A.A. GILL: A CRITIC WORTH ACCLAIMING

Those of us fortunate enough to have achieved some measure of success as restaurateurs are here to tell you: This is a great business. You get to eat out all the time, and you can travel the world for inspiration. And I love doing that, but one of my keenest pleasures comes from reading critical, and not-so-critical, reviews of restaurants from world culinary capitals.

Although I never followed Craig Claiborne, I think I started following Bryan Miller of the New York Times in the early nineties and have continued on with William Grimes, Frank Bruni, and Sam Sifton, right through to Pete Wells.


I also like Adam Platt of New York magazine, Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post and Jay Rayner of the Guardian in London. Our own Rick Nelson of the Star-Tribune also belongs in their company.

And while these are all entertaining and accomplished, knowledgeable writers, the one who made me laugh out loud was A.A. GILL, the revered and feared critic…. from the London Sunday Times – “the witty wielder of the hatchet.”

Gill died a little over two years ago. But a few days ago I came upon one of his pieces and laughed ‘til I cried. So, I thought I would share some of his dazzling and fearless writing.

First I’ll share the positive reviews. Not surprisingly, with one exception, his favorite restaurants match up with mine.

THE WOLSELEY, London: ”…a cross between the traditional robustness of the Parisian brasserie and the gloriously grand, but cozy, Viennese café.”

ELYSTAN STREET, Chelsea, London: ”Pure food joy.”


CLUB GASCON, London: ”Frankly, I cannot think of a higher recommend.”

BRASSERIE ZEDEL, Piccadilly, London: “Along with the Brasserie, the Grande Café combines an opulent setting exclusively for everyman. Zedel is such a place.”

CHUTNEY MARY, St. James Street, London: “Chutney isn’t a verb or an adjective. Maybe we should make one up. Cat got your chutney? It’s the dog’s chutnies. It’s a red card! He was chutnied!!!!”

Then there’s GAUTHIER in Soho, London. Joanne and I LOVED it; Gill HATED it, and wrote, ”We ate everything…including beans arranged around a mash of something that might have been peas, but also might have been GOAT’S EARWAX.”

The Atlantic magazine said of Gill, “He was willing to say that something tastes like crap, no matter who the chef or what the price.”

So here goes….

Gordon Ramsey’s AUBERGINE in Chelsea (where he and Joan Collins were thrown out): ”The Gruyere and goat cheese toasted sandwich boasted more grease than a lube job.”…“The frogs legs tasted like something sour and slimy that had been fished out of a heron’s throat.”


At an unknown restaurant, he wrote, “I had a jelly that involved Campari and fennel. It was a pretty color, but tasted exactly as I’ve always imagined suicide capsules would – fantastically bitter and fraudulently medicinal.”

Unrepentant, he was reported for violations on two occasions to England’s Commission on Racial Equality.

Describing the Welsh, he wrote, “Loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly pugnacious little trolls…WAIT A SEC!…I’M PART WELSH!”

Offering his view of The Isle of Man: “Citizens fall into two types – hopeless inbred mouth-breathers and retired small-arms dealers and accountants who deal in rainforest futures.”

Celebrity chef Jean-George Vongorichten opened a “Chinese-ish” spot a few years back on Church in New York, called simply 66. Joanne and I ate there and didn’t hate it, but didn’t like it enough to return.


Gill, on the other hand…well, read on:

Upon his arrival, “We were treated at the door like social scurvy with contagious halitosis…The greet and seat procedure is modeled on the aliens line at Immigration, just after the Friday-night flight from Khartoum has landed.”


He was further annoyed by the server at 66 who said, “Do you know how this works?” Gill replied, “WHAT? I order. You serve. I eat. I pay. You give me my coat back.” To which the server replied, ”NO, NO, NO, we bring the food when and in the order it’s prepared.” To which Gill wrote in his column, “The rest of the meal slid into a long, bland, watery compost that could barely incite flatulence.”

There’s more. He wrote that the Shrimp-Foie Gras dumplings were “properly vile, and tasted like fishy, liver-filled condoms with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as a swab in an animal hospital.”

And finally, “We spit in your soy sauce. And the dim sum is incubated in our chef’s jock strap.”


Probably not a good idea to piss him off…

Gill did not confine his acrimony to restaurateurs and the Welsh…..and did not spare the singer, musician and songwriter….Morrisey. “Morrisey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whining, self-martyred human being whoever took a breath. And those are just his good qualities.”


And lastly, the Anglophile Mecca in Paris…the bistro that screws over Americans…the grotesquely overpriced restaurant where Joanne and I were treated rudely (really rudely) yet for all those abuses remains a magnet to Americans….

L’AMI LOUIS..in the 3rd on Rue du Vertbois.

Gill begins his piece. “It feels like a 2nd class railway station…painted in a shiny, distressed dung brown and staffed by paunchy, combative surly men who exude a pantomime insolence, an existential…Le ‘FUG YOUSE.’”

He continues…

“The crowded tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be the suppository”…and “In the middle there is a stubby little stove that looks vaguely proctotorial…”


And we’re just now getting to the food…

Foie Gras: “…comes as a pair of intimidatingly gross flabs of chilly paté, with a slight coating of pustular yellow fat that tastes faintly of gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction.”


“Veal Kidneys en Brochette: “…could be the result of an accident involving rat babies in a nuclear reactor.”

He concludes the disemboweling of L’Ami Louis with, “It’s undeniable that L’Ami Louis is really special and apart. It has earned an epic accolade. It is, all things considered, entre nous, THE WORST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD.”

A.A. GILL, was, in my opinion…the BEST RESTAURANT CRITIC IN THE WORLD.

In his Sunday column, shortly before he died, he summed up his career as follows: “Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you watch television, eat good food and travel and then write about it?’ Gill responded, “As lives go, that’s pretty good.”


WTF

Phil

AN AMERICAN TREASURE IN THE NATION’S CAPITAL

Several years ago, while opening the OCEANAIRE in Washington D.C., Joanne and I occasionally splurged and went to our favorite D.C. steakhouse, right downtown on K Street: THE PRIME RIB. It had a different feel than the other D.C. steakhouses like The Palm, Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, The Capital Grille, and the now-defunct Sam & Harry’s.


The Prime Rib had a sense of luxury and sophistication that evoked a different era. This place was “Old School” the day it opened. Think New York supper clubs of the 1940s, with dark polished walls, grand floral arrangements, plush leopard patterned carpet, and a tuxedoed staff of ADULT, POLISHED WAITERS. Guests are treated to live music from a bassist and pianist softly teasing out De-Lovely Cole Porter tunes from a Steinway grand piano. Tables are adorned with crisp white linen tablecloths, and the place is typically packed with politicians, powerful lobbyists and the moneyed elite.

First, let me clear up a potential point of confusion. The Prime Rib has nothing to do with “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants. There are three Prime Rib locations. The first opened in 1965 in Baltimore. D.C. followed in 1976, and Philadelphia came sometime later. “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants have locations in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas.

On a steakhouse fact finding trip last week, we revisited The Prime Rib. I started to worry that it wouldn’t be quite the same. What if they’d changed the décor? Or replaced the musicians with a DJ? Or, God forbid, added Avocado Toast to the menu?


How “Old School” is The Prime Rib? Well, men are still required to wear a dinner jacket. Hell, I don’t even own a suit. Walking in wearing my Duluth Trading Company “free swingin’” flannel shirt and faded jeans, I thought I might be in trouble. But no worries: I was immediately stopped in the vestibule and politely guided to a small room stocked with about 50 black dinner jackets in all sizes. My 13-year-old grandson was also fitted with one.

Well, we couldn’t have been more pleased. Other than the prices, nothing – and I mean, NOTHING – had changed. It still felt as we remembered it. In its heart and soul, The Prime Rib is still a steakhouse, and as swanky as ever. STEAKS are STEAKS here, and MARTINIS are MARTINIS.


Here’s what is remarkable about The Prime Rib: While it’s definitely a time capsule, it doesn’t feel dated. Despite the fact that you have to wear a dinner jacket, the restaurant doesn’t feel frumpy (maybe because it’s meticulously maintained. Nothing is worn, nothing frayed). And though our waiter had worked there for several DECADES (he’d told us he’d been with the company since 1973), service was hardly fossilized.

This is the kind of restaurant where the service is utterly attentive and absolutely unobtrusive. Want your cocktail refreshed? Here’s what you do. Catch your waiter’s eye (easy to do because he’ll be watching your table from a discreet distance). Look down to your empty glass. And look back at the server. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a fresh martini.

Yeah, dinner here can empty your wallet, but with service like that, you don’t even care.

Tom Seitsema, restaurant critic of the Washington Post, wrote, “No matter your age, you are likely to be the youngest diner in the place.” That’s not quite true, but guests certainly skew older. The advantage of that: You can actually carry on a conversation here. Not only that, we dined in a room adjacent to the one with the pianist, and we could still hear the music.

Okay, great retro vibe, fantastic service…but what about the food? ZAGAT rates it a whopping 4.6!!!!!

Our server told us that the menu is virtually unchanged since they opened, with the exception of a rotating list of nightly specials and market offerings. Which means they’ve had 50 years to get the prime rib right, to perfect the Oysters Rockefeller, and cook your steak precisely to order.


Get the bone-in filet, like I did, and it will be seared to a perfect caramelized finish. Masterfully sourced, pristinely fresh, perfectly prepared seafood (Dover Sole, of course) always delights. And naturally, your 2½-inch thick slab of roasted, medium rare Prime Rib – served with a “nest” of sinus-clearing freshly grated horseradish – is as good as it gets.

Let’s move on…

No surprises; nothing tricked up among the appetizers. My oyster-loving 13-year-old grandson started with a platter of eight big, briny, fat raw oysters – and when I say, big, I mean the largest Blue Points I’ve ever seen, so enormous he had to cut them in half to eat them. Not be outdone, our 11-year-old granddaughter wolfed down her own platter of 4 hot gigantic. cheesy and gooey Oysters Rockefeller. (My grandkids don’t look a lot like me, but boy can they eat like me.)


Clams Casino? Check. Escargot? Yup. And, of course, Lump Crab Cakes, held together only by love, not bread crumbs.

Salads are crisp and freshly made, not overly dressed, and served up on ice-cold plates with nary a spec of brown lettuce in sight.

Classic baked Lump Crab Imperial, as well as the crusty deep-fried Soft Shell Crab could have been either apps or mains. We shared both as appetizers.

On to the main event……Check out the Flintstonian hunk of Prime Rib that my friend, John, ate. He’s 6’ 4” and took half home. By the way, they’ll also grill your Prime Rib as a steak if you wish.

My filet was as simple and delicious as I’ve ever had at MANNY’S. But you can “Oscar” it as well. It’ll come topped with grilled asparagus, lump crab meat (not snow crab or Jonah crab, LUMP crab), drizzled with Hollandaise. Wretched excess? You bet!

Our friend and Parasole colleague, Tim, being Greek, couldn’t help himself and had to have the Baby Lamb Chops. Check out the supper club ramekin of Smucker’s Mint Jelly that accompanied them…right out of the jar.

Sides, while not quite Manny’s-sized (but then, whose are?), were equally good and large enough to share.

I guess that I did notice one change, after all. The Seafood classification section on the menu seems to occupy more real estate than I recall. And I’m glad that it does, as my daughter and Joanne both raved about the classic preparation of their buttery Dover Sole à la Meuniere. Grandson John attacked and devoured his Flounder stuffed with Lump Crab.

Desserts were best-of-breed renditions of the classics – Crème Brulée, Pecan Pie, Blueberry Pie, Key Lime Pie and Hot Fudge Sundaes.

From the food to the service and ambiance, the Prime Rib shows no signs of slowing down, but you have to wonder, Will its clientele age out of existence? Will a new generation of owners try to update the concept and instead just screw it up? Do yourself a favor and visit The Prime Rib while you can – because it’s at the top of its game: both a spectacular steakhouse by contemporary standards and a thrilling journey back in time.

Like Esquire Magazine says, “At The Prime Rib, it’s always 1965.”


WTF

BOTAFUMERIO

Although Barcelona is a travel hot-spot these days, it has always been one of Joanne’s and my very favorite destinations, and we’re planning to return once again this coming June. Of course, the climate is a huge draw, and the architecture, but it’s also the CATALAN CUISINE – especially the abundance and pristine quality of their seafood – that keeps us coming back.

Our favorite seafood restaurant by far is BOTAFUMERIO on Gran de Garcia, in the heart of the city. In fact, Botafumerio had a profound influence on me when I created the Oceanaire Seafood Room. And on this upcoming trip we are privileged to bring along our adventurous dining grandkids to indulge in Botafumerio’s razor clams and sea urchins.


We’ll see how that goes.

So I got to thinking about the word “Botafumerio,” figuring it probably has something to do with smoke. But where does it come from? What does it mean?

My inquiry took me to Galacia in the northwest of Spain and to the SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA CATHEDRAL. It all begins with a spiritual journey called the “walk of Saint James” that the apostle is said to have taken. There are several paths from Europe to the cathedral and to the Shrine of Saint James. I think the most traveled route is from the region around Pamplona in eastern Spain (think the running of the bulls) and roughly 800 kilometers from Santiago.


The long journey, called THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, is taken by tens of thousands of believers every year. Joanne and I have two friends that have recently made the long trip.

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is home to a famous thurible, a huge metal censer used to burn incense. The one here is suspended from the ceiling by a pulley mechanism and it’s called the Botafumerio (Galician for “smoke expeller.”)

I have no idea why in 1975 the owners chose to name their restaurant Botafumerio, but I do know that its chefs are on site at the fish market first thing every morning for the daily auction. Preparations are perfectly executed with just the right amount of flame and impeccably served by fleets of waiters in crisp, white coats.

Our evening began with chef Jose Ramon “Moncho” Neira wheeling to our table a trolley loaded to the brim with the daily catch and patiently explaining the species and preparation of each creature. Once again, I was inspired (think MANNY’S steak trolley).

Immediately a complimentary plate of thinly sliced Iberico Ham was placed on our table along with some toasty slices of the traditional “pan con tomate” – tomato bread. A little explanation here: Iberico Ham is Spain’s answer to Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma. The Spanish heritage pigs are fed a diet of acorns, and the ham they produce is incredibly expensive – about 30 euros per pound. Pan con tomate is a ciabatta-like Catalan bread that’s sliced, then vigorously rubbed with fresh tomatoes and garlic cloves, and topped with sea salt and olive oil. At tapas bars, tomato bread serves as sort of a “glue” that holds the flavors and textures of the tapas together.

Our dinner was a parade of fresh, briny crustaceans that had been swimming less than 24 hours earlier.

We started with our first bottle of Rioja blanco along with Steamed Clams, then moved on to Razor Clams, and then to garlicky, buttery cockles. From there, we graduated to a platter of sea urchin and finished our appetizer indulgence with a gratin of spider crab (Who says that cheese and seafood don’t go together? That’s a bunch of hooey).


Then I spotted snails on the menu. Unable to stop myself, thinking they were probably like the escargot at SALUT, I placed an order only to learn that they were Sea Snails, loaded with butter and garlic and a thick slice of “sopping bread.” Loved ‘em.

We didn’t order the Lobster Paella, but lots of folks did, and it looked really good – chock full of lobster parts. It came in three sizes: a giant two-and-a-half-foot diameter paella pan that would serve a table of six to eight; a smaller version meant for two to share; and finally an individual platter.

I passed on the filet (the only steak on the menu), but on another visit opted for the “flame grilled suckling kid goat”) and ate it all!

Desserts are beautiful but we have never indulged…too full.

But at the end of the day, shellfish rule at Botafumerio. Check out the three-foot-long platters that filled at least a third of the tables.

Note: Botafumerio is expensive – but that’s not to say you won’t get your money’s worth here. After all, “good fish isn’t cheap, and cheap fish isn’t good.” (Not sure who said that. Maybe St. James?).

By the way, I read that church attendance in Spain, like elsewhere in Europe, has steadily dropped. Maybe if their incense burners – their “botafumeria” – pumped out the aroma of a good lobster paella, the crowds might return.

WTF

PHIL

“TELL ME WHAT YOU EAT AND I’LL TELL YOU WHO YOU ARE” Brillat-Savarin…circa 1801

We are so fortunate here at PARASOLE……

Our culinary and wine teams travel the world to learn, evolve, and bring all manner of culinary delights back to our family of restaurants. Recent trips have carried them to Argentina, New Zealand, Italy and Chile – and now this May to Bordeaux and Marseille.


Bordeaux is home to what is called “first growth wines” from five producers who were designated the best in France at the Paris exposition of 1855. What a time our folks will have.

Then it’s on to Marseille (and Bouillabaisse) with perhaps a stopover in Roquefort for a cheese tasting (see my posting of April 11th).

Southwest France has much to offer on the culinary front. When you think of Limoges, china comes to mind, but it’s also known as “the city of butchers,” with a reputation dating back to the Fifteenth Century when both sides of the winding, picturesque Rue de Boucherie were lined “cheek by jowl” (sorry for that) with butcher shops.

In the center of town lies the 15th century Chapel of Saint Aurelien, home to “La Vierge au Rognon” – a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus…who is eating a kidney. My guess is that it was once customary to feed babies and little children nutrient-rich organ meat.

Today, Limoges makes the most of its traditional love of innards. Every October, in fact, a festival is held in celebration of organ meat, known to connoisseurs as OFFAL (and to everyone else as simply AWFUL).

Street vendors feed a procession of thousands of people, stuffing them with blood sausage…braised tripe (cow’s stomach lining)…sautéed kidneys with Dijon mustard sauce…sweetbreads (thymus glands) fried in deep heavy cast-iron pans – all the while tolerating visitors’ questions about what the hell they’re eating.

In medieval times, innards were widely consumed, of course, but not by the wealthy. They got the prime cuts while the lesser cuts (dare I say, “the guts”) went to everyone else. That’s still the case in many places where meat is scarce and expensive. People will make do with the protein at hand.

But the delights of innards have democratized their appeal – helped in part by chefs like Fergus Henderson of ST. JOHN restaurant in the meatpacking area of London known as Smithfield Market. His philosophy is, “If you’re going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.”

And use the whole thing he does. We’ve dined at St. John a half dozen times or so, and while Joanne hates the place, I love it and have feasted on feet, glands, shanks, tripe, snouts and marrow bones. It was Fergus Henderson that inspired me to go primal and put marrow bones on MANNY’S menu.

Another acclaimed restaurant that soothes the soul with innards is ANIMAL on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. A couple of years ago I managed to drag Joanne (a good sport) kicking and screaming there for dinner. She was not pleased. I think she had a salad…and wine, a lot of wine. I, however, delighted in sampling pigs ears with red chilis, lime and a fried egg, deep fried beef tendons, and gorgeous little tripe tartines. I especially enjoyed the “amourettes” – sheep testicles braised in garlic, parsley and port wine.

The sheep is not pleased.

WTF

PHIL

FOR THE LOVE OF MACARONS

Let’s get this out of the way right now.

There are MACAROONS and there are MACARONS….What is the difference?

The spelling is similar. And they’re similarly delicious. But they’re ENTIRELY DIFFERENT from each other.

Macaroons are a softish slightly lumpy cookie made with coconut, egg whites, sugar and almonds. They’re neither crunchy nor crispy.


Macarons are little sandwiches with meringue tops and bottoms and creamy ganache, pastry crème or jam fillings. The basic meringue shells are made with almond powder, confectioner sugar and eggs. All-natural flavors are incorporated and, as far as I know, no artificial colorings are used.

This post is about the latter: MACARONS.

Recently both the Houston Chronicle and Megan Garber of Atlantic magazine predicted that the macaron is about to replace the cupcake as America’s favorite treat. Others say that it already has.

Joanne’s and my macaron journey began some years ago in Paris. Needing a sweet treat in the late afternoon, we eyed a stunning display of pastel-colored mini-sandwiches, lined up by color in soldier-like rows in the window of a shop called LADURÉE, at 75 Avenue des Champs Elysées. It was a jewel box – grandly elegant, yet “lady-like” in scale.


Little did we know that we had just stumbled upon the most famous maker and seller of macarons in the whole world. We’d never heard of the place. In fact, we’d never even heard of macarons, let alone tasted one.

We, of course, tried some (well, several). They were surprisingly expensive little things, but boy, they were worth it. As I pulled out my camera (this was back in the days of cameras), the ladies behind the counter snapped at me.

“No photo!! Bad monsieur!!”

“But they’re so beautiful, your macaroons!”

“Not macaroons! MACARONS!”


I was confused. Humiliated. And…curious.

Here’s what I discovered: They French may view macarons as a national treasure, but culinary historians credit the Italians with inventing them. It’s thought that they were introduced to the French by Catherine di Medici’s Florentine pastry chefs, who accompanied her to France when she married King Henry II in 1533.


(BTW: We should note here that the Italians always claim ownership of French culinary delights. The French, of course, reject the idea – probably arguing that the Italians lack the necessary “refinement” to create something so delicately exquisite.)

For the next major development in the history of macarons, we have to jump ahead to 1862, when French luxury baker Louis Ernest Ladurée opened his shop and began selling the cookies to the public.

Flash forward another 130 years, to 1993, when a man named Francis Holder purchased the Ladurée recipes and brand. From that first little shop, Ladurée has grown to over 60 stores worldwide (10 alone in the United States), with outposts as far-flung as Casablanca, Qatar, and St. Tropez, as well as London, Miami and Bangkok.


Chloe Sorvino writes in Forbes Magazine that Holder’s macaron plant in the Paris suburb of Lille produces 30,000 meringue shells per hour from a machine with a conveyor belt the length of two football fields.

Ladurée is, by far, the leading seller of macarons in France and across the world, but it’s hardly the only purveyor.

When we brought our grandkids to France, they took a tour of Parisian chocolate shops, one of which, Maison du Chocolat in the Marais, produces macarons every bit as lux as those of Ladurée and charges a similar price – about 3 euros each.

Of course, the world-famous Fauchon brand is in on the act, selling macarons so beautiful they fuse fashion and food. (Visit their flagshop store on the Madeleine in the heart of Paris.)

Restaurants serve their fair share of the little cookie as well, sometimes as part of a dessert, other times as petit fours. Joanne and I have indulged at HELENE DARROZE across the street from the St. Sulpice cathedral of Da Vinci Code fame; and at CLUB GASCON in London’s Smithfield Market (where we were surprised with Bailey’s Irish Cream meringue shells and savory ones with foie gras filling).

LES OMBRES in Paris not only offers a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower – it treats guests to salted caramel macarons filled with green garlic cream (a nice counterpoint to the usual sweetness of traditional cookies).

Finally, at the meat-centric bistro, PAUL BERT, you can order an enormous macaron dessert featuring a raspberry shell generously filled with fresh raspberry ganache. We split one.

In a nod to Italy, LE CHIBERTA, Guy Savoy’s Italian place near the Arc de Triomphe, serves up tiny Amaretto versions as petit fours.

Each evening in Paris, our grandkids made runs to the close-by food halls of Bon Marché and returned with macarons – six each – as their second dessert of the night.

Now, a warning – actually, two warnings:

First: Don’t buy and put macarons in a bag. They are fragile and will crush. You need to splurge on little boxes for safe transport.


Second, top-notch versions of macarons are expensive. In Paris, they’ll run about $3.75 each, here in the U.S. about $2.50. But don’t cheap out. Inferior versions are made with almond extract, not real almonds, and they’re just not very satisfying.

The good news is that high-quality macarons are readily available here in America. Williams Sonoma has ‘em, for example. PATISSERIE 46 in Minneapolis does a nice job as well. And the ones at Lunds/Byerly’s are damn good, too.


Of course, you can also find macarons at Starbucks and Whole Foods, and at Costco and Trader Joe’s. Even Target stocks them.

But now…back to Paris.

A Ladurée and Fauchon baking alumnus, PIERRE HERMÉ, has recently made a bid for macaron supremacy. His 20 or so Paris shops are a smart, modern and sleek contrast to the slightly “fussy” (dare I say “girlie”) design of Ladurée.

But the main difference to me is the boldness and creative combos of Hermé’s creations. Eschewing the pastel palette of Ladurée, his macarons resemble psychedelic Oreos.

Flavors go well beyond chocolate, vanilla and salted caramel. And while Hermé offers all the usual suspects, you might also find rose petals and raspberry…blueberry, ginger and lime…orange blossom, praline and chantilly crème…olive oil, mandarin orange and cucumber…or fig and goat cheese.

I really do not know if macarons have replaced cupcakes as America’s favorite and most popular treat. But I do know this. When we were in Paris last year, we found ourselves buying macarons at McDonald’s.

WATCH OUT, CUPCAKE!!!!

WTF

PHIL

AN OUTDOOR OASIS IN MIAMI

Since Joanne and I spend a fair amount of time in Miami during the winter months, we’re frequently asked where to find a nice open-air restaurant.


As you can imagine, the city offers an abundance of choices, both for casual outdoor eating and upscale (let’s call it “al fresco”) dining.

For example, breakfast outside at BIG PINK is a happening scene. And MANDOLIN in the Design District boasts some of the best Greek food in the area and has a beautiful outdoor garden. PRIME 112 has a decent outdoor patio but no view…unless you find it amusing to watch the Rolls Royces, Mazerattis and Bentleys unload a parade of beautifully dressed and well-coiffed women curbside.

Ask yourself: What’s the goal? Is it fine dining? Do you want the Miami social scene, or a romantic view?

If the answer is “yes” to all of the above, head for THE LIDO BAYSIDE GRILL at the Standard Hotel on Belle Isle. The Lido has a spectacular setting right on the water, and while it isn’t fine and fancy dining, it certainly serves up an inventive array of dishes that we enjoy….and enjoy a lot.


It’s located at 40 Island Avenue on Belle Isle, near – but not technically on – South Beach. The hotel lobby is an ode to the 1950s designer Charles Eames, and your 5-minute journey through the gardens from the hotel lobby to the restaurant is punctuated with a series of surprising little venues.

As you pass through the final arbor, the restaurant and the water will arrest your senses. If there are two of you, snag a table at the water’s edge. It might be wise to have your hotel concierge make your reservation. Or skip the formalities and come for the Lido’s lively Happy Hour and enjoy their cleverly garnished tropical cocktails.

If you prefer the certainty of a reservation, book with the timing of the sunset in mind because the views are spectacular, and the twilight hours are magical here. Perhaps they should hand out engagement rings at the door.

On to the food. It’s not cheap…but not expensive…ever-so-slightly challenging….and nicely plated and flavor forward.

Our favorites include the Tostones with Seafood Ceviche at $17, the Char-Grilled Octopus with 3-bean salad and toasted garlic, and the Steamed Clams in coconut milk and green curry with red-hot chilis.


We also love the basket of warm Indian Naan bread, which comes with a variety of chutneys. The Mezze Platter satisfies as well. It comes with toasted pita bread and a changing variety of dipping sauces like hummus, tzatziki (yogurt, garlic and cucumber dip), taramasalata (fish roe dip), or smoked eggplant dip (“melitzanosalata” in Greek, “babaganoush” in Arabic).

Oh, yeah, the Chicken Empanadas are also a winner.

Joanne and I most always share these generous and tasty appetizers along with a bottle of white Burgundy.

What my wife will not share is the just-caught, simply grilled Branzino with local green beans and salsa. (I’ll extend my hand to the side and snap my fingers to distract Joanne while I reach for a bite – but never quickly enough to avoid a stab from her fork).

My go-to dish? It’s been the Trio of Mini Cheeseburgers (with fries, of course). I like the adventure of being able to top each one differently – one with ketchup and red onion; the second with yellow mustard, raw onion and pickles; and finally my BURGER JONES favorite topping: caramelized onions and blue cheese.

BUT! But!!! On my most recent visit a couple of weeks ago, I was informed that the Burger Trio has been discontinued in favor of a regular hamburger. DUH????

Oh well, I’ll keep going back. The sunsets and perhaps a second bottle of Burgundy trumps a discontinued burger trio.


WTF

PHIL

TRUE BLEUS

Not everyone is thrilled about BLUE CHEESE.

It is said that if you place a platter of ripe fromage bleu in front of a group, some will wretch, a few will writhe, and most will hold their noses while muttering in disgust.


However, if there are any francais at the table, they will likely lean in and say, “Aaaah, Magnifique!”

Blue cheese’s distinctive stink (the French would say “arôme”) owes both to the mold and the types of bacteria that grow on it. The particular bacteria called “brevibacterium linens” is responsible for the smell of blue cheese (as well as foot and other human body odors).


Most experts hold that blue cheeses were created by accident hundreds of years ago when cheese was accidently stored at natural temperatures in damp caves, causing the formation of mold on and in the wheels.

(Mold on old bread in the proximity of the cheese can cause the same process, providing that there is sufficient humidity).


We are all familiar with the use of blue cheeses today.

On party platters, it’s used as a dip. It’s a staple on lettuce wedge salads at steakhouses (including mine). Buffalo Chicken wings demand blue cheese dipping sauce. At Burger Jones restaurant, we serve a “Black and Blue Burger.” It’s delicious crusted atop filet mignon, and it elevates pastas and hash browns to a whole new level.


Blue cheeses can be found throughout the Western Hemisphere, of course. Think GORGONZOLA from Italy, CAMBOZOLA from the Bavarian Alps, BLEU D’AUVERGNE in southwest France, and STILTON from England. All are made from cow’s milk. All are good, all different.

But right here in the Midwest, we also produce very, very good blue cheeses. MAYTAG from Newton, Iowa, comes to mind, as does a producer in Nauvoo, Illinois, near where I group up who, as I recall, produces a sharp-on-the-tongue Mormon version.

Fairbault Dairies here in Minnesota crafts two highly regarded blues – AMABLU, which is sandstone cave-aged for 75 days, and the ever-so-slightly-peppery ST. PETE’S BLUE, aged for 100 days.

But now it’s time to take a fork in the road and head to France – to the tiny town of ROQUEFORT-SUR-SOULZON, located in the south of France about 60 miles from the Riviera. This town has only about 1,000 residents and just one industry: Roquefort cheese.

Charlemagne, the medieval emperor of what is now Western Europe, dubbed Roquefort “the king of cheese and the cheese of kings.” (Others have since challenged his proclamation. The Italians, for example, consider Parmigiano Reggiano the king of cheeses.)

In accordance with the strict AOC rules and regulations, the production of Roquefort requires the use of unpasteurized sheep’s milk (not cow’s milk), and not just any breed of sheep will do. It must come from Lacaune sheep, and they must reside in the tightly defined and controlled Roquefort region. All French blue cheeses are generally cow’s milk cheese and not made from sheep’s milk. Blue cheese made outside the Roquefort region is simply called “bleu.”


The wheels of raw Roquefort cheese are “hand needled,” a process by which the natural liquid bacteria/fungus called “penecillum Roquefort” is injected into the heart of the wheel for aging and cave ripening.

So here’s what you need to remember: All Roquefort cheeses are blue cheese. But all blue cheeses are not Roquefort.

A few years ago, Joanne and I visited the town of Roquefort. There are several Roquefort cheese producers in the town but the one that we visited was SOCIETÉ ROQUEFORT, right in the center of town.


Societé Roquefort sits atop a vast network of caves and, by law, the cheese can only ripen and age in those particular caves.

Now, Societé makes three different Roquefort cheeses.

  • BARAGNAUDES, which means “fairies.” This is a delicate cheese with a legendary floral fragrance and is more of an ivory color than white.
  • TEMPLIER, a premium version produced only for sale during the few weeks of the Christmas season. It is ripened and aged in its own caves (Les Caves des Templiers) on oak slats and has the most intense flavor of the three. In a flight of Roquefort tastings, Templier should be tasted last, with the delicate Baragnaudes tasted first.
  • SOCIETÉ BEE, the most plentiful and popular cheese of the three. It’s moist, tangy and has a real bite. It’s also the Roquefort that you see most often in the United States. In fact, I’ve never seen either of the others in the United States. I even shopped Murray’s Cheese in York. No luck!

Now a word about the difference between French and American cheese.

Prior to World War II, the United States had very few rules concerning imported cheese from other countries. But in 1947, we banned the importation of all cheese made with unpasteurized raw milk if the cheese had been aged less than 60 days. Then as recently as 2014 we lowered the acceptable bacteria levels. And all along the way, Roquefort has been subject to several tariff hikes.

There are those who HOWL about how pasteurized milk and these additional conditions and restrictions levied upon the French cheese makers and others have rendered the American versions tasteless and without character. And perhaps there is some truth to that. But when I taste the Societé Bee Roquefort that we buy locally at Lunds/Byerly’s, I find it absolutely delicious. Maybe if I did a side-by-side-tasting, I’d feel differently.

So…my bottom line…

Even though the American version is made from pasteurized milk, we buy quarter pound wedges of Societé Roquefort, and while it’s expensive at about $25 a pound, it’s absolutely delicious – better than any other blue cheese available at our local grocery. Moreover, a wedge lasts us about two weeks, as Joanne has developed a habit of, after dinner, “chunking” off about an ounce of Roquefort and pairing it up with a glass of red wine before going to bed.


It’s a small indulgence.

WTF

PHIL

THE TWILIGHT OF GREEK DINING

A few weeks ago, on March 5th, I came upon a comprehensive piece in the New York Times by Alan Richman. It was a deep dive into the history of 72-year-old Costas Spiliadis, the brains behind our favorite seafood international dining empire, ESTIATORIO MILOS.


The article notes that Costas grew up in Greece and left 50 years ago for America before finally settling in Montreal and eventually maintaining an apartment in New York. What we like about his restaurants is his dedication to simplicity and purity. (For example, he abhors blackened fish, which he calls “a violence to the delicacy of the fish.”)

It’s worth noting here that Milos is “extravagantly priced.”

Costas is reported to be tough on others, and on himself. Richman reports that if he notices that something is amiss – like wilted flowers – he will pounce! “For what I charge,” he says, “people expect perfection.”

Joanne and I first visited Estiatorio Milos (Zagat rated 27) in New York in the late 1990s, shortly after he opened there. In addition to Midtown Manhattan and Montreal (where the first Milos opened), his restaurant empire includes sites in Las Vegas, London, Athens, and Miami. Two more locations are on deck: Los Cabos, Mexico, and Dubai. And Milos just opened in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards development.


The signature feature at all locations is an array of Mediterranean whole fish laid out on a gigantic, theatrically illuminated bed of crushed ice. Your server invites you to visit the display and select your fish, which is then weighed and priced for you. Most selections are in the $55-60 range.

While Joanne and I have been to a number of his restaurants, Miami has been our go-to spot for the last few years. And because it is so expensive, we were delighted a few years back to discover that the Miami location had introduced a prix fixe TWILIGHT MENU, available from 5:30 to 7:00 PM, for $39.95.

That meant that we could go more frequently and didn’t have to wait for a special occasion to dine there. We could just pop in on the spur of the moment and not break the bank – yet have a wonderful two-hour, three-course dining experience (always at window table #83). On January 19, 2017, I blogged about how pleased we were.

But then last year when we walked into Milos, our server told us that the Twilight Dinners were no more; only the regular menu was available. Don’t get me wrong here. The regular menu is spectacular. But be prepared to spend at least $200-300 for two people……more if your tastes include expensive wines.

But unless it’s Joanne’s birthday or our anniversary, that’s just not going to happen…and maybe not even then.

Well, they QUIT. So, I QUIT.


Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Joanne and I and our daughter and granddaughter stopped into the restaurant just to scold them for making such a bone-headed move, probably sent down from corporate. I approached the podium with cannons locked and loaded, ready for battle. I was graciously welcomed, and with a great big smile the hostess told me that they had screwed-up and they were sorry about sacking the TWILIGHT DINNERS.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when she grinned and said, “THEY’RE BACK!”

She immediately seated us at our table, #83. We proceeded by ordering a bottle of Greek wine, grilled octopus atop a fava bean puree, an order of grilled haloumi cheese with freshly cracked black pepper and a drizzle of Greek olive oil, and a sharing platter of tzatziki, taramasalata and skordalia for spreading on warm pita bread (Note, only the octopus was part of the Twilight Dinner. The haloumi cheese and the tzatziki were supplements, and of course the wine was extra).

That was followed by a Greek village salad with big, fat, ripe tomatoes and a slab of feta cheese.

Mains included grilled salmon, a pair of rosemary-laced grilled lamb chops, and a whole dorado (sea bream), butterflied and grilled with lemon, a little oregano and sea salt.


For the prix fixe dessert, our granddaughter made a wise choice and selected a wedge of nutty, honey-soaked baklava with a scoop of baklava ice cream. Our dessert choice was smart as well, and yet so simple: a dollop of thick, full-fat Greek yogurt generously draped with honey from the baklava and fresh whole walnuts (not pieces).

All was well again.

καλή όρεξη!

“Kali orexi!” — means “bon appetit”

W.T.F.

PHIL

THE STEAKHOUSE ROCHESTER DESERVES

It’s a STAMPEDE!

The cattle are running…..running straight for Rochester, Minnesota…….


Because PITTSBURGH BLUE STEAKHOUSE is opening in Rochester on Monday, April 8th right in the heart of downtown, in the brand new and absolutely stunning HILTON ROCHESTER MAYO CLINIC AREA, the city’s first truly five-star property.

So Rochestonians, get ready for STEAK – aged steaks of all stripes, including rib eye tomahawks, porterhouses, New York Strips, and of course filet mignons. But first, why not begin with a platter of pristine briny fresh oysters……or Oysters Rockefeller. Not an oyster lover? Then have a jumbo Shrimp Cocktail or share a Cheese Board.

But it’s not just steaks. Depending on the day’s catch, seafood lovers can feast on fresh salmon, sea bass or halibut which were swimming yesterday. Roasted plump spring chicken and pasta choices round out the menu. I dare you to pass up the Prime Rib, available in three sizes: Queen’s Cut…King’s Cut…and the Flintstonian, bathmat-sized King’s Mother-In-Law’s Cut, ordered medium rare, of course.

Mammoth side dishes of crispy hash browns, loaded mashed potatoes and fresh asparagus are meant for sharing. And finish it all off with a wedge of coconut or red velvet cake.

Not up for a big night out? Then head straight for the cozy BLUE TAVERN in the front part of the restaurant, where you can get any dish that’s on the dining room menu along with fantastic tavern fare like juicy, hand-pattied burgers, sandwiches, snacks and dips. Lobster roll and fries? Fish & chips ? Shrimp Ceviche? Yes, yes and yes.

Mommie need a break? HAPPY HOUR is just the ticket. And what a VALUE-PACKED HAPPY HOUR it is! At our sister restaurants in the Twin Cities, the bar starts getting buzzy around four in the afternoon with sliders, calamari and tacos flying out of the kitchen.

Two private dining rooms, complete with state-of-the-art AV set-ups will be available for parties as well as serious corporate functions.

Don’t feel like cooking Sunday night after a busy weekend? Then bring the family and come to budget-friendly SUNDAY SUPPER. All suppers under $40 bucks, including shrimp cocktail to start, followed by your choice of filet mignon, roasted chicken or grilled Atlantic salmon. Finally, an old-fashioned soda fountain hot fudge sundae tops off your meal.

But you know…here’s the thing: We are so humble and pleased and proud to drive a steak (no pun intended) into the heart of Rochester. Joanne and I have been getting our medical care at the Mayo on a regular basis for over ten years now, and we marvel at just how nice and genuine folks are down there – and not just the Mayo people, but retail sales people, hotel employees and restaurant workers. It just comes naturally.

That wonderful quality carries over to our staff – 125 of ‘em, and 125 new jobs in Rochester. The leadership is made up of all proven professionals, including Bruce, the GM; Beth, our AGM; Nate, the head chef (who came from our other steakhouse, the world famous MANNY’S), and sous chef Zach, another Parasole veteran from SALUT.

How fortunate we are!

WTF

PIZZA À LA FRANÇAISE

A few years back, Joanne and I were fortunate enough to spend a little time on the French Riviera, primarily in Nice, and one of our most pleasant culinary discoveries there was the PIZZA. On the one hand, this was no surprise – the French have embraced pizza as wholeheartedly as we have, perhaps even more so given the country’s proximity to, and shared history with, Italy – but pizza seemed to be EVERYWHERE in Nice, and in glorious variety.


Having spent a good deal of time in Italy, I’ve observed that the Italians have a somewhat limited visual and culinary pizza vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong here – Italian pizzas are great – but for the most part they are all kind of alike. In the south of France, I was stunned by the range of offerings, including white pizza and red pizza…paper-thin crispy crust versions and oozing deep-dish renditions…wood-fired pies and grilled ones (delicious)…some topped with a fried or poached egg, others crowned with French fries….some with puff pastry crust, and others with chewier varieties.

The Italians would probably insist on a sanity hearing.

But that got me thinking about why pizza in France was so distinct in character. It’s probably because one simply can’t imagine the French accepting anything culinary from Italians. Their ego can’t take it. They can’t help but “improve” on it. They would have to tinker (“No Italian cheese….Le fromage italien est inférieur.”) And I do have to admit that some of the pizzas deliciously incorporated the buttery flavors of semi-hard French cheeses like Cantal and Emmenthal.


It should not come as a surprise that the French are in the pizza business. Check out the maps and you’ll discover that France and what is now Italy have been joined at the hip for centuries. The separation occurred rather recently when Italy finally unified in 1861.

Another difference that we observed was the inclusion of a long-spouted cruet of hot, hot chile oil for drizzling on your pizza. (These really should be on the table of every pizzeria everywhere.)

Our favorite spot along Rue Massena was PIZZERIA CRESCI, where we fell in love with the classic French white cheese-less pizza called PISSALADIERE. It’s thick with deeply, slowly caramelized onions, tiny Nicoise black olives, rosemary, coarsely cracked black pepper and, of course, anchovies – and lots of ‘em!

So here’s the deal. At both SALUTs we started serving a French version of pizza a few weeks ago and it became immensely popular both as a shared appetizer and as a main course. In addition to a couple of delicious traditional pies, the most popular to date has been the French/Alsatian icon called TARTE FLAMBÉE, topped with sautéed onions, bacon (lardons), and Gruyere cheese.

Next on my list is the PISSALADIERE. Yeah, the anchovy one. That’s risky here in Minnesota, where we all know there’s only one anchovy in the entire state and it gets passed from restaurant to restaurant, Caesar salad to Caesar salad. But we’ll give it a shot. Stay tuned!

Finally in the French pizza department, a CROQUE MADAME BREAKFAST PIZZA that packs a ton of gooey, cheesy/hammy flavor was just trotted out for Sunday brunch at Salut. Check out the photo.

WTF

Phil