board, with 16 bright white balls, all labeled with food possibilities – scallops…lamb…caviar…

You pick a ball or two or three that interest you and place them in the indented ring that surrounds the board. Your server records them, then proceeds to explain and romance your selections. It’s a unique give-and-take that sets the stage for a playful rapport between staff and guest.

Is it necessary? Hell, no. Is it fun? Damn right.

Cheesy gougeres appear on your table, followed by a dark, dense and chewy bread with two butters, one a flaky, salted, incredibly rich golden slab; the second a 4-inch-high cone of swirled chili butter. Both are nice counterpoints to the slight sweetness of the molasses in the bread.


Let the show begin…

Seemingly out of nowhere a trolley shows up tableside, bearing a classic Berkel slicer (not the Williams Sonoma iteration, but the “real deal” $25,000 version), invented in 1898 by Wilhelm van Berkel in Rotterdam (The London location sports a red Berkel; in Paris it’s cream colored). Without a word, your server spins the handle and pink, paper-thin slices of cured Gascon ham settle into an airy pile served alongside a miniature loaf of buttery pull-aparts.


It was a hot summer day in Paris when we first dined at Hélène Darroze and Joanne had Gaspacho as a starter. Even though it was refreshingly chilled, the flavor was absolutely intense. Adding to the theater, the soup was poured from a glass teapot right at the table.

Considering Darroze’s Gascony heritage, it came as no surprise that of the fifteen starters, five involved foie gras – some duck, some goose. I don’t know if the goose is any better than the duck, or if the price is higher because they just don’t know what to do with the rest of the goose (I’ve heard it’s often donated to prisons), but in the world of foie gras, goose liver ranks higher on the fanciness scale – so expect to pay a premium for it.

At any rate, I certainly was not able to try ‘em all, and Joanne will not even taste foie gras, so I was forced to consume an ethereally creamy slab of it all by myself. I still remember: The preparation included cocoa beans and smoked eel. In a tribute to spring (and to the snout-to-tail movement), another standout appetizer of sweetbreads comes with morel mushrooms.

Mains have included Beef Wellington (perfect in London on a damp and dreary November evening). Milk-Fed Lamb Chops from the Pyrenees were fork-tender. And surprisingly I also liked the Pigeon in Mole Sauce. (The lesson here: In the hands of a master, anything can be made delicious.)

But here’s the deal……

Darroze cites that she fondly remembers her Sunday dinners while growing up in Gascony. It was always ROAST CHICKEN and always chicken from Landes.

Consequently, we are blessed that she has added Saturday and Sunday ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO to her menus in both Paris and London. This is no casual Sunday supper, though. Each menu consists of five courses and will set you back about $140 for two. Not cheap, but a bargain compared to a meal assembled à la carte.


Perhaps Daniel Humm of NYC’s ELEVEN MADISON PARK took inspiration from Hélène Darroze when he introduced what food writer Dan Meyers has called “the best roast chicken in America” – an Amish variety, stuffed with truffles, foie gras and brioche.

Darroze stuffs foie gras under the skin in the winter, and in the summer the chicken gets morel mushrooms and truffles.

The parade begins with a gilded eggshell filled with egg yolk confit, chicken liver mousse, bacon, crispy skin and parmesan foam – decadence on a spoon. That’s followed by a second course of “gin-clear” chicken consommé with tiny ravioli and a splash of Armagnac. A generous glossy and juicy nut-brown breast comes next with a side of perfectly prepared, butter-loaded seasonal vegetables.


But now comes a real surprise and delight: a taco of boldly seasoned chicken leg and thigh meat on a corn tortilla with a squeeze of fresh lime.

Dessert arrives in three separate steps. Staying true to the chicken theme, there is ALWAYS Ile Flottante (whipped egg whites with crème anglaise, caramel and sliced toasted almonds), and sometimes strawberry ice cream (unlike any you have ever seen or tasted).

Not included, but definitely a worthwhile extra indulgence is a sampling from the Cheese Trolley, which features huge wedges of unpasteurized varieties (which aren’t imported to the U.S.) from both England and France, displayed under enormous glass bell jars. Selections come with an assortment of fruits, nuts and chutneys.

And finally a complimentary “tree” of chocolate truffles arrives to enjoy with your coffee. But….we ain’t done yet, folks. As you leave, you are given a box of cookies, pastries, macarons and sweets to take home. NICE!

The PRIX FIXE menu at lunch is a relative bargain in Paris. The London location serves dinner only.

My advice? Book a table for two on Saturday or Sunday night. Have the ROAST CHICKEN FOR TWO…..DO IT!


W.T. F.

PHIL

A SEAFOOD DISCOVERY IN PARIS

Fresh seafood and oysters have been part of the Paris restaurant scene since Frederic Bofinger opened his eponymous brasserie in 1864 near the Bastille. It was a time when railroads were new and were just beginning to bring fresh seafood to the hordes of awaiting Parisians. BOFINGER STILL STANDS.


In the 1920s, after World War I, Rue Montparnasse was the trendy playground of Paris and folks were packing the bars, cafes and restaurants every night. It was then that the seafood restaurant LE DOME stood ready to welcome the new kid on the block: LA COUPOLE, which on opening night in 1927, is said to have popped the corks on 1200 bottles of champagne and shucked thousands of fresh oysters. Remarkably, LE DOME and LA COUPOLE flourish to this day.

After recent visits to both, LE DOME seems to be a whole lot more serious about their food. Yes, it’s a tourist spot…but I also see loads of tables that appear to be occupied by locals.

Joanne and I have had the pleasure of sampling a host of Parisian seafood places over the years: LA MAREE…MARIUS ET JANETTE…PRUNIER…all old school, but good old school. HUITERIE REGIS in the 6th specializes in oysters as well as towers of fruits de mer, including lobster, langoustine, clams, whelks and anything else that may have been caught or harvested that morning. It’s TINY, TINY TINY and I don’t think I’ve ever had any of their cooked dishes. In fact, I don’t recall even seeing a kitchen – just a pantry, with no stove.

Totally out of the tourist zone, In an unremarkable neighborhood , several blocks behind the Tour Montparnasse is one of our favorites: LA CAGOUILLE. The dining room shouts bad design from the 1950’s, but kitchen seduces with the best seafood from that morning’s haul. The menu here isn’t meant to impress, simply to bring you joy. Thank God, it does both.

All of which brings us to a new discovery – a fantastic seafood spot on the Right Bank in the 8th, not too far from the Arc de Triomphe: RESTAURANT HELEN (its tagline is “Le Culte du Poisson” – “the cult of fish”]. Now, I searched in vain to find out just who in the heck HELEN is…or was. The most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy? Or the Greek meaning, “shining light?” I just do not know.

What I do know is this….the chef/owner is an incredible talent by the name of SEBASTIAN CARMONA-PORTO. He was born in France but grew up in Spain and moved to Paris to become chef at Le Duc before moving on to HELEN.

Joanne and I first had lunch there a couple of years ago and have been back twice, both times for dinner and most recently for our anniversary. For us, it’s a special occasion restaurant – an anniversary or birthday place. Helen can be expensive, but it’s also a lifetime memory. Note: a prix fixe menu is offered at lunch for a fraction of the cost of an à la carte dinner.

The dining room is tasteful – done up in understated shades of blue and grey. The tables are nicely spaced and, if there are two of you, I’d recommend table #’s 1, 2 or 3, all near the window. That’s Joanne at table three.

OK….on to dinner. The all-seafood menu is PURE and HARD…..only stuff that swims.

I’m always tickled and frequently raise an eyebrow at restaurants’ “amuse bouche” offerings. At HELEN, by the time the third amuse bouche arrived, I didn’t just raise an eyebrow….I dropped a jaw!


Among appetizers that we have enjoyed are the Razor Clams, Char-Grilled Octopus, Raw Tuna Slices with Yuzu and Jalapeno, Langoustines with a Souffle Cap and Garlic Aioli as well as a host of Carpaccios and Crudos, depending on the day’s catch.

Mains have included Steamed Clams with Chorizo, Sole, and a minimalist block of soft ivory Halibut. However, the star of the show is the nightly selection of WHOLE FISH FOR TWO, presented and filleted tableside. While we’ve never had the Scorpion Fish with its massive head and fierce-looking, very wide and toothy mouth, we have had the seabass and, best of all, the flounder.

EVERYTHING IS VIVID, EVERYTHING IS FLAVOR!

Of course, desserts were wonderful. An all-out-assault on the dessert menu rewarded us with three chock-full-of-chocolate treasures: the millefeuille, a chocolate tart, and all-chocolate profiteroles.


I thought HELEN was our special little find, a place that might be off the radar screen, not populated with the glitterati.

But as I was exploring the delights of this restaurant, I came across this…..

Check it out. It’s the last image.


W.T.F.
PHIL

Summer-Loving Pastas

AHHHH….at last….SPRING…wonderful spring!


Can summer be far behind? After all, the flowers are in full bloom…the beach beckons, and lovers once again stroll hand-in-hand.

After last week’s post about Amalfi, I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the compelling summertime pasta choices that await us. So I thought I’d serve up a random (and by no means complete) view of warm weather pasta possibilities. You can serve some hot and some cold.

Now, I’ve probably eaten a couple hundred miles of spaghetti in my lifetime (and have the girth to prove it), but even so, I’ll never forget standouts like the wonderful lemon cream spaghetti in Positano and the vivid, unexpected flavors of the sour orange risotto that turned out to be a blank slate for a blizzard of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (a cheese born to “buddy-up” with fruit).


So, dear readers, what I am about to unleash for your consideration is a flurry of pasta ideas to bring sunshine to your summer dining, whether it’s just dinner on Tuesday night, a backyard picnic with neighbors, or a gathering of friends who, upon seeing your food, will DROP THEIR JAWS.

In some ways…this is a love letter to Italy.

But no recipes here – just ideas. You’re on your own for preparation details (but the internet will help).

Fistfuls of fresh herbs are involved. It’s spring and Morel mushrooms are springing up. Tomatoes of all stripes….heirloom, big fat Bushel Boys, and sweet cherry tomatoes will soon choke the farmers markets.


A few summer classics are worth mentioning….Linguine Alle Vongole (please use fresh clams in addition to canned, if only for the “clicking sounds). Spaghetti with mussels, shrimp and scallops in fresh tomato-basil sauce. Pasta Primavera. And the Sicilian icon: PASTA CON SARDE, topped with delicious homemade seasoned breadcrumbs instead of parmesan cheese. Remember, cows’ cheese is scarce in the south and, by and large, unaffordable. (Oh c’mon, Minnesota. You can handle SARDINES.)

Speaking of basil, probably the number one summer sauce is basil pesto – as easy to make as it is to enjoy. Most people make theirs with fresh basil, but really your options are endless. There’s arugula pesto, chive
pesto, watercress pesto…you get the idea.

A few more classics: Ramps (a relative of garlic, scallions, chives and leeks; and the rapture of seasonally obsessed chefs), tossed with spaghetti and a little olive oil, white wine, shallots, butter and a dash of red pepper flakes, with shards of Parmigiano on top. Get ‘em soon; they’re only around for a few weeks.

A Neapolitan favorite is Pasta All Norma: spaghetti tossed with grilled eggplant, garlic, EVOO, tomatoes and ricotta salata (semi-firm, salted, pressed and dried ricotta cheese). Check out the image below of a family platter we shared at Ristorante Marcello in Rome: a tri-color selection of three different pastas lined up to represent the Italian flag. BUT – check closely – isn’t the white supposed to go in the middle?

Then there’s the mother of all Roman pastas: Fettuccine Alfredo – a “must have.” Yeah, yeah, I know: It’s been around so long, it couldn’t be more of a cliché. But it’s one GOOD-ASSED PASTA – especially with a “still quaking” poached egg on top.

Finally, there are decent – even good – mozzarella and burrata cheeses in the best grocery stores (just be sure to check the “buy date” to get the freshest). The possibilities pack a magical punch. Little mozzarella balls called Bocconcini tossed with orecchiette, basil pesto and cherry tomatoes. My “go-to” would likely be burrata with roasted tomatoes, garlic and basil in a pasta of your choice.

These next two do not involve pasta….but I just cannot neglect them. The first is the Mozzarella Caprese salad at Manny’s (pictured), only available in high tomato season and assembled with burrata, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil. The second – and this will cause a commotion at your dinner party, guaranteed – is fresh figs, cashews and creamy burrata resting on a bed of crispy arugula, drizzled with EVOO and a sprinkling of Maldon salt flakes and cracked black pepper.

Now it’s time for you to just browse the pictures. Beautiful pictures, many from Donna Hay … Australian food writer, cookbook author and all-around genius.

No rules here – well, just one: DO NOT SKIMP on the quality of your parmesan cheese. You MUST use Parmigiano Reggiano, aged for three years. Then just open your eyes and your mind and explore the ideas, variations, and possibilities.

Lastly, I’ll call your attention to two items: The faux “spaghetti” noodles made from zucchini with an impostor “meat ragu” masquerading as Bolognese sauce – Ingredients that would make an Italian grandmother roll her eyes. NOT GOOD.

But this dish is BEYOND GOOD – so prepare for an all-out assault on your taste buds: SPRING TRUFFLES (and lots of ‘em) over, or mixed with, pappardelle or most any shape of pasta. You can prepare this with creamy Alfredo sauce or a little truffle butter, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mushrooms (Morels or Porcinis please), cracked black pepper, and lots and lots of Parmigiano Reggiano. Consult the internet for additional ideas that might suit you.

In the meantime, as the Cole Porter song suggests: EXPERIMENT. Invite a few friends and neighbors over to share in the deliciously fleeting pleasures of the season.

W.T.F.

PHIL

COASTING ALONG AMALFI

During my BUCA days, Joanne and I regularly led groups of managers and chefs to southern Italy. The purpose: to immerse them in “la cucina povera” – the peasant cooking brought to America by Italian immigrants and celebrated by our restaurants.

While Rome, Florence and Venice are on many people’s bucket lists, our itineraries focused on places like Naples and Sicily, but in no way were we deprived. If you’ve only been to the more affluent north, you owe it to yourself to tour the south, where there are fewer tourists, the culture is more laid back, and the cuisine seduces with charms unique to this part of the country.

I’m thinking in particular about the AMALFI COAST.


Here’s what you do. Book your hotel in Naples. I strongly suggest THE EXCELSIOR, an elegant, well-located hotel and – important in gritty Naples – a very secure one.

The city can be dicey at night, and you’ll have to watch out for pickpockets, but spend a few days here anyway. (And be sure to have dinner at Da Dora, which I wrote about last August).

Next, set out in the morning for POMPEII. It’s well worth the 3-4 hour visit. The site is astonishingly well-preserved – especially when you realize that Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Don’t stay in the nearby town of Pompeii; it’s depressing. Instead, move on to SORRENTO, a drop-dead beautiful city on the tip of the Amalfi Coast. Great hotels and restaurants abound, and it’s a superb walking town. Not only is there a LIMONCELLO factory (that’s generous with samples) in the heart of the city, but – as Sarah Palin might say – “You can see CAPRI from here.” And by the way, Capri is most certainly worth a day trip from Sorrento. You can take the ferry, but here’s a tip: Opt for the ALISCAFI, a hydrofoil. It’s faster than hell.


On to POSITANO. Lemons are everywhere – and I mean EVERYWHERE. Markets, roadside stands, yards, balconies – they overflow with them. As you’d expect, lemons aren’t just central to the Limoncello industry. You’ll find them in refreshing, bright summer pastas ranging from lemon-scented ravioli to lemon-infused gnocchi and spaghetti in lemon sauce with cracked black pepper. One of the best that we enjoyed was a citrus-inspired shrimp risotto laced with lemon and sour-orange.

As for Limoncello: You cannot leave a respectable restaurant without a glass (or maybe you need a whole bottle) of the iconic Amalfi liquore, or digestivo. After all, the yellow blaze of the nectar contrasts so beautifully with the bright-blue sea. Especially after your third glass.

While beef, veal, butter and cream are at the core of northern Italian cuisine, the south is far too hot to sustain herds of cattle. Instead, farmers raise heat-resistant water buffalo, brought from India. And thank God they do. Their gift to us is BUFFALO MOZZARELLA CHEESE.

Amalfi’s real culinary driver, however, is its seafood – not just any seafood, but “just caught” offerings, fresh from the port. Nor can we forget the glorious SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, grown in incredibly rich lava ash soil at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. These are undoubtedly the best tomatoes in the world!


POSITANO, the central town on the Amalfi coast, dazzles as it clings to the craggy cliffs overlooking the shimmering bay. However, up until 1953, Positano was a dirt-poor fishing village with roughly half of the population having left for America right after World War Two. That is, until John Steinbeck published an essay in Harper’s Bazaar magazine entitled “Positano Bites Deep.” That was the tipping point that set Positano on a trajectory to the front ranks of jet set hotspots.

What about the restaurants?

Here are four, three of them not terribly expensive places, that we loved, and I think you’ll like, too (as long as you’re not seafood-averse).

CHEZ BLACK, right down on the water, boasts a huge outdoor patio. It’s undeniably touristy, but don’t let that stop you. The service is prompt and professional, friendly and fun-loving. They served a number of EXCELLENT, wood-fired pizzas, including the heart-shaped “Lover’s Pizza.”


Another one you’ll enjoy is the beachside DA FERDINANDO. It’s slightly more casual than Chez Black, but the food is just as refined – especially the pizza. I was also fond of the Prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula sandwich on EVOO-laced, crusty and chewy, seedy bread. Salads and pastas are as they should be: perfect. Plus, the menu always features an array of simply grilled fish with lemon wedges.

LA TRE SORELLE (The Three Sisters) is also on the water. And, if memory serves me, its menu is exclusively devoted to seafood, including cuttlefish and grilled calamari. The signature pizza – with mussels, clams, razor clams, squid and shrimp – was perhaps the most memorable I’ve ever had. And that includes FRANK PEPE’S CLAM PIZZA in New Haven, Connecticut.

Finally, a SPLURGE.

Yes, for an anniversary, birthday, or a lifetime memory, maybe just once. LE SIRENUSE.


This five-star hotel and restaurant is barnacled to the side of a cliff overlooking the bay and the church of SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA, with its famous Majolica titled dome.

The name, Sirenuse, has its roots in Greek mythology. Homer tells the story of Odysseus returning home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. As his ship approached the archipelago of little islands off the Amalfi coast, the sailors heard the irresistible music of the sirens – so beautiful that the sailors couldn’t help but seek out its source and, in so doing, wreck their ships on the rocky shore. (Sirens are said to be half woman and half bird, but most illustrations that I found were half woman and half fish, like mermaids).


Thus the name: Le Sirenuse….(The Sirens).

Although Italian cuisine remains one of the world’s greats, I’ve always thought that breakfast was the weak spot in Italian cuisine. But not here! Start with a goblet of freshly squeeze blood orange juice on the terrace (just don’t embarrass yourself like I did in my youth, when I sent my first glass of blood orange juice back to the kitchen, without tasting it, convinced that I’d been served tomato juice).


Le Sirenuse will also offer paper-thin slices of prosciutto, paired with vine-ripened cantaloupe. Best of all, however, will be the SFOGLIATELLE NAPOLETANA: a flaky pastry found primarily in Naples and further south, supposedly created by the nuns of the nearby Santa Rosa convent. It’s filled with pastry cream, dried fruit and limoncello.

All rooms at Le Sirenuse have balconies – and the views are spectacular. But you won’t want to linger here too long before heading down to the fanciful, Michelin-starred restaurant, LA SPONDA. Waiters in crisp white jackets are seasoned veterans and not stiff, starchy or aloof. After all, they’re Italian. If you go, do not pass up the “loaded” seafood risotto.

As I said: It’s pricy. Expect to pay about $150 per person for the multi-course tasting menu (including wine). But don’t sweat it. You WILL NOT be sorry.

Then again, you could still enjoy Positano if you just have a slice of street food pizza and buy a t-shirt.

WTF,

Phil

WHEN THE STARS FALL

Since the economic tumble in 2008, it’s been a tough ten years for many restaurants, especially those in the “FINE and FANCY” segment, but also for many of the celebrity and highly talented restaurateurs out there.

As you already know, Joanne and I tend not to frequent fine dining joints, yet it’s hard to see so many of them disappear. I’m sure to the folks who were regulars, it’s a little like losing an old friend. The longer a favorite restaurant sticks around, the more beloved it becomes, and we want to believe it’ll live forever.

SIRIO MACCIONI, after 43 years, folded his tent at Le CIRQUE in New York, “where art, food and fashion converge.” It was also the place that required men to wear jackets (I don’t even own a suit). And in Chicago, RICHARD MELMAN, one of the restaurateurs I admire most, shuttered his star-studded L-20 in Lincoln Park as well as TRU downtown. I have extremely fond memories of dining at TRU and being stunned at the STAIRCASE OF CAVIAR. “Say it isn’t TRU!”


In New York, KEITH MCNALLY has been the leading groundbreaker, especially in challenged neighborhoods. About forty years ago he opened the ODEON in dreary TriBeCa. It became known for all that was cool in New York City. And that French-inspired place remains hot even to this day.

But his hottest of all is BALTHAZAR, a French brasserie on Spring Street in SOHO (with another branch in Covent Garden in London). BALTHAZAR, along with GRAMERCY TAVERN, shares the “most visited” title in Manhattan. Following BALTHZAR, MCNALLY founded PASTIS in the meat packing district….a wildly popular echo of a Parisian bistro and one of our favorites. SCHILLER’S LIQUOR BAR gave new meaning to the word “quirky” and during its fifteen-year run became a dining and drinking institution on the Lower East Side.
I say dining because of its MIND BLOWING GARLIC SHRIMP, bubbling in blistering hot butter in a cast iron skillet…well, I just don’t have words.

So here’s the puzzlement: MCNALLY is known as “The man who invented downtown Manhattan.” In my book, he’s a genius. And yet in the past few years, he has closed up shop on these favorites of mine.

PASTIS is no longer alive. SCHILLER’S is gone. In the Bowery he opened a pizza place called PULINO’S. But it was replaced with CHERCHE MIDI (a restaurant the Parasole group visited and loved; see my posting of November 2nd, 2016). But then CHERCHE MIDI closed. Don’t know why. But the answer might be found in the fact that…….ah well…..more about that later.


The good news is that MCNALLY, not discouraged, recently opened AUGUSTINE, a great French Bistro near City Hall in New York. It’s a hit!

One of the most popular restaurants in Miami Beach is YARDBIRD, near Lincoln Road. It’s “DOUBLE BARRELED SOUTHERN” with all of the usual suspects: fried green tomatoes, Mama’s biscuits, butter beans, shrimp n’ grits and, of course, pimento cheese. But the thing that got me was THE DEEP FRIED CHICKEN, a rendition that rivals STROUD’S in Kansas City – and that’s saying something!!!

So when I recently saw that they were opening a fast casual version of YARDBIRD on Alton Road in Miami Beach, called SPRING CHICKEN, I thought to myself…”WOW. That’s really smart. They can’t miss.”

But miss they did. I read that their two SPRING CHICKEN joints have just closed. Smart people make mistakes. Entrepreneurs take chances.

Longevity doesn’t ensure everlasting life. The iconic TRADER VIC’S in the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills gave up the ghost after 62 years. Some blame it on an ill-conceived remodeling that tamed down the kitsch décor. After all, isn’t it only appropriate that the place that gave us the MAI TAI would be grotesquely overblown and over-decorated? The answer is YES.


And being spot-on in trend is no insurance policy either. POK POK ……the “culty…lines-out-the-door” Thai chicken wing joint in Portland, Oregon and New York failed in Chinatown in Los Angeles. No night traffic, I read.

I recently posted about LE COUCOU in New York (March 1st, 2018). The brainchild of STEPHEN STARR (who also sits at the “GENIUS TABLE”), it’s been awarded a fist full of stars and may well be the best restaurant that Joanne and I have had the privilege to dine at in recent years. But this isn’t STARR’S first rodeo. His BUDDAKAN in New York caught the city by storm.

And now in Bal Harbour in Miami, the ultra-chic and clever French bistro, LE ZOO is packing ‘em in (get the STEAK au POIVRE).

But sadly, our favorite seafood restaurant of his in Philly, STRIPED BASS, has gone dark. His “urban oasis,” THE CONTINENTAL & MARTINI BAR has been a monstrous success story in downtown for as long as I have been traveling to Philadelphia. So when Starr recently opened THE CONTINENTAL on Collins Avenue in the heart of Miami Beach near the Delano Hotel, I knew Joanne and I had a new go-to favorite…especially with the tropical outdoor dining.

But we never got the chance. It seemed like they opened and closed within a year. I wanted to try the Bao Buns that I fondly remembered from his Philadelphia location…as well as the Tang Martini.

The list goes on. To our delight, superstar chef DANIEL BOULUD, proud proprietor of the three-star DANIEL and DB BISTRO MODERNE in New York (and mentor to our own GAVIN KAYSEN of SPOON AND STABLE) opened BAR BOULUD in The Mandarin Oriental in London. And then, to our disappointment, closed DBGB in New York, where we would eat platters of delicious homemade sausages with our son, who lives a few short blocks away. DRATS !!!!

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN, the opening chef of the multi-starred AZUL in Miami, opened up in the edgy, yet emerging gentrifying neighborhood in the 60’s on Biscayne Blvd. We dined there once. She’s talented and we enjoyed the experience. But the décor was a little “off-putting.” Check out the image below. They are closed now.

In Miami, the rising star in the restaurant community is THE PUBBELLY GROUP. There’s PUBBELLY SUSHI….PUBBELLY STEAK….BARCELONETA, a tapas joint in Sunset Harbor where I (not Joanne for God’s sake), had snails with rabbit sausage! But like all of the extremely talented and successful restaurateurs around the country, they too are not ‘BULLETPROOF.” PB STATION in downtown Miami opened and swiftly closed. Too bad; I liked the place. But downtown Miami? YIKES!

TOM COLICCHIO is brilliant. A judge on Top Chef and creator of the national chain of ‘WICHCRAFT sandwich shops, he created the CRAFTSTEAK brand that lives at the MGM GRAND in Vegas. We have eaten at his first CRAFTSTEAK in New York and also in Vegas with the Parasole culinary team. Loved ‘em both. The one in Vegas survives; New York does not. In part, due to the 2008 recession, COLICCHIO said (and I paraphrase) “People just aren’t willing to spend a hundred bucks for a steak often enough.” So it morphed into COLICCHIO & SONS, a more casual iteration of the steakhouse.

That failed, too.

Even more distressing to us was the closing of COLICCHIO’S CRAFTBAR in New York. It featured one of my all-time favorite dishes: a Deep Fried Oyster Sandwich. Joanne and I will miss that place. It was our secret lunch spot.


Back to Miami, and to the sleek and tasty NUMBER #1 EDITION HOTEL, right on Collins Avenue, across from the now closed CONTINENTAL. COLICCHIO opened BEACHCRAFT there a couple of years ago. It featured one of the best cheese boards I’ve ever had. See the image below. But it’s gone – replaced by HABITAT from the PUBBELLY boys. BTW….Corner table #72 is still #72.

It’s weird because COLICCHIO is arguably one of the brightest and most talented restaurateurs in the country. After all, he was a partner with DANNY MEYER in the creation of GRAMERCY TAVERN, which runs neck and neck with BALTHAZAR as the most visited restaurant in New York City.

But then again, among our successes, we all have some “CLINKERS.” (Remember IL GATTO?)

These folks that I’ve mentioned are all pioneers and risk takers. Sometimes it works out…. and sometimes it doesn’t.

Which brings me to DANNY MEYER…..


When Danny decided to open UNION SQUARE CAFÉ 29 years ago, the Union Square neighborhood was dark, dingy and dangerous at night. But he opened up anyway….and UNION SQUARE CAFE quickly became wildly successful. As I think about it now, it’s in the same league as BALTHAZAR and GRAMERCY as far as frequent visits go. But UNION SQUARE CAFE, after 29 years, was recently forced to move. The trade rags cited a tripling of his rent.

See, here’s what happens – and this will provide a clue to many (but not all) of the restaurant closings that I’ve described. An entrepreneur takes a chance; maybe seizes on cheap rent in a risky neighborhood. The place is a hit. Other restaurants move in. People start to notice. Ad agencies rent office space, soon followed by other kinds of office tenants. Next comes housing…lots of lofts. Grocery stores see the opportunity.

You get the idea….and you all know what follows: Rents double. Then triple. Taxes skyrocket. And the poor restaurateur who was the original “stalking horse” gets priced right out of the market – the market that he or she created.

BTW, the newly located UNION SQUARE CAFÉ is a HOME RUN! And ironically, what I think they did was revolutionary! They invented the notion that really good food…priced right, offering a tony yet relaxed ambiance, usually in emerging edgy neighborhoods, would be just the ticket. Did this phenomenon contribute to the demise of the pretentious, stiff “fine and fancy” joints? I think so – and with no help from the 2008 economic downturn. Today, there just aren’t enough folks who want to sit at dinner for four hours and end up with a three hundred dollar tab.

Now, to be sure, restaurants close for other reasons. Your building gets sold or slated for re-development…the neighborhood changes (and maybe not for the better)…government rules and regulations choke you financially…the city embarks on a year-long road construction project in front of your restaurant…tastes change…your original customer base grows old and dies…you lose your parking…a recession hits…renovations or repairs are needed and they prove to be more expensive than you can afford….the list goes on and on.

The folks I have mentioned are in the GENIUS category, and are among the best restaurateurs the nation has to offer. But sometimes geniuses just plain miss. AND, SADLY, THAT’S THE WAY IT WORKS.

I know that when I miss the mark (and I frequently have), I find comfort in dragging out Teddy Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena, which reads in part:


“It’s not the critic that counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

WTF….

PHIL

NUSR-WHAT?

NUSR-ET. That’s what this is blog is about: An experience I found to be fascinating, fun, a little weird – and loaded with “high camp” – at a restaurant called… Nusr-Et.


Some back story: Nusret Gokce is a Turkish chef who opened an eponymous steakhouse in Istanbul in 2010. He has since grown his empire to eleven restaurants in locations ranging from Ankara and Istanbul…to Dubai and Abu Dhabi…then Miami (on Brickell Avenue), and now New York, on the ground floor of “Blackrock,” former home of China Grill, at 60 W. 53rd Street.

When Joanne and I were in Miami in January, we noticed that a placed called Nusr-Et was getting a lot of buzz. So of course we had to go.

We were welcomed at the front door by a bevy – yes, a bevy – of beautiful hostesses who, while pleasant, cheerful and earnest, seemed to be hopelessly disorganized.


We were shown to an immense dining room, but because it was such a beautiful evening, we chose to eat outside on the palm tree-loaded, sultry, tropically-flavored “front porch.” This proved to be a brilliant choice for a couple of geezers like ourselves because, as the night wore on, the noise in the dining room became deafening….BOOMPA, BOOMPA, BOOMPA!

No problem, though, because the volume level outside presented no problems. By the way, if you choose to eat on patio, request table 305, 306 or 307 – all four-tops, and all-set a respectable distance apart. You’ll be pleased.

This place is ALL ABOUT STEAK. And lest you forget, the see-in meat locker and fully loaded meat case in front of the kitchen are there to remind you. If you’re ordering fish or chicken, clearly you don’t understand why you are here.

The first clue that something was amiss came when our server approached the table and asked if we’d like water. I ordered, “Miami’s finest tap water, please.” I was then informed that Nusr-Et does not serve tap water – only VOSS at a whopping $9 a bottle.

Joanne said, “Hmmmmmm.”

(And I almost said, “F*** You!” for forcing me to pay for water)

I was told that we MUST try the Meat Sushi for an appetizer. My curiosity trumping my better judgment, we took our waiter’s advice. It wasn’t very good. BUT WHAT A PRODUCTION.

A cart was ceremoniously wheeled tableside and out came the blowtorch to put a sear on Paper-thin slices of beef wrapped around sushi rice, plated with avocado cream and shoestring potatoes for $20. There’s a reason why sushi is seafood-centric.


Salad was next, and we shared the Nusret Special Salad – which was good. It featured greens, walnuts, goat cheese, black raisins and pomegranate molasses. Good thing we shared, though, because all salads are $25 each!!

And then…..HE APPEARED!!!

NUSRET HIMSELF….in his snug white t-shirt, gold chain, round mirrored sunglasses and a jet-black pony tail. But…he is no longer Nusret Gokce. He has become….

SALT BAE!! SALT BAE, THE SALT SLINGER!

Maybe you’re familiar with the Youtube clips of him. If not, I’ll explain in a second.

I learned that initially he was a butcher in Istanbul. But now his sole purpose seems to be to travel from table to table, carving and slapping the house signature Mustard Marinated Grilled Rib Eye (called “THE OTTOMAN”) which, as part of his final tableside act, he very SLOWLY and SENSUALLY SALTS by letting the flakes trickle down his forearm and finally flicking a blizzard of white crystals at (but not always hitting) the Rib Eye on the table.


Then, without uttering a word, SALT BAE LEAVES.

SALT BAE. I got the “salt” part, but I wasn’t sure about “bae.” Well, apparently the “bae” is a slang expression for “sweetheart” or “babe.” So I guess he’s “SALT BABE.”


What can I say? This guy is absolutely “chock full” of himself. He’s a put-on. He’s an actor (and it is ALL an act). He’s a consummate showman. And he’s AMUSING AS HELL. This guy knows EXACTLY what he’s doing.

As The Eater said, “He’s like watching a “cheezy movie.” Yes, he’s THAT GOOD. And he has gone viral, racking up millions upon millions of views on various platforms, becoming a full-fledged MEME that people just feel COMPELLED to share with one another.

And all the guy’s doing is flicking salt.


Check him out. He loves to pose for photos with the guests – frequently with macho steak-eating men, but more often with pretty girls. And he never, ever smiles.

Now, Nusr-Et reportedly has a great hamburger. It better be. It’s $30.

The $15 mashed potatoes, however, were not so hot. But then again, as Pete Wells wrote in the New York Times, “He’s not SPUD BAE.” The Pistachio Baklava served tableside is really good (considering his Turkish pedigree and the $15/slice price, it should be). Joanne and I finished up with a deep, thick Turkish coffee…also good.

A couple of things to stress. Nusr-Et is really expensive. The New York Post critic, Steve Cuozzo, recently called Nusr-Et’s NYC outpost “public rip-off #1.” And yet…and yet…”People still flock to see SALT BAE in action.”

Expect to pay at least $125 per person, without wine.

So here’s my take on Nusr-Et. As Robert Sietsema of The Eater wrote, “If you are viewing Nusr-Et as a steakhouse, you’ll probably be disappointed.” The steaks are not the quality of Peter Luger’s…or Manny’s…or St. Elmo’s. Maybe that’s why “The Ottoman” rib eye is marinated in mustard. “If, on the other hand, you appraise the place as ‘dinner theater,’ you’ll probably find it quite satisfying…BUT ONLY IF SALT BAE IS IN THE HOUSE.”


At our dinner in Miami, SALT BAE was in the house, just not at our table. Our tableside carver was pleasant enough and competent enough, but I guess I wasn’t pretty or macho enough to merit a visit. I wish we’d gotten one, though!

Not even Donald or Bernie can fill his shoes.

WTF

PHIL

A THIRD OF REYKJAVIK

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND: Season 1…Episode 3

FLASH !!! I just learned that THE GALLERY in Reykjavik’s Hotel Holt has closed (see my March 22 post). It sounds like the shuttering is part of a major renovation at the hotel. That doesn’t come entirely as a surprise. As I wrote, the restaurant – as wonderful and inventive as it was – felt a little dated to me. So this remodel will be welcome. What’s also welcome is that they hired a Reykjavik culinary rock star, purloined from the world-famous DILL RESTAURANT, to helm the Gallery’s successor. Joanne and I tried to get into Dill, but they were fully booked every night we were in town.

Stay tuned. When I learn more, you’ll learn more.

A reminder: As with all food and drink in Iceland, what you have heard is true: It’s EXPENSIVE. If you dine at places similar to those I’m describing, plan on spending at least $100 per person at dinner with a modest amount of wine. But here’s the thing: You’ll probably only be there for three or four nights, and you don’t have to splurge every night. So if your budget can stand it, go for it: You’ll remember these dinners all your life.

This is my final Iceland post for 2018 (well, maybe I’ll do one more; I’ve got a positively great lunch spot to tell you about). If this final installment doesn’t persuade you foodies to plan a long weekend in Reykjavik, all I can say is that it’s your loss. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Now, let me tell you about GRILLMARKET, where Joanne and I ate on our final night in Reykjavik.


By this time I had begun to understand and digest some of the attributes that are at the core of Iceland’s quiet culinary revolution.

I thought about the cold and largely unpolluted climate…the livestock raised without hormones or antibiotics, grazing freely on craggy basaltic slopes untouched by pesticides ….the local modest farms that that provide the milk, cheese and animals in a healthy, virtually disease-free environment….the safeguarding of clean, natural flavors….the rules concerning the strict limits on meat imports (hell, you can’t even bring cured ham or salami into the country)…and finally, the icy-cold, clear waters that surround the island country and yield a seemingly endless variety of fresh seafood.

Combine all that with the culinary revolution of Nordic Cuisine and, well, Grillmarket simply made sense to me. They seemed to embrace all of the discoveries that I had only begun to understand.

And, on top of that, they absolutely nailed the paradox of being exotic, yet comforting and familiar.

Let me describe. Dinner began with warm slices of Beetroot Bread with a dollop of soft Icelandic butter topped with black lava salt. Since here at Parasole, we serve beef carpaccio at several of our restaurants, I thought I’d give theirs a try as my appetizer. As expected, the paper-thin slices of tenderloin were perfect, but the dish was enlivened with chili jam, Parmigiano Reggiano and sweet almonds.


For her starter, Joanne chose the Char-Grilled King Crab Legs cut into 4-inch “soldiers” and basted with citrus butter.

A group of three young women seated next to us seemed to be absolutely delighted with themselves as they had the courage to order up a Trio of Sliders – but these were not your father’s sliders. One was made with Langoustine, another from Puffin, and a third made from Minke Whale.

Next we shared a warm Slow Roasted Icelandic Duck Salad with spinach and tangerines.

Now, Grillmarket, as its name suggests, specializes in food prepared on a custom-made grill that they claim can reach temperatures of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. And the restaurant’s deep, dusky atmosphere reinforces the whole grilled meats message.

Steaks abound – each around 250 grams (a bit more than half a pound), all grilled and served on wooden boards that complement the casual, rustic interior.

We didn’t order steak, but check out the images I’ve included. There’s a Beef Tenderloin as well as a traditional Steak Frites.


But the steak that caught my attention was the HORSE TENDERLOIN! It occupied, in big letters, the upper left “pole position” of the menu. I probably wouldn’t eat it, but then again…it WAS the headliner.

(By the way, horse is offered on a lot of menus in Iceland).

I really need to go back to Grillmarket…soooo many things I want to try, like the Grilled Lamb Short Ribs with Lime Wedges…the Double Rack of Lamb with garlic potatoes, crispy kale and chopped almonds…and a feature called “The Meat Gourmet,” which included a generous sampling of Char-Grilled Duck, Lamb and Beef.


The OCEAN CONTINGENT……not to be outdone by the livestock wing……they trumpeted THE FISH GOURMET……once again a generous trio of offerings….this time GRILLED SALMON…..COD….and REDFISH.

Fish and Chips are on the menu and very affordable. The twist is that they’re made from dried fish and dried squid (not sure why). I’ll probably try ‘em when I return.

Grilled Redfish, paired up with Smoked Pork Cheeks and a “Slap” of Carrot Puree, caught my attention. And the Grilled Arctic Char and Salmon would no doubt be very good, if perhaps a bit pedestrian

Two dishes that didn’t sound good to me at all: The Lamb Carpaccio, sliced too thick, looking a bit too primal (i.e. bloody); and the Grilled Minke Whale Steak, eagerly wolfed down at another table by a guy whose flannelled attire suggested he was either a local or a wayward Oregonian. The dish appeared to be accompanied by some sort of Asian dipping sauce.

Why do I have an aversion to horse and feel bad about eating whale when I eagerly gobble up little lambs? Maybe it’s my southern Illinois roots, but when I was a kid, horses were for riding and whales were for reading about in literature class.

So what did we order instead? Two dishes right out of Iceland central casting.

Joanne got the Char-Grilled Langoustine Tails served atop Fresh Shrimp and Scallops with Crispy Brioche Croutons and Champagne Sauce. And I zeroed in on Grillmarket’s showstopper: Grilled Reindeer served under a big glass dome. With Icelandic fanfare it was ceremoniously lifted at the table amid clouds of rosemary-scented smoke billowing up to the ceiling. When it cleared, I beheld a captivating combination of Reindeer, Smoked Pork Belly, Red Cabbage and Red Currant Chocolate Sauce!!!


Dessert was a Chef’s Potluck – a large black tray filled with a dozen or so samples of pastries and ice creams (probably leftovers, but no matter; they were delicious).

Wretched excess in Reykjavik? DAMN RIGHT!!

WTF,

Phil

REYKJAVIK: A SECOND HELPING

Last week I posted about Reykjavik.


To you folks who’ve never given Iceland a shot: This week I’ll take a second shot at getting you to add it to your culinary bucket list.

Also, just yesterday I received a pop-up ad promoting Icelandair roundtrips from Minneapolis for three hundred-something bucks!!

Get ready…..I’m preparing to wear you down.

Today we’re going to talk about sheep. Ever since the Vikings brought them to Iceland in the 9th Century, the animals have roamed free in the pesticide-free hills and mountains for nine months of the year. Not only that, all the sheep from all of the farms co-mingle and roam freely with one another without fences. In the early fall, the ranchers mount their smallish Icelandic horses and ride up into the hills to collect their spring lambs.


This annual event is called RETTIR….. and it’s a festive time.

Because each animal wears an individual identification tag, they are easily separated and herded into large divided corrals. And because this is Iceland, strict – very strict – laws ensure that they are as pure as the icy, wind-driven snow. No antibiotics…ever. No added hormones…ever. No electric shock…ever.


The result is that these all-natural direct descendants and genetically identical animals are wonderfully flavorful and exceptionally lean. The meat is also expensive. But due to Iceland’s increased prosperity, the people seem to have a willingness to spend money on high-quality, all-natural products.

So onward to one of Joanne’s and my favorite restaurants: KOL. Situated right downtown on SKOLAVORDUSTIGOR STREET (go ahead, pronounce that) near the base of the big church called HALLGRIMSKIRJA (while you’re at it, say that out loud), KOL is definitely meat-centric. But its seafood is not to be missed either. Just be prepared. While not weird or off-putting, it may challenge picky eaters.


If there are two of you, have your concierge book table # 91 by the window.

Artful cocktails are “master-crafted,” many with theatrical flaming garnishes.

The dense, dark, moist, chewy bread was cleverly paired with whipped Nutmeg Butter.

Check out the colorful and beautifully composed beet salad that Joanne loved. I opted for a starter of Langoustines, prepared with dill-marinated apples, fennel, bacon-date puree and citrus velouté.

The table next to ours shared an appetizer served in a jaw-dropping, family-style vessel laden with what must have been the best and freshest offerings from Iceland’s surrounding waters.

But now…. back to the sheep…..

Lamb comes half a dozen ways. I really loved the deeply flavored Char-Grilled Lamb Sirloin. And get this – it was paired with an unexpected counterpoint of Blueberry Polenta, 20-month aged Tindur cheese, celeriac, shallot esabeche and a nutty praline.


KOL touts that their custom charcoal grill/oven rises to 350 degrees centigrade. I’m not certain a charcoal oven can reach that temperature. By my calculation, that would be over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, but maybe I’m wrong.

I was absolutely RIGHT, however, to order the lamb that comes off that grill. It’s fired over a ton of herbs – mostly rosemary, I think – and the process unlocks an earthiness that reflects that lambs’ free-range diet. Next time, I must get what Joanne ordered: the Smoked Haddock (Finnin Haddie) with braised leeks and a poached duck egg. Soooo rich, and soooo good!

So many dishes, so little time.

The Braised Ox Brisket with Couscous and Buttery Mashed Potatoes & Gravy was tempting on the chilly autumn evening we were there. The local Icelandic Duck Confit with glazed red cabbage, red pearl couscous, roasted carrots and cashews also beckoned.


A block of soft, ivory-white cod, pan-seared and poached in what must have been a pound of butter – and the duck fat fries that accompanied it – would certainly be a sure-fire express ticket to heaven.

Joanne and I shared what was billed as the Chef’s Choice dessert plate. I’m not at all sure what was on the platter, but the Cassis Ice Cream, made from locally grown black currant berries, was narcotic.

So what’s to say?

Well, if you’re a food nut like me, you’re going to marvel at the VIVID and UNEXPECTED flavors and combinations of Reykjavik’s restaurants. For the adventurous culinarian, this is virgin territory, unlike any other part of the world. And it’s especially interesting to me that Iceland was, not long ago, a culinarily challenged country. Thank God for the New Nordic Cuisine revolution, which has transformed the country into a multi-starred dining destination, always punching above its weight.

Folks, I’m not messing around here. I know what I’m talking about. And if your “dining curiosity IQ” is anywhere above room temperature, you NEED TO GO TO ICELAND!

The only downside to Icelandic eating: It’s hard to chew when you’re smiling all the time.

WTF,

Phil

REYKJAVIK: A FIRST BITE

OK….this is going to sound stupid……but only at first.

We’re gonna talk about ICELAND.


Yes, it’s winter there. And visiting Iceland is probably the furthest thing on your mind. But remember, the climate in ICELAND will soon become tolerable. April and October are chilly, but not necessarily cold. And May through September can be downright pleasant, with highs in the 50s. Joanne and I visited ICELAND last October, when the temperature was about ten degrees cooler than that.

Here’s why we need to deal with ICELAND now…while it’s still winter here in Minnesota:

Tourism in Iceland has exploded in the last few years, reaching an expected 2,400,000 visitors this year. Just think of it. For six months, a city of 300,000 people swells to eight times its normal size. It’s also become a hot spot for celebrities. Some come to make movies, others to charter boats for fly sea fishing. Some just crave the isolation, which Iceland offers in abundance. Reyjkavik is overwhelmed. The city is building hotels as fast as it can and restaurants are heavily booked during the summer season. Reserving early is a MUST. And have your hotel concierge book your restaurant reservations right away. That’s why I’m telling you this now.


So here’s a heads-up on some restaurants that Joanne and I like.

But first, your hotel. Besides an array of boutique properties, the major chains have set up shop in Reykjavik, although not in the heart of town. There are two Radisson Blu hotels, a Hilton, and a soon-to-be-opened five-star Edition brand by Marriott.


Joanne and I stayed a couple of blocks from the city center in an older, but very nice property called THE HOTEL HOLT.

Now, before we dive into the cuisine and restaurants, I strongly suggest that you read my posting on Iceland from November 9, 2017. It provides a backdrop for the restaurants I’ll be describing.

Something important to understand from the outset is that the NEW NORDIC CUISINE revolution you’ve read about in Copenhagen and Sweden is also relevant to all of the restaurants I’ll be talking about.

What is the “new Nordic cuisine?” It’s natural. It’s local. It’s sustainable. It’s about preserving, smoking, salting, fermenting. It’s seasonal and it prides itself on serving “foraged” ingredients. It’s about sheep and cattle freely grazing on the slopes completely free of drugs and hormones. And finally it’s about being surrounded by an ocean and the bounty of fresh seafood from Iceland’s ice cold clear coastal waters.

For imported items, Icelandic chefs tend not to rely on heavy emission-inducing transport. Their trading partners tend to be their other nearby Scandinavian neighbors. And for tomatoes and vegetables, they have an abundance of hot-houses, no doubt thermally heated (check out the winter low temperatures; surprisingly ICELAND is a hell of a lot warmer than Minnesota).

The pioneer of this movement was, of course, NOMA in Copenhagen, named best restaurant in the world for three years in a row.

So let’s get started. We had heard of Reykjavik’s top-rated eatery, THE GALLERY RESTAURANT, which was housed in our hotel, and its chef, an alumnus of NOMA. Being slightly jet-lagged upon arrival, we decided to make it the first stop in our culinary tour of Iceland’s capital.


The dining room was well appointed and pleasantly lit, with spaciously placed tables and an overall classy and comfortable – if a bit dated – feeling. That was okay because the food trumped everything else.

Yes, it expressed the core of the NEW NORDIC CUISINE but with clever, slight French overtones.

We began with two AMUSE BOUCHES: a tasting spoon of marinated local veggies and secondly a sensational Lobster Bisque garnished with WHITE CHOCOLOATE CREAM! Dorothy, you ain’t in Kansas anymore!


Next we shared three starters: a Zucchini-wrapped Langoustine, a Golden-Crusted Sea Scallop on a bed of tapenade with a sauce of golden bell pepper coulis, and finally Salt Cured Salmon with a side of dark, chewy toast and honey mustard. As you might expect, for mains I took the “snout-to-tail” route and got the Icelandic Cod with Crispy Pigs Ears. Joanne surprised me and chose the Baby Lamb with Plumbs and Red Beets.

I snooped at nearby tables and concluded that they were dining equally well and as adventurously as we were. I spotted the Icelandic Duck, the just-caught Flounder, the Salmon Tartare with Scallop Ceviche. All looked really, really good.

If that wasn’t enough, we just couldn’t pass up dessert. A Dark Chocolate Cake with a Chocolate Tuile and Raspberries was a hit. So was the Olive Oil Cake.

We trundled up to bed and immediately collapsed.

It was a GOOD NIGHT.

W.T.F.

PHIL

P.S. Stay tuned for upcoming postings on Reykjavik restaurants. And by the way, Minnesota: Icelandair out of Minneapolis is AFFORDABLE. Dare I say, even cheap?