Gordon Ramsey’s Maze, London, UK – September 30, 2014

Chef Ramsey has a successful TV show, a consulting business to turn around failing restaurants and a reputation as a hard charging, brash, outspoken and even perhaps ojectionable presence in the world of “great” restaurants. Based on our experience this evening, all of it, except the adjective “objectionable”, is deserved. We’re here in the UK on a “group” tour – not always the best way to visit any restaurant, let alone one with a reputation. For a good restaurant, coping with more than 8 is a significant challenge. Most haven’t the resources to assign a second server to the table, and asking a waiter to handle a table twice as large as usual with no additional resources puts a strain on everyone. (Think about the last dinner party you hosted – you probably swore you’d never do it again. Now think about the additional pressure you would have felt if your business reputation, future ability to attract clients, and earn a living was at stake.) The tour booked two tables, one for 5, and the tough one, one for 10. We sat with the larger group and everything worked out very well indeed.

This may, or may not, have been a typical “high end” tour group meal, but for anyone planning an evening out with, or without, another couple it offers a baseline experience. Our reservation was promptly and cheerfully honored. The table for ten was not stuck off in serving Siberia, some members of our party had a clear view of the open kitchen. Not only were we presented with the regular menu, our waitress recited the specials, once at each end of the table. Wine was included in our “deal” – and the white and red proffered flowed freely. The red, of which I partook, was a wonderful Bilal-Haut (probably, though I can’t be absolutely certain, a 2012) from southern France. It had significant body, smooth tannins and a taste of ripe plums on the finish. It was a thoughtful and appropriate pairing for any of the grilled red meats on the menu. I cannot speak to the choice of white wine, though I did notice smiles when it was sipped by others n the group – so I assume it was of similar quality.

I started with the Salt and Szechuan Squid. Lightly battered, perfectly cooked, the salt and szechuan pepper dusting was sharp and quite literally, mouthwatering. Milady enjoyed the chopped salad of kale, carrot and orange with a lemon dressing. It was festooned with slivered almonds and left her palate ready for her main course. Being in England, she ordered Dover sole grilled with lemon caper butter enhanced with mashed anchovies. Her perfectly filleted piece arrived attractively arranged, and with the spinach on the side. Her reaction was pure enjoyment – and despite her tredipations about London and English cuisine, she enjoyed every bite.

Tonight’s special was exactly what I craved. A magnificent hunk of chateaubriand (offered in any size from 11oz to 17oz, cut to order) charcoal grilled (they noted their grill is a Jaspar) to perfection (however you might conceive of it), and two sides. I feasted on a 12oz, medium rare hunk of beef with individual onion rings and sauteed portobello mushrooms. Here’s what separates really good wait staffs from great ones, and great ones from the immortals: my filet arrived on a plank with a head of perfectly roasted garlic but the mushrooms, and the bleu cheese sauce, were absent. That can easily happen when a waiter is juggling so many dishes at once, but it really shouldn’t. A request for the missing mushrooms was honored almost instantaneously (leading me to believe there just wasn’t enough room initially for them on the tray and they got overlooked) but the sauce never arrived…

Milady ordered the strawberry cheesecake and was disappointed. It was bedded on crumbled shortbread biscuits (cookies on our side of the Atlantic) and was creamier rather than cheesier. The result was a sweeter and less flavorful presentation than her tastebuds were expecting. I ordered the dark chocolate and honeycomb mousse. Mine was everything I had hoped it would be – dark chocolate flavor raised from its natural bitterness by pieces of sweet honeycomb. Sigh. The cappucino which ended the meal could not have been more perfect. Frothy, balanced and HOT!
I will freely admit the prepaid nature of the meal may have added to my sense of contentment, but as I sit here sipping my Jura 16 single malt as a digestif, I’d prefer to think it was all the result of great food being served by a knowledgable and caring staff. Or, maybe it really was Gordon Ramsey’s doing after all. Bravo!

All the World’s a Stage (and London’s at the Center)

Our first day in London actually began the day before (or was it the day after? Time zones confuse my inner chronometer when too many are crossed too in a single voyage). We strolled from the hotel to a little place, chosen at random along our route, for a pre-theatre dinner. The Parisienne style bistro was called Pierre Victoire and was reasonably priced, offered palatable food, and a waitstaff of surpassing competence. A pleasant surprise when one considers its name might be translated as “Stone(d) Victory”. Regrettably, the theatre performance of “Miss Saigon” we attended was less successful. Burdened with a dated, clichéed storyline the actors responded with the same lack of enthusiasm most Americans had for the Vietnam War as it wound down. They did their duty, but no heroic actions were forthcoming and the outcome was inevitable.

In the morning we awoke to a serious overcast and continuing URI symptoms. A hot shower, a good breakfast and tickets for a matinée at The Globe (to say nothing of the last doses of a z-pack and pseudoephedrine) provided the necessary loin-girdings,and we set off to conquer the Underground. London’s Underground is one of those things that every city might do well to consider. It’s clean, well-lit, signs are abundant and informational, and the escalators work. You can buy a day pass from a human clerk who will cheerfully provide directions to your intended destination and say “Thank you” at the conclusion of the transaction. (I will admit that Paris comes very close, but the “Merci” is sometimes strained, or more often, elided.) It is also remarkably quiet and fast, whisking us to our destination in less time than allotted (though not as fast as the TARDES).

Our intended stop was Southwark, the Underground station closest to the Tate Modern. Clear signs showed the correct “Way Out” to choose, and once at street level, a series of bright orange lampposts delineated the path. The Tate Modern is the epitome of what a museum should be to establish and maintain art as a vital part of a community. It started life as a powerplant, so the physical space is enormous. There are six huge floors for collections which can be displayed in spaces large enough for the most monumental of works, and smaller spaces carved from the larger ones to promote greater intimacy. Along that contemplative thought line, the works are physically accessible – one is asked specifically not to touch them, but one would have no trouble making contact if that was one’s intent. (The British are exponentially ahead of everyone else in understanding that one cannot prevent bad guys and madmen from damaging or destroying cultural icons, but that the bad guys win anyway if, to “protect” these things, we lock them away from everyone.) There are areas explicitly and thoughtfully designed for younger people (read 14 years old and under) which include magnificent computer drawing stations (thank you Michael Bloomberg), three dimensional sculptural blocks and active play areas. Finally, the museum (as are all British museums) is FREE! A donation is suggested, but there are no cashiers watching the plexiglass boxes adorning the lobby, and the amount requested is modest. (The humans recently took their four year old grandson to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the “suggested” admission for 4 adults and one pre-schooler exceeded $100 – enough to discourage short, casual, just for fun visits. Perhaps our lower scores on global tests is related to a lack of shared values – and in turn a lack of shared values reflects a lack of sharing of our common treasures.)

Lunch was on the sixth floor at the Tate Modern – looking out at the Thames crossed by the Millenium Bridge and St.Paul’s on the other side. The food was nice – not worthy of a special visit, but certainly well above what passes for dining at most museums. I’ll try to review it separately, but don’t hold your breath. Briefly, excellent scallops as a starter, perfectly seared and nicely plated. Perfectly good bavette, prepared medium rare as requested and “chips” that were fresh, crisp, and essentially flavorless. A nice glass of reasonably priced red wine rounded out the repast. Adequately sized portions, friendly service and spectacular views. In keeping with my current FAA instructions to reduce my take-off weight to under 13 stones, dessert has been jettisoned as a regularly scheduled mid-day meal item.

Following lunch, a brief walk along the Embankment brought us to The Globe Theatre. A modern interpretation (health and safety codes weren’t nearly as stringently enforced in Shakespeare’s day as they are today) of the original, it lacks a complete roof, has stalls with benches, and pit for the groundlings. We were entertained by Dr. Scroggy’s War – an early 21st century look at an early 20th century event, treating casualties of World War I trench warfare. The cast was enthusiastic, the writing occasionally compelling, and the entire experience completely worthwhile.

Returning to The Langham was somewhat more challenging than anticipated. The human male’s internal navigation system apparently needed rebooting, or had succumbed to a nasty virus. Five minutes walk in entirely the wrong direction was followed by seven minutes on a less incorrect heading, followed by the hailing of a London taxi. Marvelous invention that it is, the London hack carried us across the Thames only to come to a dead stop somewhere in the vicinity of Oxford Circus. After 5£ of waiting time, the cabbie offered to perform a U turn on a major London thoroughfare as somewhere beyond the next traffic signal, the authorities had closed the road until further notice. We abandoned the cab and used Shank’s Mare for the remaining 9 furlongs.

We returned to our room at The Langham, a spacious abode with views to both the north and east from the sixth floor windows. Immediately east is the All Soul’s Church which has a magnificent Romanesque steeple. Just beyond it is the BBC World Headquarters which, for some reason I cannot begin to fathom, has what looks like a giant empty pilsner glass on the roof. Beyond that is the BT Tower with a neat purple band and the letters “BT” in white up at the top. I’ll try to get a picture of them so you can see what I mean – but the Freudian implications for the true underlying motivations in British culture are inescapable. I have more to tell, but the hour is late and I am weary. To borrow an appropriate phrase from the ultimate observer of Dr. Johnson and Britain, Boswell, “…and so to bed.”

Lasserre, Paris, France – May 24, 2014

Before we go any further I need to enter several disclaimers. First, – no starving children anywhere were harmed in any way by the eating of this meal. Second, – any similarity between the names of the human male who is the consort of Milady and the name of this restaurant is strictly coincidental. Finally, – any conclusion drawn by the reader or other consumer of this review about anything mentioned in this review should be referred to a competent authority before being accepted as anything other than the independent impression of a slightly off-center dragon. (Are the lawyers satisfied?)

Lasserre is in an elite group of restaurants around world whose wine list prices read like the national budget account of a third world country. The prices on the food menu are so secret that they are actually printed only on the menu of the presumed host. This is a serious attempt to prevent one’s guests from suffering severe altitude sickness should they ever glimpse them. The waiters (no waitresses here for obviously sexist reasons) are dressed in real tuxedos, are groomed to a fare-thee-well, and are far more handsome than the guests. Finally, the roof opens and closes silently during the evening to allow the accumulated hot air to dissipate without disturbing the diners.

Our reservation was honored promptly and we were escorted by private elevator to the second floor dining room. In truth, the room was elegant and tastefully decorated with golden silk wall paper, fine Empire furniture with linens, bone china, crystal and silver to match. It was probably the most classically beautiful room I’ve ever encountered. The cartes des vins (multiple – one red, one white) magically rotate, depending on which edge is presented to the reader; one is presented with either the “better” or “inferior” (truly a relative measure, there was nothing second rate about any of the wines) selections. The rouge carte was presented with a flourish. The menus were short and to the point. This is a kitchen that knows what it does well, and refuses to even contemplate a presentation that is not extraordinary. After very careful consideration, I chose a fine Loire Valley Chinon vintage 2005 from a named, but unfamiliar vineyard. Light, with an elegantly refined edge and long follow through, I hoped I would be able to bury the cost deep in my expense account. To prevent any claims of light-headedness on the part of anyone, two amuse bouches were presented. One was a delight basket of parmesan sticks – gently warmed and just the right size to pop in one’s mouth without thinking, or having to bite. [Slurp.] The other was a lovely melange of fresh spring vegetables with a light sauce served on a slice of country bread divided into four bite-sized morsels.

Starters were listed in descending price order. Being a dragon of distinct tastes, I started at the top and ordered macaroni and cheese, for slightly more than I usually spend on dinner for two with appropriate wine. It was extraordinary. The pasta was stuffed with foie gras, covered with more black truffles than most places have in their kitchens on a very good night and augmented with a veal sauce. Under no circumstances would I ever consider serving this mac and cheese to anyone under the age of thirty, nor to anyone with a cholesterol issue; it gave new meaning to “rich” food, and was delicious. Milday chose this evening to compare last night’s preparation of white asparagus against this evening’s platinum standard. (The asparagus was weighed and the value of an equal weight of platinum was charged.) Perfection isn’t cheap. The asparagus were huge, delicately flavored, steamed in lemon and bathed in a perfect hollandaise. She was thrilled.

Main courses were equally exalted – in both price and quality. Milady had real Tournedos Rossini – complete with more black truffles and a generous slice of sauteed foie gras. I snuck a little taste (but only after I received permission) and was completely convinced that these were the best I’d ever tasted. Succulent beef with rich foie gras and accented with earthy truffle flavor. Frankly I was surprised Milday wasn’t overcome – but then again, she’s tough and a mere overload to her tastebuds is unlikely to present a serious obstacle. I chose the rack of lamb – a perfect pair of chops cooked exactly right – and lamb sweetbreads served as tiny morsels to provide a contrast. Lightly steamed spring vegetables were also served, but the highlight of side dishes were puffed potatoes as perfect as those we had in Cincinnati last month. Hot, crispy suggestions of potato ready for a fleur de sel and immediate consumption. [Slurp,slurp.]

Realizing there might be some funds left in the reserve account, the waiter suggested the house specialty for dessert. The absolutely, without a doubt, best chocolate souffle I have ever, ever, ever scarfed down – accompanied by a house-made vanilla ice cream that almost convinced me that vanilla ice cream can approach greatness on a par with chocolate. Speaking of which, coffee was served with a lovely loaf of pound cake and chocolate truffles.

Upon request, the bill was presented – and the maitre d’hotel stood discreetly by with smelling salts should they prove necessary. There seemed to be very little concern that we would have any excess fund balance in our purse. We outfoxed them though – we had enough left to return to the hotel by cab after an extraordinary experience.

 

 

Les Noailles, Bordeaux, France – May 22, 2014

Milady has finally begun to adjust to la vie francaise – we dined last night at 20:30 instead of our usual routine with dinner at 6PM. There’s nothing wrong with dinner at six, except in Europe most of the restaurants, if they are even open that early, are still serving lunch. At half past eight last night, the bistro was coming alive with Bordelaises chattering away, waiters scurrying to and fro, and the music of the kitchen at full volume. The atmosphere was wonderfully alive and the people-watching superb. But first, we enjoyed a day worthy of comment.

Our day was spent visiting with a recently discovered cousin and touring the monolithic church at Aubeterre sur Dronne. We took our midday meal at L’Hotel De France in Aubeterre, dining on the menu du jour while seated outside on the village square and being astounded. The astonishment was caused by both the meal and the church. The former was a 3 course repast which began with freshly prepared shreds of duck breast wrapped in a wonton skin and flash-fried to crispy perfection. Placed on fresh watercress and graced with a side of Chinese-style duck sauce, it was just so good I would have ordered several more and been deeply satisfied. The main course was a delicious bavette (the iconic small French beefsteak) – mine was delightfully saingnant, Milday’s was too rare for her comfort, but nice glasses of the vin ordinaire made everything all right. Dessert was a light, airy lemon mousse – the acidic citron freshening the palate in preparation for the afternoon’s explorations.

The second astonishment was the monolithic church. For those unfamiliar with monolithic churches, they are churches carved from a single block of stone. There are fine examples all over the area – St. Emelion boasts one too. Actually, the one in Aubeterre is not carved from a single block, but rather into the hillside. Entered through along a wooden bridge crossing the crypt, the nave soars more than 50 feet high and is supported by huge pillars carved by hand. There is a neat little reliquary and chapel with an audio presentation of the history of the church. But the astonishment comes from climbing the interior stairway, walking the gallery, and staring down at the sanctuary. Echoes of the past gently tickled my earbones as we walked along the slightly slippery limestone – and the touch of claustrophobia along my spine didn’t stop until we emerged into the afternoon sun. The ride back to Bordeaux was enhanced by both the operatic soloes and the samba music emanating (at appropriate intervals) from the sound system. Our driver returned us safely in the late afternoon – giving us ample opportunity to stroll back to Cognac Only for souvenirs. (Just in case you were wondering, cognac turns a dragon’s fiery breath a handsome shade of blue and adds a pleasant overtone to the normally sulphuric scent.)

We conferred with the concierge to find the evening’s dining spot – Les Noailles just a scant block from our rooms was his suggestion. Milady wanted to nap and “freshen up” after our extended visit to the countryside, hence the choice of a later, but much more lively hour. The bistro is quintessentially, well, bistro. The enclosed “sidewalk” dining area with the traditionally tiny round tables and too small, slightly embarrassing chairs, gives way to a warm, wood-toned room dominated by a marble and brass bar to the right and a maze of dining tables and banquettes to the left. Tiled floors, overhead fans (turned off at the moment), brass railings and huge potted palms with overhanging fronds complete the setting. Our waiter, red apron around his waist, salt and pepper short hair, mustache and harried expression was exactly as expected.

Smiling indulgently at the human male’s attempt to speak his sacred language (it amazes me that the Mass wasn’t sung in French long before Vatican II) he brought a fine St. Estephe (Beau Site 2007), two glasses, a glass of kir royale for Milday, a bottle of sparkling water, two more glasses and bad news all at once. The kitchen was out of the requested scallops with wild mushrooms, another choice would be necessary. An ongulet (flank steak for the American audience) with sauteed leeks was suggested, as well as pommes frites. The waiter didn’t bat an eye when we decided to share a salad of chevre roti as a first course. The toasted goat cheese on a slice of baguette was smooth and creamy, the accompanying greens varied and clearly very fresh, with a very light vinagrette dressing. Off to an excellent start, the main courses did not disappoint. Milady chose a grilled sole – realizing only as the cutlery was changed that it would arrive unfileted. Normally, de-boning fish is something Milady prefers to leave either to the kitchen, or failing that, a sympathetic headwaiter; left to her own devices, she proved remarkably adept at the task. The fact the sole was grilled to perfection with a simple butter sauce probably didn’t hurt. She pronounced it delicious and looked much happier with her main course than she had been at lunch. I found my ongulet deliciously crisped on the outside, quite saignant on the inside and a marvel of chewy, beefy flavor, even without the sauteed leeks, but better for their presence. The pommes frites were everything one could hope for – crispy, incredibly hot, and ready for salt. Meanwhile, our waiter was briskly serving several tables of three, including one teenage birthday girl who was thoroughly mortified when a large slice of birthday cake, complete with dimming of the lights and a roman candle sparkler, arrived to the strains of “Bonne Anniversaire”.

The platter of desserts arrived and we chose a bistro classic – pommes tartin. Not an American style applepie, apples surrounded by a thick pastry crust, but the French version of thin butter crust underlying thin slices of Granny Smith apples dusted with just enough sugar to crystalize under the broiler. It was idyllic. Our only concern was the length of time it took to receive “l’addition” after it was requested. A table of seven ladies, the youngest of whom was easily into her seventh decade, arrived and were seated adjacent to our table. Our waiter (who was also their waiter) scrambled around trying to meet their expectations – answering questions about the preparation of the dishes, the availablity of substitutions, suggesting a single appropriate wine for seven different dishes and generally doing his job. We waited patiently and enjoyed the show – complete with French soundtrack. It was a lovely evening of Gallic drama and gastronomy played out as only the French can.

 

 

Brasserie L’Orleans, Bordeaux, France May 21, 2014

The perfect ending to a perfect day. Ostensibly the oldest brasserie in all of Bordeaux, Brasserie l’Orleans is located about a wine bottle’s throw from our hotel – but only coarse, ill-bred, barbarians (Americans) would even consider throwing a wine bottle (after all, the French theory goes, there might still be some drinkable wine in it).

We spent a very pleasant day visiting some of the chateaux on the left bank and assisting them in reducing their excess inventory so that they could bottle the 2012 contents of their aging vats when the bottling truck arrives. (Ah-ha! Mise en boutille au chateau doesn’t mean what you thought it did – don’t feel bad, I was taken aback too. More about the great Medoc wine spree in another piece later.)

Apertifs, Kir Royale for Milady and Whisky Superieur for me, were just what we needed after a strenuous day of wine-tasting at some of Bordeaux most demanding vineyards. Complex wines with nuances above my comprehension demand serious appreciation, which was duly rendered but such appreciation can be physically demanding, challenging the stamina of even the most oenologically fit. A little whisky or a kir soothes away all those stresses and leaves only the hard-won feeling of accomplishment just prior to dinner.

The appetizers were a rosy red beef carpaccio with a “rocket” salad and shaved parmesan and a trickle of balsamic vinaigrette and an asiette de jambon with grilled toast and fresh mustard.

The meats were so thinly sliced I could imagine the sun shining through them (if it hadn’t been drizzling on and off all day). The “rocket” salad was actually the anticipated arugala (someone, somewhere, somewhen translated it from Italian into English exactly that way and it stuck) salad, delicious and the generously shaved parmesan had just the right bite. The thinly sliced ham was silky with just the right amount of fat – I think great ham is the Euro-equivalent of great bacon, ubiquitous and deeply satisfying.

We chose the noisettes of lamb for our main course, and were stunned by how good they were. Three perfectly sized, perfectly cooked (again, ordered saignant and served exactly that way) tournedos of French lamb bedded on thin sliced rounds of roasted potato. Nothing interfered with our appreciation of the meat. French lamb has a distinctive, meadowy flavor. You can almost smell the grass which sustained the creature. It is virtually fat-free and tender. Oh, to be able to get such a marvel at home.

We finished with a suite of hazelnut, crème caramel and chocolate ice creams – about which the less said, the better. They were so good that if I think about them I’ll drool all over the keyboard and short it out. Milady indulged in the local pastry delicacy, caneles, and was overjoy with joy.

A place we can recommend very highly – and would, if anyone asked.  

DuBern, Bordeaux, France – May 20, 2014

Dinner in France is special. From the process of procuring a recommendation, to obtaining a reservation, to the greeting extended by the maitre d’hotel on arrival, through the perusal of the menu and the service, up until the moment of parting – the French do it better and more naturally than anyone else. Tonight was no exception. Baffled by internal clocks six hours out of phase and a sleepless trans-Atlantic crossing, we really had no clue what we wanted to do about dinner, let alone where we should be doing it.

After the obligatory recommendation of the hotel’s own restaurant (which, by the way, is excellent), the concierge recommended we try Dubern, a short stroll from the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux where we are ensconced at the present time. He offered to make our reservation, and we accepted with a sense of relief. (The human male’s facility, or lack thereof, with the virtually sacred language of Rousseau, Napolean, and Jerry Lewis returns to its somewhat suspect baseline only after the first week – and we were barely off the plane.) The afternoon drizzle had given way to a wonderful soft evening as we set out, umbrella at the ready but not immediately deployed. As advertised, the restaurant was easy to find and looked positively pleasant with comfortable tables in a room whose simplicity belied its elegance.

The host greeted us as welcome guests (contrasting nicely with our earlier TSA experience) and despite the unfashionably early hour didn’t allow his demeanor to show even the remotest inkling of horror. He actually smiled at the notion that our bio-clocks thought it was a late lunch in the offing, and reminded us that traditionally the big meal of the day was eaten at midday. He took Milady’s jacket, my umbrella and handed us a menu and carte du van, promising to return and translate as necessary.

Dubern is actually two restaurants in one. There is a Michelin one-star “gastronmique”, but there is also a lovely bistro out front. As far as I could tell, the menu we were handed and the accompanying wine list contain the same offerings – they share the same cellar, kitchen and apparently the same wait staff. We ordered a lovely 2006 St. Estephe cru bourgeouise which arrived even as we were discussing the rest of the meal. The wine was smooth, not really tannic, what we have learned the French call “feminine”. It was complex, a nice balance of fruit and acid, with a bit of cedar on the nose. Very easy to drink, and exactly the right poultice to apply to our wounded psyches. (For a complete account, see my Facebook post on the indignities Milady suffered at the hands of the TSA in New York.)

My meal commenced with nine (count ‘em, 9) fresh large local oysters. They were remarkably deep-shelled and wonderfully sweet and perfectly briny with a salt tang. Milady indulged her passion for white asparagus, puff pastry, and snails with gusto. Unexpectedly, the puff pastry was a crispy rolled tube containing several stalks. The tube, deliciously wrapped in bacon, was bedded on watercress. The snails were walking in a line across the greens, almost like little ducklings following their mother across the park. The entire assemblage was gently draped with a sauce Maltaise.

I chose the filet de boeuf Islay, and was delighted. A lovely bavette had been marinated in Islay malt whisky and grilled. Ordered “saignant” it arrived as ordered – medium rare, with an accompanyment of exquisitely grilled vegetables. The vegetables were fresh and presumably local; a carrot, a stalk of fennel, two leeks, and triangular lengths of cucumber and squash. It was heavenly. Milady had one of her favorite finny fish – John Dory. The fish was gently grilled and bedded on more white asparagus, then topped with a perfect Mornay. I could see the tension of travel melt from Milady’s visage as she took her first bite.

Best of all, dinner concluded with a shared “tarte de citron” and mojito sorbet. The coolness of the mint a perfect contrast to the sweet sharpness of the lemon. We strolled back to the Grande Hotel more complete, physically, psychically and spiritually than when we had left our abode more than two hours earlier. 

Boca – Cincinnati, OH – April 19, 2014

The longest running 5 star restaurant in Cincinnati (indeed La Maisonette, which may have been the longest running 5 star restaurant in the US) was located on exactly the same site as Boca. After this evening’s dinner, I am 100% certain that those ghosts are at peace, if not the tiniest bit jealous.

Boca is everything a destination restaurant should be. The room is magnificent, a beautiful bar on the left as you enter, an open kitchen directly ahead, a wonderful staircase up to private dining room (and restrooms), and an elegantly appointed dining room with a crystal chandelier out of another era, set the stage for a meal to remember. Wood, leather, glass and a sense of style to bring them all together to accent the culinary offerings are the hallmarks of Boca.

Promptly seated (despite the absence of Roger and Janet) at a table offering both the best view of the well-appointed bar and the bustling kitchen, Milady and I were instantly put in the best possible frame-of-mind to enjoy our evening. Both the winelist and the food menu are tightly focused – they present carefully crafted opportunities to dine extraordinarily well, at a reasonable price. We began with cocktails – we were given the leisure to enjoy them while socializing and mentally preparing ourselves to step back from the day and step into the evening. My restaurant experiences suggest that the special moment to do that, make the transition from chaos to harmony, is sometimes overlooked. In fact, it may be the single most important element in dinner preparation, because without it, the chef is competing against a myriad of distractions she/he cannot possibly prepare to confront.

The menu is user friendly. Appetizers, small plates, salads, pastas, main courses and sides are thoughtfully arranged – and smaller portions are graciously offered. We ordered the very special pommes souffle to accompany our cocktails. These fries are what every “ranch fry” should want to be when it grows up. The shape is the same, but these have been refried in super hot oil, causing the amazingly crispy outside crust to become completely filled with hot air. (A more descriptive name for them might well be Pommes Politico.) Sprinkled with fleur de sel the pommes are the ultimately decadent members of the “French fry” family, and indulging in them might tempt one not to bother with the rest of the menu. Do not make that mistake, for more wonders await you.

I began the feast with the scallop crudo. Ever so slightly salty and gently flattened into a plate-filling pancake, then drizzled with a carrot and ginger balsamic glaze, the crudo was anything but crude. It was sublime, and just the right size to whet my appetite for the main course. Milady and Janet enjoyed the grilled romaine, and Roger chose the seafood risotto. From where I sat, everyone seemed to be savoring each mouthful, and the conversation lagged just a tad as attentions were directed towards the food. At about this point the sommelier arrived with our wine. It was a 2010 Bordeaux, a Fronsac from Chateau Beauséjour. The 2010 vintage, while still young, has a wonderful balance of fruit and tannin that will make it very hard to discipline oneself to wait while the wine reaches towards its full potential. In any case (may I have two please? One for the cellar and one to drink while the cellared case matures), it was delicious and a real bargain. Another thing to like about Boca – they know great wine doesn’t need to be expensive; though the list does include some stunners, including a vertical flight of Pomerols priced to explore the stratosphere, it also contains several very good wines at very reasonable prices.

I have occasionally tweaked my friends and family about Beef Wellington, remarking that all of them are too wary of my criticism to attempt serving me this paragon of culinary art. For those of you who have forgotten, or tried to, Beef Wellington is a perfect filet of beef slathered with foie gras and wrapped in a butter pastry dough. It is then roasted, sliced and plated with a Perigourdine sauce (reduced veal stock, fresh foie gras and truffles, and I think a hint of cognac). The tricky part is getting the pastry wrapper perfectly baked while not over- or under-cooking the filet. Mine arrived beautifully medium rare, as ordered, as did Roger’s, and if I have any criticism at all, it was that I thought the perigourdine was a bit too salty. Milady chose the Boca Filet – a butterflied small steak with an enchanting sauce of butter, cream and chunks of king crab and Janet had an elegant filet of bronzino.

I’d love to tell you about dessert – but I’d have to invent it from whole tuile de chocolat. As I struggle to retain my FAA air-worthiness certificate, I find there are times when my favorite course is best left to my imagination. Milady and I left with the pleasant thought that not only were we left with the memory of a wonderful meal, we also have another reason to return to Cincinnati for dinner at Boca.

 

Salazar – Cincinnati, OH – April 18, 2014

“T’was the eighteenth of April…” and we returned to Cincinnati to celebrate with our friends the Achs. Our evening started with a “Mad Men” event at the Hamilton County Memorial Hall, great little bites, an open bar and toute la ville. Dress for the evening ranged from currently chic to fabulously Fifties, and everything in between. Being an event at the Memorial Hall the entertainment featured a band and singer who serenaded us with wonderful oldies, featuring tunes made famous by Sinatra, Damone, and Milady’s all-time favorite, Bobby Darin. The performance space is simultaneously intimate and spacious. The acoustics were wonderful, and sitting only a short distance from the stage created a wonderful bond with the entertainers. Being able to see facial expressions and also be far enough away that one could get a sense of the entire venue was enchanting. After the concert there was dancing and more liquid merriment and suddenly I was reconsidering my “humans are helpmates not hors d’oeuvres” pledge (taken centuries ago and NEVER violated). Fortunately our friends Roger and Janet picked exactly that moment to round us up and shepherd us across the park to Salazar.

Cincinnati is filled with beautiful repurposed (or artfully reconstructed) late nineteenth century buildings and Salazar is housed in one on 14th Street just off the park. There is an indoor/outdoor counter seating perhaps six close friends, a modest room filled on the right by a classic bar running two-thirds the length of the room and down the left and around the bar tables for two or four. The acoustics, in contrast to the Music Hall, are appropriately loud, making conversation more challenging – but no less interesting. The crowd looks to be young, on the hip side, and out to enjoy themselves for the evening.

We were seated immediately (I suspect because Roger was greeted as a friend and regular visitor) at a comfortable table and our young (aren’t they all these days?), knowledgable and eager waiter provided menus even as he inquired about preferences in libations. Milady chose a glass of an excellent (and extraordinarily reasonably priced) pinot noir. As Sr. Salazar brews his own beers, I opted for his delicious kolsch. Not too hoppy, enhanced with just the faintest hint of cardamom, served at the perfect temperature. A nectar of the gods? Probably not, but only because the ones I’ve met personally like their nectars from honey – much too sweet for my tastebuds. A nice winelist, reasonably priced, and a selection of wonderful beers, ales and cider provide appropriate potables.

The menu is billed as “New American” but that doesn’t do it justice. The cuisine at Salazar is chef-driven, I suspect very much locally sourced, eclectic and extraordinary. Both Roger and I tried to order the shrimp ceviche – sadly there was but a single serving remaining in the kitchen and he graciously allowed me to have it. Saucy shrimp,habaneros, cilantro, lime and sweet onions jumped up, invaded and completely captured my mouth, my sinuses and eventually my tummy. Balanced between the sweetness of the shrimp and the sharpness of the habeneros, the onions,lime and cilantro were perfect. Lest you think Roger suffered unduly, he enjoyed the one of the evening’s featured dishes, cod bretdande. Fresh cod, firm English green peas, mashed potatoes, butter and a couple of chef’s secret ingredients broiled exactly to the point perfection and served with “Blueoven” bread. A brief aside – anyone who has subjected her/himself to my reviews for any length of time knows that I am a Francophile, especially when it comes to bread. I may have to seriously reconsider that – Cincinnati has breads that rival or surpass any I have every enjoyed. I gather “Blueoven” is a local purveyor, if not actual baker. These breads are so good Parisians could mistake them for their own. Milady (watching her diet in preparation for our annual Bacchanal in Paris, and in recognition of the late hour) had the white asparagus salad featuring pistachios and an incredible vinegrette was thrilled, or at least her tastebuds were. She followed her salad with gravelox – cured and silky salmon that delighted her. Janet and I ordered what the menu listed as a “small oyster sandwich” which turned out to be a perfectly fried oyster set on a thin slice of daikon radish, in turn set on a mini-brioche bun, sauced with some wonderous mixture and delivered on a slice of tree (not edible). Wow! Meanwhile, Roger had the quail cassoulet. Little joints of quail, perfectly cooked in a sauce that smelled divine, even from across the table.
Sadly,the humans at the table were all short hitters, and I was unable to snag dessert. No matter, (to borrow from Douglas MacArthur) I shall return!

The California Grill – Disney Contemporary Hotel, Orlando, FL – 1/13/2014

There is no question that maintaining high standards for 13 covers presents a waiter with some significant challenges. Now if 2 of the party are vegetarians, another is pregnant, three are hatchlings (under the age of 8), and all consider themselves serious foodies (well, maybe only 11 of the 13), the poor soul has his work cut out for him. Abou, our server tonight at the California Grill, nearly overcame the challenges the gods laughingly sent his way. Unfortunately the restaurant’s billing computer betrayed his good intentions and made his job more difficult than it should have been; the kitchen, on the other For those of you who have never had the pleasure of dining at the California Grill, it is one of the few real restaurants within the boundaries of DisneyWorld. It sits atop the Contemporary Hotel (that’s the one where the monorail runs through the building) on the 15th floor. It has a commanding view of the Magic Kingdom and many of its tables offer unparalled views of the fireworks shows which grace Cinderella’s Castle several times each week. It has a virtually captive audience – the number of serious dining establishments in the metro Orlando area can be counted using less than the claws on two forepaws.
The flatbreads (a tomato and mozzarella and a pork and apple) were delicious, and appeared almost as soon as they were requested. Each was sliced into 8 bite-sized pieces; they were prefect little introductions to the meal – and prevented certain hatchlings from noticing it was somewhat beyond their usual feeding times. MiLady ordered a kale and apple salad as a starter. It arrived in a lateral presentation; four small, gracefully shaped mounds of lightly steamed kale with matchsticks of apple and a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The taste was almost good enough to make me interested in green leafy things.
The wine list comes in two distinct parts. A nice, but very limited, selection is presented in the same menu folder which houses the carte du jour. Several reds and whites presented thereon are separated by their component varietal grapes (though not by country of origin). The actual wine menu arrived when requested, and contained wines which were more interesting, but significantly more expensive – I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that, but we were undeterred. We ordered a magnum of a Carneros Pinot Noir 2009, and a bottle of a lovely 2010 California reisling. Both were applauded by the drinkers, and were completely in keeping with our expectations for their style and price.
The menu features a relatively small, but well-chosen selection of entrees. MiLady’s request for the bison steak cooked medium to medium well was refused – with a sincere apology and an explanation that the chef believes that cooking bison to that degree would result in a tough, stringy, nearly inedible filet – and he is unwilling to present such a dish to his patrons. BRAVO! The recommendation was that MlLady order the beef, grilled over an oak fire, which could be prepared to her liking. She agreed, the beef was presented cooked to her preference, and the result was a completely delicious meal. Naturally I ordered the bison, medium rare; the filet was presented carved into beautiful slices with charred edges and deeply flavorful. Others around the table ordered other entrees and seemed pleased with their meals. The chicken served the youngest hatchling pleased him – and the unconsumed portion was boxed so that he could enjoy it either as a midnight snack or as breakfast. Our vegetarian friends ordered both of the vegetarian dishes – one a lovely-looking medley of four small plates, the other an attractively plated dish of gnocchi. They seemed pleased, but I’m not a good judge of such things.
Desserts were along the expected lines – a chocolate pudding cake garnered approval, and the lemon cheesecake, made with marscapone, was a delight. The piece de resistance, however, was the live fireworks show from the Magic Kingdom – it was a treat.
The bill was significant – and contained a serious error. While we had ordered and consumed but a single bottle of the riesling, we were charged for two. The error was compounded because the included tip was 18%, and on an imaginary bottle of wine that left me unthrilled. Much to the credit of all, once pointed out the error was corrected immediately, and with no fuss. As compensation for the amount of tip “lost” by correcting the erroneous wine charge , I raised the tip to 20% of the corrected amount and we all went home happy.

Wolfgang Puck’s Dining Table – Disney World, Orlando, FL – 1/10/2014

When we left home this morning it was snowing. Great swirling clouds of flakes threatened our departure and the de-icing of the commercial aircraft the humans insisted on using, caused giant orange liquid cascades outside the windows. Our departure was less than an hour behind schedule, and our arrival in the Magic Kingdom was scarcely more than 4 hours after departing the comfort and safety of the nest. The weather in Orlando was a balmy 80+ with a medium overcast and semi-tropical heaviness to the atmosphere. Traveling such a short distance, both temporally and latitudinally normally doesn’t induce the same feelings of displacement I experienced today, though perhaps they presaged my feelings about tonight’s dinner.
Wolfgang Puck is a culinary icon. His emphasis on local ingredients, without the stridency of being a contemporary locavore, and preparation, without being a martinet to tradition, always struck me as exemplary, and I was thrilled when the humans made reservations for dinner at the Dining Table in Downtown Disney. Surely the experience would be memorable and the titillations of my palate exquisite – and they were, though not exactly congruent with my expectations.
Let me start by saying that everything here is LOUD. From the crowds on the buses (and I’m not referring solely to their habilments) to the ambient noise level in a well-designed, nicely appointed (and not inexpensive) venue, it was as if someone left the volume knob slightly right of center, and then left the room in search of something a bit more refined. Or, perhaps my ears were still ringing with the roar of the jet engines which brought us here. (Murghk, let this go down as yet another reason for traveling by TARDIS whenever feasible.) The Dining Table is one flight up from the Cafe on Pleasure Island, and has a lovely view out across the bay(?). The staff is, excuse the expression, “perky”, courteous and cheerful to a fault. The menu is relatively simple and completely in keeping with my perception Puck’s iconic repetoire.
Having been in-transit for the better part of the day, we had dispensed with lunch, eating only a small container of hummus and pretzel chips and a liter of water during our travels. Naturally we required a stronger libation to consume while we perused the menu, but the establishment lacked a written carte des ecosses (a list of single malts). Our waiter did make a list of the offerings from behind the bar, and we chose our favorite 12 year old Glenfiddich (there being no 15 year old available) as a point of departure for the evening. The accompanying rosemary foccacia was mildly disappointing, being slightly cooler than the scotch, though the flavors of both deepened nicely as they warmed to room temperature…
A fine kale salad, large enough to be comfortably shared, as a starter was enjoyable. It was presented beautifully, the kale mounded into a light green haystack with nifty little dribbles of dressing delineating its edges. We particularly liked the small cubes of polenta which replaced traditional croutons, and the balsamic vinegar dressing which served to wake up the tastebuds so that they could appreciate the kale. Most satisfactory.
The wine list was modest – a thoughtful, though restrained selection with few bottles outside the chardonnay, chablis, pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet universe. The offerings were not inexpensive, but not grotesquely overpriced either. We chose a Simi Alexander Valley 2010 cabernet in the middle of the price range, and enjoyed it without being overcome with ecstasy. It was good and worked well with our chosen entrees.
MiLady ordered the miso-glazed salmon, and was not disappointed. A proper filet, cooked to a glorious pale pink was proffered atop a hillock of lightly sauteed green vegetables. It was pleasing to both the eye and the palate. Wolfgang Puck’s variation of classic steak au poivre was intriguing. Instead of French green peppercorns and a cognac-based brown sauce, the kitchen employs Sichuan peppercorns in a sauce which bore more resemblance to a good red wine reduction than a “cognac with a touch of cream” sauce. It was interesting, and something I would happily sample again. Sadly, the New York strip on which it resided was a disappointment. Ordered medium rare, it arrived medium rare – but with a soft outer finish indicating it was neither grilled on a hot enough iron, nor pan-sauteed over a hot enough burner – it may have been broiled, but too far from the flame to acquire a proper crust. Too bad, because the quality seemed reasonable, the sauce quite flavorful, but the ensemble fell short of iconic status. The roasted red potatoes accompanying the steak also suffered from insufficient cooking heat, they were completely cooked through, but the skins were moist and limp when they should have been a crusty contrast to their soft, creamy centers.
Desserts were a high point. The keylime pie, served as an individual tartlet, was really outstanding – and the meringue twirled on it was perfect – light and just browned at its edges. I did a major calorie splurge and ordered the bittersweet chocolate ganache. Two kindling sticks of ganache served with small chunks of nut brittle and a dollop of maple ice cream were delicious – and probably provided sufficient calories to offset a full week of serious exercise.
I’ll close by noting the food was good – but not as transcendent as I had dreamed it would be, given the level I had expected.