Archive

Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Wells on Fieri

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I make it a habit whenever a restaurant gets a four-star review in the NYT to devote a post to it. At the other extreme, I also highlight the pans. Today was a pan day. Indeed, Pete Wells’ pan of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is historic. With David Pogue and Andrew Sullivan, among others, beating me to the punch, and with the review currently listed at the NYT site as both the most emailed and the most viewed item, my linking service is probably unneeded. Nonetheless, in case you have yet to see the review, which has spent the day reverberating around the internet, have a look. And check out the slide show as well.

From the restaurant homepage:

Located right in the heart of Times Square, we’re all about big flavors and good times. Off-the-hook scratch-made food, hand crafted signature beers, killer cocktails and rockin’ tunes are on tap here at my joint and I look forward to havin’ ya over to my house!

From the review, which should be read in full:

Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?

Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as “Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,” did your mind touch the void for a minute?

Did you notice that the menu was an unreliable predictor of what actually came to the table? Were the “bourbon butter crunch chips” missing from your Almond Joy cocktail, too? Was your deep-fried “boulder” of ice cream the size of a standard scoop?

What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense?

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret — a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-glazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers — called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?

When you have a second, Mr. Fieri, would you see what happened to the black bean and roasted squash soup we ordered?

Categories: Journalism, Restaurants

Sant Ambroeus and More

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m trying to work my way through the backlog of topics from our just-completed trip to New York. Let me give a rundown of some of the restaurants where we ate.

We arrived early Saturday morning. I was hoping to eat at Sant Ambroeus that evening, but we dropped in on our way up to visit my parents before noon and learned that they’re first opening would be at 10:30 PM. A little late. Moreover, thanks to the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy, displaced or powerless Manhattanites would be seeking dinner all over, so reservations would be hard to come by.

1. Orsay. Thanks to the assistance of our concierge, and at his recommendation, we were able to get a table at Orsay, a casual French bistro on Lexington, not far from the hotel. It was not too crowded when we walked in, but packed within minutes. (I would link to it, but the site isn’t working now.) The four of us were squeezed up against nearby tables as well as the crowd squeezing through the front door, with a wicked chill coming through when both sets of doors were held open. But we had a table, and food. Speaking of which, what the heck did I eat? I have no idea. I think I shared Gail’s profiteroles for dessert. Maybe soup to start. Oh, the hanger streak with frites. Gail had it too. And we shared a side order of grilled asparagus. I chose the béarnaise sauce. Gail went with the bordelaise sauce. Pretty tasty.

2. Sant Ambroeus. Sunday we were able to get a table at Sant Ambroeus. My affection for the place may be larger than it merits, but I love it nonetheless. One passes through a front area that is part coffee shop, part bakery, part gelato store. Or, now that I see their self-description, I should say restaurant, catering, gelateria, pasticceria, confetteria. In the rear is the restaurant, a small, elegant space with a large waitstaff. Check out the dinner menu here.

Among the primi, the tagliatelle alla bolognese was awfully tempting, but I was determined to go milanese style, so I chose the risotto alla milanese, or classic saffron milanese risotto, hoping Gail would let me try her tagliatelle. Likewise, the evening’s lamb chop special sounded spectacular, and our waiter was pushing it hard, Gail chose it. But I stuck with the costoletto alla milanese, or breaded veal chop milanese, pictured above, as did my sister and brother-in-law. It came with mashed potato, mixed vegetable, and on a side plate, arugula.

I couldn’t have been happier. I could have this meal every day. Well, I might have my fill of the risotto after the second day and switch to the superb tagliatelle from then on. But I’m capable of eating veal or chicken milanese daily, as I demonstrated when we were in Italy three years ago this very week.

For dessert, they bring a tray to the table with all their items of the day. I think Gail chose some sort of mousse concoction, which I tasted.

3. E.A.T. Monday evening, Gail and I were on our own. We headed up Madison to a perennial favorite, Eli Zabar’s E.A.T. We’ve eaten there many times, and eaten E.A.T. takeout even more often. Usually it’s crowded. Monday we had the place nearly to ourselves. People trickled in over the hour and a half that we were there, but it was peaceful to the end.

I’m not too original. I had the meat loaf with fresh tomato sauce. When it came, I realized it’s exactly what I ordered the last time we had dinner there. It’s a whole meatloaf in miniature rather than slices of a large meatloaf, complete with its own interior egg. This was after starting with a bowl of potato leek soup. Tempted though we always are to share an order of potato pancakes, we resisted this time. For dessert we each had one of their shortbread heart cookies. A simple meal, and perfect. Plus relaxing.

4. Cafe Boulud. This is the hotel restaurant. We had breakfast there Saturday morning after our overnight flight from Seattle, going down with my sister and brother-in-law after first going up to visit them in their room on arrival. At the other end, the four of us had lunch there Tuesday just before Gail and I headed to JFK for our flight home.

Cafe Boulud is part of the Daniel Boulud empire. Their lunch menu is simple. There’s a prix fixe selection on the left, a few selections in each of four categories on the right. You can see the menu online (no direct link), where you’ll find that the categories are French classics and country cooking, fall flavors, inspired by the farmer’s market, and world cuisine. I went with the prix fixe menu, as did my sister and brother-in-law. One of the two appetizer options was a frisée salad, which is what I selected. For the main dish, I chose the chestnut ravioli with spaghetti squash. Not the sort of thing I would ordinarily select, but it did sound interesting. The salad was superb. The ravioli was … interesting. Very rich. I enjoyed trying it. Next time I might go for the pan seared duck breast on the fall flavors menu, with Minnesota wild rice, brussels sprouts, apple cider, and sauce albufera.

Dessert. Let’s see. There were two choices on the prix fixe menu. One was some leche cake thing. The other was a chocolate mousse with passion fruit, accompanied by passion fruit sorbet. Gail and I split that. Good.

Categories: Restaurants

Dumplings

October 27, 2012 1 comment

The NYT food section three days ago had an article on some of the options for dumpling lovers in the city, along with a slideshow and the video I’ve embedded above. If you missed the video, I recommend you click on it and watch. It features the work of Joe Ng at RedFarm in the West Village and Dale Talde at Talde in Park Slope. (The slideshow is worth a look too.)

From the article:

In Park Slope, Dale Talde has engineered one of the most hunted-down bar snacks of 2012, a beer-friendly, street-cart collision known as the “pretzel dumpling.”

Inside, there’s some slightly cured pork. Outside, a process of boiling, brushing, pan-searing and baking creates a skin with the crust and chew of a hot pretzel. The dipping sauce echoes what you might get at a deli, or in a bag full of Chinese takeout: strong mustard.

For Mr. Talde, who grew up in Chicago and comes from a Filipino background, the goal was to summon a dish that represented a spirited take on what’s Asian and what’s American. “For us, it was a perfect way of blending the two,” he said.

If any place embodies the city’s neo-dumpling ethos, though, it’s RedFarm, whose West Village location has already spawned a forthcoming Upper West Side spinoff. At RedFarm, there are dumplings fashioned to look like Pac-Man characters and horseshoe crabs. There’s also an egg roll stuffed with pastrami.

“I call them whimsical,” said Ed Schoenfeld, the veteran restaurateur behind RedFarm. Spend an afternoon touring the kitchen, and Mr. Schoenfeld will rhapsodize about the artistry of the chef, Joe Ng. Those batter-crusted crabs might look like a cute gag, but there’s culinary precision (and greenmarket produce) inside them.

Pete Wells reviewed RedFarm back in March, giving it high praise and two stars.

It won’t be easy. They have plaintive black sesame-seed eyes, the dumplings at RedFarm, giving them the appearance of strange, adorable characters in a Miyazaki film. These flat-bellied duck and crab dumplings look like a school of wide-mouthed catfish; the pale-green ones, filled with shrimp and snow-pea leaves, like moon-faced tadpoles. Over here are Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, spectral shrimp dumplings in blue, pink, yellow and white, chasing a Pac-Man made of sweet potato tempura with a blueberry for an eye.

Ignore their plaintive stares, and stare at them instead. Look how rounded they are, how their fillings weigh against their glossy wrappers like the summer juice pressing against the skin of a plum. They look firm, ripe, ready. You can tell that they’re going to be good.

But you don’t know how good they really are, and how good RedFarm can be, until you try one. And then, plaintive stares or no, you begin devouring these bundles of delight one by one.

RedFarm, in the West Village, is a collaboration between one of New York’s greatest Chinese chefs, Joe Ng, and one of its greatest Chinese restaurateurs, Ed Schoenfeld. Only one, Mr. Ng, is Chinese by birth. Mr. Schoenfeld is Chinese by calling, a Brooklyn-born Jew who long ago heard an inner voice urging him to bring better kung pao chicken to the people of Manhattan.

They have several clever ideas at RedFarm. First, the menu has been tailored for a Western palate, with none of the bland and slippery specialties that non-Chinese eaters find so enigmatic. It also seems designed for the age of Yelp, when the entire world can be split into either Nothing Special or OMG. RedFarm’s cooking runs hard toward OMG.

[snip]

For sensations like this, people have stood in line, and stood and stood, since the restaurant opened last August. RedFarm belongs to that post-Momofuku generation of restaurants made possible by the discovery that people will wait in line, open their wallets and put up with a reasonable amount of discomfort if the cooking consistently vaults above usual levels of intensity. No reservations are taken, except for large parties.

The décor, to stretch a definition, is provided mostly by potted plants and by Mr. Schoenfeld’s owlish eyeglasses, color-coordinated with his sweaters. Cartons of beer and liquor are stowed above the tables on raw-lumber platforms. (What design budget there was seems to have gone into buying one of those highly accomplished Japanese toilets.)

In exchange, all the flavors have been turned up as high as they can go. The dishes can be salty, or sweet, or rich. Often they are all three at once. At RedFarm, the food goes to 11.

The review has a slideshow too, also worth study.

We’ll be in New York in just days, but with limited time, so that part about waiting in line may mean we won’t get down to RedFarm. Next time.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

DeMarco Restaurant

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

[Photos from Yesterday’s Island]

I mentioned last night that before the memories of our recent Nantucket trip completely fade, I still hope to write about our Nantucket Historical Association house tour and our dinner at DeMarco. Here’s my DeMarco post.

DeMarco is a traditional Italian restaurant with a limited menu of classic dishes, serving Nantucket for 33 years. It seems to come in for criticism for not changing, but what it does it does well, so in its case, not changing may be good. A month ago, when Gail and I were reviewing which restaurants we might wish to visit, I came across this feature on DeMarco from an early June issue of Yesterday’s Island. Its opening:

Don DeMarco has done it again!

Just a few weeks ago, DeMarco Restaurant on India Street opened the door on its 33rd season as the island restaurant to go to for fine Northern Italian cuisine. Fresh, local ingredients are emphasized in dishes that are creatively prepared, artistically presented, and absolutely delicious down to every vegetable and accompaniment.

Four years had passed since our last meal there. We decided it was time to return. And so we did, two weeks ago tonight.

Two of their classic dishes are the Pomodoro Verde e Rosso Fritto Capre, or Fried green and ugly tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, aged balsamic, and the Boscaiola, or “Badly Cut” fresh pasta, wild mushrooms, prosciutto, tomato, sage, cream. One can get a half order of the pasta as an appetizer. Already set on having scallops as her main dish, Gail couldn’t decide which of these two to start with.

It turns out that that article last June included a discussion and photos of several dishes. Had I re-read what it said before we went to dinner, we would have been in no doubt that one of us had to order the tomatoes.

One of our all-time favorites at DeMarco is The Fried Green and Ugly Tomatoes — a luscious stack of sliced, juicy red tomato and breaded and fried green tomato with basil, fresh mozzarella, and aged balsamic to make the flavors sing. Our opinion is shared by so many that DeMarco would risk an uprising if he ever took it off the menu! This appetizer should be on everyone’s list of “must-haves” on Nantucket.

But I hadn’t re-read it, and instead urged Gail to order the equally famous Boscaiola. She had it last time and loved it. I went with the Tre Lattuga: Bartlett Farm lettuces, shaved vegetables, Pecorino Toscano, red wine vinaigrette. (Bartlett’s Farm, on the island, supplies many restaurants with their produce.) Both were great, but the Boscaiola is rich, and Gail decided she might have done better by starting with the tomatoes.

I had the Pasta Bolognese as my main dish. Although I don’t see it on their online menu, it’s one of their standards. And it uses the same pasta as in Gail’s Boscaiola. I couldn’t have been happier. The sauce was rich, tasty, excellent, and the wide-noodle pasta is perfection.

For dessert, Gail chose the tiramisu, also featured in the Yesterday’s Island article, and deservedly so. I had a sorbet, the details of which escape me. It was red, or purplish-red. Some kind of berry. Delicious.

Over the course of the evening, we heard bits of conversation at a couple of neighboring tables — plus a conversation between an arriving customer and Don — that suggested his thirty-three year run was about to end. Soon. Like, that week. The next night, someone staying at the inn with us, on learning we had eaten there, said that indeed they were closing. Don was retiring. Yet, even today, when I look at the website, there’s not a clue that Demarco has closed, or will soon.

On the other hand, someone posted the following on the DeMarco Facebook page two Saturdays ago:

It is realy hard for me to write this down, but I guess it is my responsibility and Jareds to let you know that DeMarco Restaurant is closing forever this sunday. After 33 years since its a restaurant, DeMarco became a home for soo many people and part of their life. I believe that we should all say thank you Don and Terese for this experience that you gave us. Thank you for the memories that we will always bring with us wherever we go next. I believe that many of you found at DeMarco friends that they can count on for the rest of their life, because DeMarco was never just a job but a family. For all of you who know someone that is not in this page please let them know that DeMarco is closing. Cheers for all of you out there from the last crew of the restaurant. I hope we will see each other again

So apparently they closed the day we left the island. Good thing we went when we did. We only regret that we didn’t go more often. We’ll miss it.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Company of the Cauldron

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Two days ago, as we were about to depart from Nantucket, I wrote about our dinner last Friday at Ventuno. The next night we ate at Company of the Cauldron, which is just around the corner. It is equally deserving of a post.

I explained last year that despite walking past regularly on previous visits, I was never curious to try it. Something about the darkened room, the odd name, the people crowded together in the small space enjoying themselves too much. And the nightly fixed menu, everyone arriving at the same time and eating the same meal, one I feared might not suit my taste.

Truth is, the fixed menu issue isn’t a big deal. They post the menu for the coming week each Friday, online and onsite. No surprises. Gail insisted last year that we try it, and when we did I wrote, “Why oh why did we wait so long to eat there?” We didn’t wait so long again. I grabbed a printed copy of the menu as we were walking by last week and we decided to spend our last evening of this year’s stay there.

This time, I was facing into the room rather than the wall, allowing me to get a much better sense of just how beautifully furnished that dark room is. Fortunately, I don’t have to work too hard to capture it in words. I can turn to Malcolm Wilson, restaurant reviewer for Cape Cod Times, who is quoted at the restaurant website.

This little Nantucket restaurant has charm written all over it — from its dark red, ivy-framed, single-story front, pierced by small-paned windows, to its darkly handsome, romantic-as-a-novel interior.

The inside’s post-and-beam and rough plaster construction seems more like a stage set than interior design. And careful decoration gives Company of the Cauldron one of the prettiest dining rooms around.

Copper pans hang on the walls, along with a full-rigged half model ship. Pie-plate sconces are set with flickering candles, and, overhead, there are pierced antique tin lanterns and large, gracefully curved chandeliers for soft lighting.

Antique ship paintings on the walls and boat models hanging from the ceilings seem secure in their antiquity. Tables are covered with flowered cloths, and there are real candles in brass holders and tea roses in vases.

In addition to the candle sconces and the hanging fixtures, each table has its own candle, providing enchanting, more than sufficient lighting of food and companions. As for the name, the website provides the explanation:

Lorenzo The Magnificent, born April 8, 1449, died April 9, 1492 was one of the leaders of the Republic of Florence, and went on to become the most important Medici of the Italian Renaissance. While better known for his political achievements, his interests included gastronomy. Waverley Root tells us that the first cooking academy since Roman times was established in Florence. It was called the Company of the Cauldron; each member had to create a new dish for every meeting. Lorenzo supposedly composed songs honoring the chefs and olive oil makers.

Here is the menu for the dinner we had:

Jumbo lump crab cake with a chard corn salad, basil and tomatoes.

Twin tournedos of tenderloin with two sauces: green peppercorn au poivre and red onion demi over citrus thyme, fingerling potatoes.

Vanilla bean panna cotta with cassis and passion fruit curd and shortbread crumble.

Especially noteworthy is the high quality of all ingredients. The corn salad was stunning. I could have made a meal of it alone. Every little morsel was special. Likewise, the beef was as fine as any I can remember having in a long time. As for the panna cotta, there must have been a last-minute change. We had lemon curd, with some other fruit flavor, some berry. I can’t remember. No matter. I couldn’t have been happier. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long for our next visit.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

Ventuno

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment

In past years, when we’ve come to Nantucket, I have written long posts about our daytime activities and our dinners. As we sit now awaiting a light lunch and the ride to the airport, it’s evident that I won’t be doing that this time. Probably just as well. Nonetheless, there are a few items I want to touch on. I’ll do so in individual posts. This one is devoted to Ventuno, the restaurant where we had dinner two nights ago.

I have written before (here, for instance, two years ago) about our favorite Nantucket restaurant, 21 Federal, and about my disappointment on learning last summer that it had closed. The restaurant’s name is simply its address, Federal Street being one of the central streets of Nantucket’s town. The restaurant that took its place is Italian in orientation, and gave recognition to the old name by taking as its own the Italian word for twenty-one: Ventuno. It was set up by Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon, the couple who already ran another Nantucket institution, the nearby restaurant Straight Wharf.

When we tried Ventuno last September, we were delighted. And we found ourselves in good company, as John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kelly took a table across the way. On planning our time on Nantucket this year, we put Ventuno at the top of our list of restaurants to eat at. Once again we were delighted, and more. It was our favorite among many wonderful meals this past week.

The restaurant is an old house with several small rooms. We sat in the far corner of the back room, a lovely space. In addition to the menu items — you can see the online menu here; Friday’s version was similar in conception, though different in detail — the waiter told us about two specials built around a pig the restaurant had raised on an island farm and now slaughtered. I forget the pig-based appetizer. The main dish was pork loin with farro verde, island tomatoes, and island lettuce.

We decided to share three appetizers: the polpette (five small meatballs in a tomato sauce), the chilled tomato soup with (according to Gail’s memory) almond creme and pecrorino, and a half-portion of cavatelli pasta with chicken sausage, broccoli, rabe, pepper flakes, and a wine sauce. Each was spectacular.

Gail chose the duck for her entree, accompanied by farro, candied pistachios, and some sort of sauce. You can see it below.

I had the pig. Shortly after it was served, the chef came out to tell us about it. He explained that it was the best fed pig — or mammal of any sort — on the island, feasting on Ventuno scraps for months. Plus, the restaurant makes its own goat cheese, and would send the whey to the farm for the pig to try as well. The first time, it was an experiment, but the farmer reported back that they should keep it coming, and so they did. We were reassured that this was one happy pig.

And soon Ventuno had one happy diner. Two, actually.

On to dessert. Gail had the bomboloncini: bittersweet chocolate doughnuts, coffee gelato, and chocolate sauce. I tasted one of her two doughnuts and it was fabulous. I went light, with the morsel of caramel panna cotta and a little almond cookie.

As we finished, the chef returned to make sure the pig hadn’t died in vain. We fell into a long conversation, during which we realized that he was the founding chef and restaurant owner, Gabriel. He described the troubles last summer with customers who weren’t happy about the changes, somehow wanting Ventuno to be 21 Federal in all but name. Some didn’t get what the restaurant was about, or weren’t sympathetic to it. This year, things are better. Unhappy old-timers stay away. Those who come get what they’re about. We talked as well about how he and his wife handle their split life in Nantucket and Boston, this being the first complicated year, as the older of their two children began kindergarten this week. Until now, where they were, the kids were.

On our way out, we bought a Ventuno t-shirt for Gail to wear, the same style t-shirt the bus staff were wearing. The thought that we would have to wait a year for our next meal there saddened us. Maybe next year we’ll go twice.

——-

For more on Gabriel Frasca, see this short article and the video below.

Categories: Restaurants, Travel

La Côte Café

July 6, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve written on a few occasions about the restaurant La Côte Crêperie, most recently last November. It’s a small place, just eight tables or so, about a mile from our house. And until recently it had a classic French crêperie menu. Savory crêpe for dinner, sweet crêpe for dessert. Except that I was partial to their croque-monsieurs, which I would usually choose as my main dish. And I love their “côte salad”: butter lettuce, shaved fennel, apple, shallot vinaigrette. My typical meal, then, would be the salad, the croque-monsieur, and their Belle-Hélène dessert crêpe (pear, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce). Plus a glass of French cider.

When we ate there last March, we discovered a change in the menu. The crêpe options were significantly reduced, and new entrees were added. Plus, the chalkboard that once listed the crêpes of the day instead offered additional non-crêpe entrees. Fortunately, the côte salad was still available. So too the croque-monsieur and Belle-Hélène. But I’m a sucker for carbonara. When I discovered the menu’s new pasta section, including fettucini carbonara with slab bacon, parmesan, and cream, that’s what I ordered.

A couple of months ago, I realized that the menu change was accompanied by a name change. The restaurant is now La Côte Café and Wine Bar. No simple crêperie any longer. Which is a pity. But I do love that carbonara.

After a four-month absence, we returned this evening. I suppose sometimes I lack imagination. I started with the côte salad and cider, followed by the carbonara. No Belle-Hélène for dessert this time though. Too filling. Instead I went for the crème brûlée, which was excellent.

Meanwhile, Gail also ordered côte salad, followed by their delicious lasagna and then a dessert crêpe, the sucrée. Just a simple crêpe with butter and sugar.

Oh, about the carbonara. You probably know that the sauce includes raw egg. La Côte plates the pasta with half an egg shell sitting on the top, the raw egg resting in the shell. You get to pour the egg out over the pasta and mix it all up, the warm pasta and cream sauce cooking the egg. When the dish is served, a small plate is brought to the table, of the sort that might hold a boiled egg, perfect for disposing of the used egg shell.

We left happy.

Categories: Restaurants

Anniversary Dinner

June 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Gail and I celebrated our anniversary on Saturday. Twenty-seven years earlier, we were married in the Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. We therefore make it a habit to return to the Olympic for our anniversary dinner. Not every year, but many, including this one. We eat in their Georgian Room, one of the most beautiful dining spaces in the city, and with excellent food too.

We’ve always enjoyed chatting with the Georgian’s sommelier, an Austrian man who has a way with stories. While we were looking over the menu, we discussed our plans with him and ordered glasses of prosecco to start, with a half bottle of the 2008 Domaine Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape for later. Gail started with the Dungeness Crab Bisque, served with two mini crab cakes in the middle and crab pieces above, over which the soup was poured. I had a salad that I don’t see on the current on-line menu: warm spinach, lardon, and a tiny fried egg. And something called Guinness melba, which was a long, thin, curled piece of bread, made with Guinness, that was buttered and baked. Beautiful presentation; excellent flavor.

For our main dishes, I was leaning toward the rack of lamb, but when Gail ordered it, I went for the T-bone steak. Hers was listed on the menu with four accompaniments. Each was prepared in a block about one-and-a-half inch square and maybe three-fourths of an inch high, the four squares laid out in the center of the plate to form a three-inch square with the lamb on top. It looked beautiful. One of the squares was a mashed pea concoction with tomato jam on top. I ate some of it at the end. It was sublime. Another was spinach, another lamb shank, and I don’t remember the fourth. Gail chose well.

The distinctive feature of my steak was its presentation with three sauces: béarnaise, peppercorn, and cabernet jus. Each was in a square dish, the three lined up in a row along one side of the long rectangular plate. The steak occupied a good part of the rest of the plate, along with three fingerling potatoes, three mini onion rings, and three asparagus tips. Everything was superb, but it didn’t have the overall balance of Gail’s. I might have liked more asparagus. I would have loved her pea mash.

For dessert, the Georgian always offers two soufflé options. On the current menu, there’s a black and white and a soufflé of the day, which on Saturday was coconut-blackberry. Gail ordered the first, me the second. We did so when we ordered our main dishes, so we were surprised at the 25-minute gap between our plate removal and soufflé arrival. Something went wrong between the waiter and the kitchen. No matter. We weren’t in a rush, and when the soufflés did come, they were perfect.

Oh, I forgot the amuse-bouche. What was it? Some kind of cherry concoction. I can’t quite remember. Gail loved it. I thought it was low on flavor, but Gail called it subtle. At the other end of the meal, after dessert, we were served two little truffle cakes, maybe an inch in diameter, each with a cut in the middle into which a dropper was placed with raspberry syrup to be squeezed into the cut. Part way up the dropper was a thin sliver of chocolate to be slid off and eaten. And, since it was our anniversary, we had a special presentation. “Happy anniversary” was written on the plate in chocolate, with two lit candles standing on the plate. The truffles were surprisingly dry, once the syrup was swallowed. By design, I suppose, but we found it puzzling.

How did they know it was our anniversary? Well, I told them, when I called two days earlier to request a particular table. And, I had flowers waiting from Topper’s, the florist conveniently located on the basement level of the hotel.

After we paid, we carried the flowers out and went up half a floor to the mezzanine level, which forms a balcony ringing the lobby. At the far end of the balcony on the left is the Kensington Room, where we were married. We always peek in, though when nothing is going on there, it’s difficult to see anything, what with the lights out and the curtains drawn. After failing to see, we wandered into the main ballroom to have a look, then went down to get our car.

A lovely evening. Happy Anniversary, Gail.

Categories: Family, Restaurants

Chapel Hill

April 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Old Well, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This is it, my final post from our trip to North Carolina. I’ve written about our Tuesday outing to Durham, our Wednesday outing to Greensboro, and our Thursday outing to Raleigh. But what of our base itself, Chapel Hill? All I’ve mentioned so far are our dinners at Lantern and Crook’s Corner. Surely we did more.

Well, not much more, what with setting out after breakfast each morning for another city. Here are a few notes on what I left out.

1. Tuesday, we came back from Durham in mid-afternoon, after our visits to the Duke Homestead and the Nasher Museum of Art. This was our chance to wander around town and campus. On crossing over toward the heart of campus from the Carolina Inn, we came immediately upon the building housing the UNC School of Education. I couldn’t resist dropping in, since the dean is an old friend whom I used to work with here at the university. Fortunately, he was in and had a moment, so we chatted a bit. A day later, I would have missed him, as he was heading here to Seattle.

Next we walked up to Franklin Street to the Carolina Coffee Shop for Gail, but they only had table service. They recommended Jack Sprat Café across the street, which met her needs. From there, we could walk south through the main axis of campus, leading to the Old Well. I suppose you’d have to have UNC in your veins to appreciate the well’s importance. It was once the school’s lone water source.

Today, passers-by can drink from a marble water fountain supplying city water that sits in the center of the Old Well. Campus tradition dictates that a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes will bring good luck (or straight A’s).

The Old Well is recognized as a National Landmark for Outstanding Landscape Architecture by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The Old Well is also used on the official stamp of all apparel licensed by the university.

There was a crowd around it, with people taking turns drinking while friends or parents photographed them. I couldn’t resist taking my own turn, and Gail couldn’t resist taking the photo, which I’ll omit. More interesting is the layout of adjacent buildings, Old East Hall, Old West Hall, and South Hall. Old East is the original campus building, with construction begun in 1793 when the university (the oldest state university in the country) was established. It has since been expanded, and of course renovated, and continues to function as a dorm.

Later in our walk south, we would arrive at the university’s main library, the Wilson Library, which contains The North Carolina Collection Gallery. Joel had suggested the day before that we may find this of interest, so we took his advice and found it. There we learned of the Masonic history of the university, and in particular, the Masonic tradition that dictated the layout of the well and the three buildings. This was part of a special exhibit on the history of the campus, with some wonderful old photos.

Also in the collection are the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms; an exhibit about the original Siamese twins Eng and Chang, who lived the final decades of their lives in North Carolina; Audobon prints; some rooms from early Carolina houses; and much more. It was a good detour.

South of the library, across a street, is the bell tower, and below that, the football stadium — Kenan Stadium. The campus drops down a hill at this point, with the stadium following this drop, so that on the north side it fits quite nicely into the surroundings. A gate was open on the north, so we wandered in and looked down on the playing field, well below us. Ringing the outside are exhibits of famous Tarheel players, such as the greatest of them all, below:

Kenan Stadium, UNC

It was approaching dinner time, so we concluded our campus tour at this point and returned to the inn.

2. Dinner with Joel that night was at Mint, a surprisingly good Indian restaurant on Franklin Street a few blocks west of campus, out towards Carrboro. Gail and Joel had eaten there in July. I’m glad they thought to return, because dinner was excellent.

3. Thursday was our Raleigh day. When we got back to Chapel Hill, we conferred with Joel and discovered that we were too late to get in to a restaurant in Durham he thought worth trying. Instead, we headed over to Provence, a small restaurant in Carrboro not far from Joel. As it name suggests, it bills itself as serving regional French and Mediterranean cuisine.

Provence

Joel started with the escargots, Gail the lobster bisque, and me, well, gosh, I don’t remember what I had. Nothing that I see on the online menu. I must have had their soup of the day, some cream of something. I should have taken notes. I remember my main course, the lemon sole almandine. Gail had Beef Wellington and Joel some sort of noodle dish that again isn’t listed online. In any case, I was quite happy with my meal. But Gail’s beef was horribly burned on one side. She kept wondering what flavoring was used, until she turned it over and caught on to what had happened. We should have sent it back. It was really a disaster. Other than that, the restaurant was most pleasant.

4. You may recall that two months ago, when I first started thinking about what we might do in North Carolina, I wrote a post about an imagined day trip to Greensboro and Saxapahaw. Wednesday was our Greensboro day. Saxapahaw is a few miles off the main highway between Chapel Hill and Graham, the town where one gets on I-40 to head straight west to Greensboro. And the attraction of Saxapahaw is the Saxapahaw General Store, which had been written up in a short note in the Sunday NYT travel section in January. To quote from that article again, as I did in February:

I was polishing off a steaming bowl of coconut curry soup when a server appeared bearing a plate of plump pan-seared diver scallops atop creamy applewood-bacon succotash and braised asparagus. The food was befitting a candlelit restaurant, but I had a view of gas pumps outside and, a few steps from my table, fluorescent-lighted aisles packed with workaday necessities — toilet paper, motor oil, sauerkraut juice (aids digestion, according to the label).

This jarring contrast of farm-fresh food and service-station atmosphere is part of the appeal of the place where I was dining: the Saxapahaw General Store (1735 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road; 336-376-5332; saxgenstore.com), a no-frills convenience store and restaurant that has sparked a revival in the former mill town of Saxapahaw in central North Carolina.

On our way up to Greensboro, we didn’t want to detour, but we did on our return. The road to Saxapahaw was narrow and winding, perhaps our only drive in our time in North Carolina on which we got off main roads and got a glimpse of what backcountry North Carolina might look like. Not that this was so backcountry, just 10 miles out from Chapel Hill. We arrived at a small strip mall, with the gas pumps and store as described. As we walked in, there was a counter to the left running from the doorway to the back, with the cashier immediately to the left, then food cases, and behind was the cooking area. Running from straight ahead to the right were the store aisles, and far to the right, beyond them, were a few tables for dining. Pretty basic. But it was fun to work our way around the aisles and see what was for sale.

There was a small wine section up front by the windows, with shelves marked for French, Italian, California etc. Just to the right of that, on the top of a counter, was an array of North Carolina wines. We chose one to bring home.

I hadn’t mentioned, but over by that main counter to the left of the store is a big blackboard. Oh, you can see it in the article that headed the NYT article. Here it is, below:

Saxapahaw General Store

[David P. Williams, NYT, January 22, 2012 edition]

When we walked in, a young woman had just begun to fill the board with the list of dinner specials. It took a while for us to figure out what was going on as far as menu offerings. The deal is that there’s an all-day menu, with menus available on the counter, but I had missed them initially. One can order sandwiches, salads, and so on. In addition, there are lunch and dinner hours, something like 11 to 2 and 5:30 to 8:00, during which one can also order the specials listed on the board. We had arrived at 4:45. Waiting for dinner wasn’t an option, since our plan was to get back to Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel. It would have been different if we were in Chapel Hill already and could have headed out with him.

We arrived as the woman was writing the first special, pan-seared diver scallops with applewood-bacon succotash — the very one featured in the NYT. She would proceed to write each main dish, then turn to the scruffy looking guy behind the cash register, announcing what she had just written. He would look upwards for a moment for inspiration, then tell her what the accompaniments would be. It became apparent that he wasn’t merely the cashier. Indeed, he was probably the chef. As the listings got added, staying became more and more tempting. We’ll have to come back next time we visit, now that we know the schedule.

That’s it for North Carolina. We had a great trip.

Crook’s Corner

April 15, 2012 Leave a comment

A few days ago, while still in Chapel Hill, I wrote about our dinner with Joel at Lantern. (Boy was it good!) Crook’s Corner Cafe and Bar is another famous Chapel Hill restaurant. After our day in Greensboro — during which we visited the three museums described in the preceding posts but failed to eat lunch — we picked up Joel and arrived at Crook’s Corner for an early dinner.

It’s a pretty low-key place, with a pig on the roof. According to the quotes on the website homepage, “Crook’s continues to live up to its national reputation as a temple of Southern cuisine” (Raleigh News & Observer) and is “sacred ground for Southern foodies” (NYT). I don’t have much of a baseline. This was more a chance to learn what one eats at a temple of southern cuisine than to judge.

From the website again, I find that in 1982,

Bill Neal and Gene Hamer thought this the perfect venue to pursue Southern cuisine. Neal wrote several acclaimed cookbooks, including Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking and Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie and placed Crook’s on the culinary map. Crook’s has the reputation for being “the birthplace of Shrimp and Grits.” The often copied dish became famous after Craig Claiborne wrote about it in The New York Times. It’s still wildly popular and Crook’s has served it in the late chef’s style now for more than 25 years.

You may wish to have a look at the menu, here.

To start, we shared three dishes: the cheddar hushpuppies with cocktail sauce; the gumbo z’herbes: green gumbo made with Caw Caw Creek country ham; and the Crook’s house salad: mixed greens with mustard vinaigrette. The initial idea was that Gail and Joel would share the hushpuppies while I ate the salad, but I couldn’t stop tasting those hushpuppies. Plus, there was plenty of salad to go around. So we all had a little of everything.

For dinner, I couldn’t decide between the Cajun ribeye, served with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, and the Cajun red snapper with creole vegetables and baked cheese grits. Neither could Gail. When I chose the ribeye, she chose the snapper. Joel had the famous shrimp and grits: shrimp sautéed with bacon, mushrooms and scallions and served over cheese grits. I intended to taste Gail’s snapper, but it was gone before I knew it. I was happy with mine. I never did get Joel’s verdict on the shrimp and grits.

For dessert, we all shared the Mt. Airy chocolate soufflé cake with fresh whipped cream. Very rich, plenty for three.

My verdict? As I said, I wasn’t there to judge. I’m still learning. I sure liked those hushpuppies though.

Categories: Restaurants