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Archive for March, 2011

Me Jimmy, you Hendrick’s

31 Mar

This brilliant device measures the amount of gin left in a Hendrick's bottle.

If I were to write another book, it might well be a history of gin. It is the most fascinating spirit, especially at 70-percent alcohol by volume, and at 10 o’clock in the morning. The location was DEQ bar at the new Ritz-Carlton hotel, Toronto; my excuse was an opportunity to spend time with Xavier Padovani, global ambassador for Hendrick’s gin, on one of his very rare visits to our city.

What do you have to do to become a Global Ambassador? Padovani is a Corsican who ended up in Lyon with a year to kill before his national service and started working for Paul Bocuse. He moved to London and worked at Quaglino’s, first downstairs, then upstairs at the bar, wearing a white jacket and mixing lunchtime cocktails for the gentry. He opened a number of clubs in London, frequently nipping over to Paris to create “exclusive drink experiences” at Philippe Starck’s renowned Bon II and Kong and, more recently Mama Shelter. At 36, he’s currently a partner at ECC Chinatown, a bar in London’s West End that I will be visiting next month and which I hope will serve as an informal HQ for the group of keen Canadians coming to see the Olympics in 2012, courtesy of Gold Medal Plates.

Meanwhile, last week, Padovani was in Toronto, a ball of energy and a mine of information about Hendrick’s. As a brand, it’s a newcomer – just 10 years old, the creation of the Scottish whisky distillers William Grant & Sons who also preside over Glenfiddich and the Balvenie. They have been making gin (in their distillery in Girvan, Ayrshire, Scotland, right beside the Turnberry hotel) since the 1970s, when they distilled and bottled a private order for Lord Lichfield, the Queen’s cousin, but it was strictly an occasional sideshow until they devised Hendrick’s.

Like people or dreams, every gin is different. Every distiller creates his or her own recipe of botanicals (fruits, seeds, flowers, barks, spices, whatever) that will give the spirit its immediate flavour. Juniper is always in there somewhere, but some are heavy with it while others are tangy with citrus, exotic with floral notes or, in the case of Hendrick’s, proudly and elegantly aflaunt with the scent of rose petals and cucumber. This isn’t like a wine with a bouquet that makes one think of cedar or black currants. The reason Hendrick’s smells of these things is that actual rose petal essence and cucumber essence are added to the spirit after it has been distilled. Nothing wrong with that. But it does mean that this gin can’t describe itself as in the London Dry style, because one can only add more alcohol, or sugar or water to the distilled spirit for it to be technically London Dry gin. Hendrick’s, with its fragrant addenda, is officially a “distilled gin.”

But that isn’t the whole story behind its complicated genesis. Two different stills are used to create it. One is a Bennett still, built in 1860, in which the mixture of botanicals is steeped for 24 to 36 hours in alcohol and then boiled until the oily vapour rises, is captured and condensed. The other is a Carter-Head still, a more complex contraption with a thick neck containing innumerable fine copper plates and a basket in which the dried plants are carefully piled. The whisps of ethereal ethyl pass through the botanicals, picking up the ghosts of their aromatics.

Xavier Padovani, persuasive ambassador for Hendrick's gin and spiritual advisor, explaining a doctrinal point

Padovani demonstrated the difference for me by inviting me to taste the spirit from each still, diluted down from 96% to around 70%. The Bennett still spirit is massively fragrant but when Padovani adds water it turns cloudy white, like arak, as the molecules of essential oils from the botanicals come out of suspension. The same trick played on the Carter-Head spirit fails to cloud its clarity: there are simply far fewer oils in this one – and indeed the aroma is more subtle and the taste more fleeting.

Master Distiller Lesley Gracie blends the products of the two stills in a secret ratio to create Hendrick’s before adding the rose and cucumber essences. And she does an excellent job. Hendrick’s markets itself cleverly as a gin that not everyone will appreciate and enjoy. The reverse is true. It’s very easy to love, with the pungency of its juniper hidden behind a fresh and pretty mask of cucumber and rose and orange peel. Wherever it is deployed in taste tests, it wins converts from the monotonous world of vodka and even from the loyal congregations of other brands of gin.

Padovani’s secret weapon as a proselytizer is a cocktail called the Renaissance, created by the barman at ECC Chinatown, Nico de Soto. To make it you must shake together 2 cl of Hendrick’s gin, 2 cl of freshly squeezed lemon juice, 2 cl of rhubarb syrup and 4 cl of Aperol (a particularly delectable red vermouth from Italy that has something of the herbal, bittersweet intensity of Cynar). Add a pinch of salt then shake it, strain it into a large wine glass half filled with ice and top up the whole thing with Champagne. A rhubarb stick is the unnecessary garnish.

The Renaissance - a fine start to the day

Padovani had the bartender at DEQ make one up for me. It was beautiful – a sort of coral red – and very delicious. The salt mitigated the acidity of the lemon, rhubarb and wine and while the first five seconds of each sip were spent in rapt appreciation of the refreshing components with their hint of Hendrick’s, the whole game suddenly changed as the vermouth kicked in at the back of the palate. It was like listening to choirboys singing and then all at once the tenors and basses and the rest of the choir come in with contrapuntal harmonies. Something of a revelation.

I do not believe a man needs to restrict himself to a single brand of gin. If, however, that were the case, I suppose I would belong to the Plymouth brethren. Tasting the Renaissance, I confess I felt the tug of this new Scottish doctrine, especially with Padovani whispering its virtues as I drank… One day, sooner or later, the moment will come when I order a gin and tonic and the waiter will innocently inquire whether I’d prefer Plymouth or Hendrick’s gin. What will my answer be? Tongue-tied I turn and stare with bewildered anxiety into the camera… Hold that look, Jimmy… Hold it… Hold it please… And… cut.

 

East & Main, Prince Edward County

27 Mar

The Main event - fillet of cheval with mushrooms, green beans and potato rosti

Twenty-four hours in Prince Edward County is a surprisingly effective getaway – at least it was this weekend, with dazzling blue skies and bright sunshine belying the sub-zero temperatures. The roads and the beaches were empty, the meadows and copses free of the snow that we left behind in Toronto but still poised in winter’s palette of orange and grey. There was ice on the ponds though the ever-present lake glittered temptingly blue, the water as clear as glass. I had driven down to check out two wineries – Sandbanks and Grange of Prince Edward – for an article for Food & Drink magazine. That meant spending the night and that meant having dinner. I’ve been hoping to eat at East & Main in Wellington since it opened two years ago. Here at last was an opportunity.

Wellington is all charm, a village right on the water with enough lovingly restored Victorian houses to satisfy any need for the picturesque. There is one traffic light on Main street and East & Main is close by, a former bulk food store bought, renovated and run by Kimberly Humby and her husband David O’Connor. Kimberly was the gifted sommelier and chef de service at the Fifth in its early days, talents that subsequently took her to YYZ, Fat Cat, Far Niente and Langdon Hall; David is also a sommelier and wine consultant. Moving down to the County and becoming part of the adventure of a nascent wine and food destination has been a long-held dream of them both. The chef is Lili Sullivan who was chef at Peter Oliver’s short-lived Chapeau in the ’90s and then at the Rebel House where she cooked the best pub food in Toronto for seven years before moving down to the County.

So – a talented line-up! And the space is lovely. The old wooden floor has a certain undulation, though not enough to cause the wooden tables to wobble. The bar is right in the middle of the room and one can see into the kitchen at the rear so there is always a visible, lively bustle to energize the ambience. Gourmet treats and local delicacies in jars and bottles are on sale, temptingly arrayed on shelves made of repurposed barn boards; the colour scheme is mostly a mellow grey-green, the consciously rural décor offset by a number of fancy chandeliers. We didn’t know it, but this weekend is Countylicious and the place was packed with locals eager to try the generous $30 prix-fixe menu. The kitchen offered to put together a tasting menu for the two of us, with Kimberly matching the dishes to local wines. The idea was irresistible.

We began with a flute of Hinterland’s 2007 sparkling rosé, a fine bubbly the colour of peach glass and full of the refreshingly lean County acidity and an intriguing minerality on the finish. East & Main’s wine list (David O’Connor’s on-going project) is a thing of beauty with over 100 wines, of which more than half proudly carry the local acronym PEC VQA. The mark-up is notably low, offering a fine opportunity to explore the tastes of the region and hard-to-find vintages such as 2007.

Gnocchi in mushroom consomme await the culinary napalm of flaming brandy

Our first dish needed no wine – would have killed one, in fact. It was a delicate mushroom consommé containing three drowned gnocchi that had first been pan-fried to give their light, fluffy surface a browned suggestion of crispness. The miniature bowls were set down before us then Kimberly poured on flaming brandy from a tiny jug. It was a dramatic coup de service but my gasp of admiration blew out the brandy prematurely which left a lot in the consommé and masked some of its mushroomy nuances.

The next dish was right off the menu, and part of the Countylicious offering for those fortunate bargain-hunters – a jumble of perfectly seared sweetbreads, local mushrooms and crispy parsnip ribbons piled high on a disc of maple-roasted sweet potato. A rich meaty port reduction was the unctuous sauce. Kimberly paired it with an off-dry 2009 Riesling from Sandbanks – a huge contrast to the deep, dark flavours of the dish but a triumph in the end.

Onwards to three impeccably tender ravioli filled with creamy, very flavourful duck confit. The little squares were outlined from beneath by a red wine-mushroom reduction and topped with buttery oyster mushrooms seasoned with pepper and sprinkled with a little chopped parsley. This time the wine match was more conventional – Trumpour’s Mill 2007 Pinot Noir made by the Grange of Prince Edward, a delicious, beautifully knit Pinot with a more intense flavour than the nose would suggest.

Perfect duck confit ravioli outlined by red wine sauce

Juicy pickerel fillets from the Bay of Quinte were the next act on the program, hidden beneath thin “scales” of potato like pommes Anna. Under the fish was a jumble of ribbons cut from multi-coloured carrots that had survived the winter in the field and were as sweet as they were crunchy. With this we drank Casa Dea’s limpid, spicy Pinot Gris.

Our main course was a lean, exceptionally tender fillet of horse meat wrapped in cawl fat that pressed a brunoise of mushroom against the muscle. With this came potato rösti and green beans and another saucy reduction. Fieldstone vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc was exactly the right wine to bring out the taste of the meat.

Dessert was a raisin butter tart that contained an unexpected surprise – little flecks of maple-smoked bacon. It’s a dish I will have to return to some day when I haven’t eaten quite so much…

I’m delighted to add East & Main to the ever-growing list of County treasures. We walked back to the little inn where we were staying and couldn’t help but notice the breathtaking blaze of stars in the moonless sky. Such a cold night made them sparkle more brightly than I have ever seen in my life, on any of the six continents I have visited. No wonder so many people are drawn to this enchanted almost-island. East & Main is at 270 Main Street, Wellington, Prince Edward County. 613-399-5420. www.eastandmain.ca.

 

Ocean Wise Seafoodie contest

23 Mar

Mike McDermid of Ocean Wise was in Toronto today and we got together for a coffee at Epic in the Fairmont Royal York hotel. I trust everyone knows by now what Ocean Wise is…? For those who don’t, it’s a conservation initiative started in 2005 by the Vancouver Aquarium, created to educate and empower consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. It works directly with restaurants, markets, food services and suppliers to provide them with the most current scientific information regarding seafood, to help them and consumers make ocean-friendly buying decisions.

And it’s doing well. There are now 3,100 businesses across Canada that have signed on to Ocean Wise – though it’s more than just scribbling your moniker on the dotted line. A chef has to earn the right to put the Ocean Wise logo on his or her menu by proving to McDermid and his team that he or she understands the issues thoroughly, has read up on the latest information and can explain the why and wherefore to a customer. This is not a finger-wagging, smack-them-upside-the-head organisation, As McDermid says, “People don’t like to be told they’re part of the problem; they like to feel they’re part of the solution,” by choosing the Ocean Wise-sanctioned B.C. spot prawns over the destructively farmed Vietnamese tiger shrimp, the sardine over the sole.

As I said, there are 3,100 businesses in Canada – but only 30 restaurants in the GTA. Not a very impressive count. I’m tempted to list the names of the righteous but you can probably guess who they are. You can find all the info at www.oceanwise.ca and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ocean.wise. That’s also the place to learn about the latest Ocean Wise project – a way to attract Toronto’s attention by finding the ultimate local “seafoodie.” It’s a fascinating but rather convoluted contest that last month invited anyone interested in participating to send in a 30-second video clip demonstrating or explaining their passion for ocean-friendly eating. Now we are down to 12 semi-finalists who will have a lovely dinner in one of the participating restaurants and then create a new, 60-second video about the experience. These videos will be posted on the Ocean Wise Facebook page on April 11, for the public to vote and select the Ultimate Seafoodie.

The winning prize is pretty cool – a dinner at C5 restaurant with chef Ted Corrado; a cooking class for two at the Calphalon Culinary Centre; a 13-piece Tri-Ply stainless steel Calphalon cooking set; and the Ocean Wise cookbook.

Competition, prizes, social media, feel-good decisions… I think Ocean Wise is on to something. It reminds me a little of the Endangered Fish Alliance that got going in 2003 thanks to Toronto Life’s publisher, Michael de Pencier. He co-opted a bunch of us into a committee – Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadtländer, John Higgins, Charles Grieco amongst us – and we in turn set to work trying to change the minds of chefs and fishmongers about selling Chilean sea bass, orange roughie, bluefin tuna, et alia in their establishments. We were rather serious and stern, as I remember (no contests or games in those days) but we got the job done to a large extent, then handed the reins to other, full-time activists. I remember the frustration we often felt at having to juggle the dictats of the many different “experts” vying for authority in those days. It was just like the Life of Brian with the People’s Front of Judaea dissing the Judaean People’s Front and vice versa… Mike McDermid tells me things are better organized now with the major organisations trying hard to work in consort, each specializing in a particular piece of the puzzle.

The fate of our oceans and the harvest we derive from them is an incredibly important issue. Right now, almost every reputable academic prognosis indicates that the sea will be empty of fish by the year 2045 if we go on fishing as we are today. But imagine if we all went onto Facebook and voted for our favourite Seafoodie, and did it in such numbers that the whole idea went viral, turned into a groundswell and became so inescapable that even our politicians were forced to acknowledge that the seas were an issue. Imagine if we got so used to making the sustainable choice when we ordered fish in a restaurant that it became instinctive – the way recycling an empty bottle is now just something we do without thinking. We really could make a difference! It is, after all, a very small planet. But it’s the only one we have.

 Oh yes – and while we’re on the subject, huge congratulations to Harry Kambolis and Chef Robert Clark of C Restaurant in Vancouver at winning the Seafood Champion’s award in Boston this week. Awesome! Find out more at www.oceanwise.ca.

 

Launching harry magazine online

22 Mar

One of my favourite jobs, these last ten years, has been editing harry magazine, the gorgeous, glossy menswear magazine published twice a year by Harry Rosen. I love working with the brilliant designers at Hambly & Woolley, the brains trust at Harry Rosen and my own hand-picked editorial gang. The process has turned me from a solitary worder into a fully functioning team player – a most unexpected transformation. The gig also gets me away from the table from time to time, which is a good thing, though there are plenty of intriguing similarities between the sartorial and the gastronomical. The textural pleasure to be found in slipping on a lilac-coloured Tom Ford blazer made from a silk-cotton-linen blend bears a resemblance to the rush one gets from the flavours in a Michael Stadtländer soup. You could say that a molecular pearl of bacon-washed bourbon garnishing one of Frankie Solarik’s cocktails has an echo in the weightless, high-tech, high-performance, feels-like-silk fabric of a Loro Piana Windstorm Regatta jacket. From a writer’s perspective, it’s pretty much the same process, balancing the literal with the metaphorical, trying to be vivid when describing vicarious sensual experiences. The latest issue of harry is on news stands now.

As you may have gathered from the title of this posting, this is also the week when we introduce the newly reinvigorated online version of harry. This is a project that has engaged me for the last six months – another steep learning curve scrambled over with the helping hands of a patient technical team from Babble-di-boo and Pause Productions. You can find it at www.harryrosen.com – just hit “harry magazine.” The content will be changing very frequently. For food lovers who don’t give a tailor’s judy about what they wear, the site also offers a handy survival guide to the Canadian cities where Harry Rosen has stores, including impeccable à-la-minute restaurant reviews from my favourite local critics – Lesley Chesterman in Montreal, Anne DesBrisay in Ottawa, Christine Hanlon in Winnipeg, Gail Hall in Edmonton, John Gilchrist in Calgary and Andrew Morrison in Vancouver. I kept the Toronto plum for myself, but that is an editor’s privilege.

 

Another event for Japan

20 Mar

With Sunday 27th’s event sold out, Michael and Nobuyo Stadtlander have created a second evening for people who wish to support the Japanese Relief Fund. Kudos to all the chefs and volunteers who are making this happen!

Chek out the amazing line-up of chefs, wineries and breweries!

 

Slouching to Jerusalem part three

18 Mar

The road to Jericho

 

Overheard in the crazily crowded alleyways of the covered shuk in the heart of old Jerusalem’s Moslem quarter, an earnest English dad telling his equally earnest five-year-old daughter: “Yes, I promise we’ll absolutely keep an eye out for camels.”

The concert in Jerusalem is a resounding success. The program is part of the ongoing exploration of chamber music written by exiled composers of the 1930s, men such as Miecyslaw Weinberg, Walter Braunfels, Paul Ben-Haim, as well as the more renowned Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold, who were persecuted by the Nazis or by Stalin’s regime and whose work is rarely heard. Simon Wynberg is Artistic Director of the Artists of the Royal Conservatory ensemble and has a passion for reviving this remarkable music. Hearing it played so exquisitely in Jerusalem of all places adds an extra emotional resonance. Many people in the audience are old enough to be emigrés themselves – children at the time of the holocaust – and it is impossible not to hear the music as some kind of testament from the past, poignant with thoughts of what was lost or might have been created.

 Next day, the musicians fly out to Amsterdam for two concerts at the Concertgebouw; Wendy and I head off into the Judaean desert, driving to a beach beside the Dead Sea to wallow in the strange, opaque, silky water and smear our startled skins with black mud. Then on to Jericho, prowling the archeological remains of the world’s oldest city. Wendy has a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and is highly over-excited, leaning over the rail to ogle Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s trench and the incrdibly well preserved base of the oldest defensive tower ever excavated. The nearby ruin of an 8th-century Umayyad palace is even more spectacular, though utterly deserted except for the custodian of the site, a thoroughly urbane gentleman in a tan suit and tie who makes wry jokes in impeccable English and has clearly stepped straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Our cab driver, Abdullah, is more interested in boasting about the qualities of the miniature bananas grown in the oases of Jericho. To make the point, he pulls over to the side of the road and buys us a hand of the little beauties. I thought they were going to be sticky or overly sweet like long yellow dates but the truth isn’t nearly so crude. Even in their skins they have a fresh banana aroma that is most compelling. When peeled, each one is as long as my index finger, fragrant, perfectly textured between ripe and firm and with a surprisingly subtle but persistent banana flavour – altogether delectable.

The cat at Manta Ray using powerful hypno-vision to charm steak from Wendy's plate

And then back to Tel Aviv for our last evening in Israel. A week has changed everything. From cold horizontal rain and crashing breakers it is suddenly summer, the sea a placid, glittering blue, the combed beaches crowded with sunbathers and frisbee players. Cyclists and joggers jostle along the miles of promenade; families stroll with ice cream cones. The afternoon is perforated by the endless, arythmic percussion of wooden bat and hard rubber ball – beach tennis – played all day long until the sound of it threatens to bring madness.

For our last dinner we walk back along the beach towards Jaffa to Manta Ray, a renowned, 12-year-old seafood restaurant built out onto the sand. It’s a ramshackle semi-circular construction that shows a glass façade to the sea and its unadorned rear end to the city but it looks cool after dark with huge amphorae filled with pussy willow boughs reaching up to the blue plank ceiling, six-foot photographs of faces superimposed onto glass, wooden troughs full of perfect vegetables. Tourists and locals are equally at home here, jollied into the details of the menu by a staff of self-confident young women. While considering our options, we drink Onyx Chardonnay 2006 from the Benyamina region, a wine that is showing its age in a rather sexy way, the bloom of fresh fruit departed but a worldly-wise, oxidative character creeping in, the structure still firm.

By now, we are used to the pattern of a meal in this part of the world – the same Ottaman-inspired routine as in Greece or Turkey, Lebanon or Armenia, that begins with bread and a dozen salads on little plates. Here at Manta Ray, those salads are far more inventive than usual and most involve seafood. The server sets a great tray of them beside the table and invites us to choose as many as we like. I’ll just stick with the highlights: a jumble of soft chickpeas, pitted black olives, sliced calamari (beguilingly tender) and slivers of crunchy kohlrabi, all in oil and lemon and parsley. Another intriguing and ultimately delicious combination involved cold steamed cauliflower florets, chopped apple and onion and dots of a soft, white, creamy cheese. Then there was a forthrightly acidic ceviche of fresh sea bass, onion and crunchy raw fennel: the final effect was closer to pickled herring than anything South American, but none the worse for that since I love pickled herring. Shelled shrimp and chunks of ripe canteloupe hiding in baby spinach leaves turned into a game of hunt the protein, the sweet melon-juice dressing a tad overwhelming.

Sea bass with gnocchi at manta Ray

One of the main courses was particularly notable – fresh sea bass simply pan-fried and served with soft, middleweight gnocchi, whole cashews and chunks of juicy eggplant that seemed to be masquerading as mushrooms all in a thick rich butter sauce flavoured with coriander and cured lemon.

The cat that owns the restaurant, a zaftig jellicle cat who looks as though he’s wearing a Mexican wrestler’s mask, instantly spotted a patsy in my wife and ended up with most of the decent entrecote steak she had ordered. Dessert was too scrumptious to share – a glossy beige log of fluffy halva mousse (so sweet but so irresistible) served with crushed cocoa nibs, “halva strings” that looked like asbestos but tasted divine, and a crunchy tuile wafer speckled with nigella and sesame.

And now it’s back to Toronto to launch Harry Rosen’s new web site and wait for our brief, intense northern springtime to show up.

halva mousse - a brilliant confection

 

In aid of Japan

15 Mar

Happy update… This event has sold out! Michael Stadtlander is planning another fundraising party for early April. Watch this space.

Here’s a most important initiative we can all get behind. Thanks to Paul Boehmer, Michael and Nobuyo Stadtlander and all the other contributing chefs.

 

Jerusalem

14 Mar

Moon over the Red Sea, a dessert at La Rotisserie, Jerusalem

Before we left for Israel, I asked a few friends where we should eat. Bonnie Stern very sweetly emailed me back a bunch of excellent recommendations. Passionate about Israel’s amazing produce and fascinating new gastronomic scene, Bonnie just got back from co-leading her fourth culinary trip to the country, sharing the captaincy with rabbi Elyse Goldstein who covers all aspects cultural and spiritual. It sounds like a great way to see – and taste – the  country, for there is much to be said for having a guide in these parts, especially in the old walled city of Jerusalem where so many cultures, faiths and philosophies are superimposed. Bonnie’s advice has also been invaluable when we made a rendezvous with our friends and needed somewhere to eat where we could be sure the food was excellent and the prices reasonable. Left to our own devices, Wendy and I have encountered a mixed bag in terms of quality, though one or two places have been exceptional.

Last night we followed Bonnie’s guidance and ate at La Rôtisserie. This is part of the Notre  Dame de France Roman Catholic complex built by the Assumptionist Fathers in 1887 and restored to pristine splendour in the 1970s. No one would guess there was a restaurant in there (our friends’ taxi drivers were totally foxed) or that it would be so elegant, a modern space of white stone walls and vaulted ceilings with a very chic bar. Tables are dressed in snowy linen and embroidered grey cloths: it looks like a million dollars so we were all pleasantly surprised that the bill came to only about $40 per person, before wine (all right it was quite a lot more than that, cum vinis).

Fried eggs... or are they?

La Rôtisserie is the domain of Spanish chef Rodrigo Gonzalez-Elias who brings some pretty sophisticated and contemporary notions into play while not forgetting such classics as pata negra ham, foie gras or steak tartare. I started with three soft, superbly tender baked red onions stuffed with soft apricots and crushed pistachios set in a shallow pool of chive-scented cream. It was one of those dishes where you have to be careful loading the fork to achieve the ideal effect, a correct balance not overburdened with fruit or onion. My main course, paupiettes of sole wrapped in bacon, were expertly done, crusted in breadcrumbs then fried and served over a lemon and saffron sauce. Sole has the ideal texture for the dish but there’s always the danger that the bacon will take over in the flavour department.

Chef really lets rip with his desserts, borowing some techniques from the molecular gastronomes and showing a flair for whimsy. Witness “Moon over the Red Sea,” a food-painting on a black plate with tahina sorbet, honey sorbet and date ice cream as the principal mediums and a beach of granola. I ordered “fried eggs,” the lacy-edged whites made of creamed lebanese cheese thickened with xantian, the yolks two runny-centred, wobbly balls of peach purée that burst at the touch of the fork – very egg-like and clever and yummy over sliced butter cake “toasts.”

(La Rôtisserie restaurant & bar is inside the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, 3 Paratrooper’s Road (just outside the New Gate of the Old City), 02 627 9111.)

The night before, we had a very different but equally memorable experience. We’re staying at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a gorgeous hotel that was once an Ottaman pasha’s palace before being taken over by a family of American philanthropists, the Spaffords, in the 1880s. They turned part of it into a hotel circa 1902 and it was a particular favourite of Lawrence of Arabia. These days, it is one of a couple of places that are seen as “neutral territory” by both Arabs and Jews and the charming Cellar Bar with its discreetly dim lighting and low, vaulted ceilings is often full of murmurous diplomats and journalists.

Pasha's wonderful meze

In this neighbourhood, restaurants outside the hotel are Palestinian and we found a fine spot a ten-minute walk away. From the outside, Pasha’s looks like any number of places in Greece or Turkey – a bungalow with a private garden where fans of the hubbly-bubbly hookah can hang out unmolested. We left it up to the owner to feed us as he thought fit which turned out to be a preliminary spread of 15 different salads. You can see from the picture how lovely they looked to our hungry eyes. Aside from one dish of insipid canned mushrooms, everything had a personality of its own, the commonality being a lightness of touch in terms of spicing and also, more importantly, texture. I’ve never had kubbeh or falafel so light, the shells crisp, the insides fluffy and moist and gone in a trice. Experience has taught us discretion where these meze are concerned so we found room for the main course of grilled lamb chops, cut thin, and kebabs of impeccably moist chicken, lamb and oniony minced lamb. We drank Taybeh, a local beer like a honey lager, and a pretty decent arak. It was only later we found out that there is another more adventurous menu of domestic Arab dishes such as Lamb spleens stuffed with garlic and parsley, or mansaf of seasoned lamb cooked with pine nuts and served with rice and Bedouin yogurt. Next time… (Pasha’s is at 13 Shimon Hazadik Street, East Jerusalem. 02 582 5162.)

What next? Tonight we attend the concert given by the Artists of the Royal Conservatory. Watch this space.

 

Benny the Fisherman

11 Mar

Walking to Jaffa

To Israel to hear a concert by our Toronto friends, the Artists of the Royal Conservatory. For days, a bizarre storm has been circling clockwise over Anatolia, bringing snow to Beirut (which doesn’t often happen) and driving mighty waves crashing onto the beach that links modern Tel Aviv to ancient Jaffa. This is the abrupt eastern end of the Mediterranean, that complicated sea that comes to a sudden stop at the Levant. The wind gusts straight from the west today and the grey breakers catch up with themselves as they hit the stone breakwaters, plunging and rearing like rodeo broncos while rain pours intermittently from pewter-coloured clouds.

Last night we had dinner in the old port of Tel Aviv, restored as a sort of marina with a number of restaurants, including the excellent, very expensive and fully booked Mul Yam. We went to another place called Benny Hadayag (Benny the Fisherman) and had a grand time. It’s delightfully unpretentious, half built out onto the dock with a glass façade (against which last night’s rain beat a violent tattoo) with an old wooden floor, black tables and comfortable black chairs and a merry posse of servers with a friendly take-charge attitude. They quickly explained that despite a menu laden with frozen seafood and even a few meat dishes, the best thing to order was the whole, fresh sea bar (without my Alan Davidson, I’m not sure of the bar’s more familiar identity – it looked like a cross between a sea bass, a grey mullet and a saddled bream), caught nearby and cooked in salt.

But first, and almost instantly, appeared a meze of fresh bread rolls and 14 or 15 separate dishes designed to break one’s appetite. It was a dazzling selection that included local versions of tzatziki; hummus (another triumph, the super smooth, super-rich, not garlicky hummus dressed with a different, unmashed chickpea compote for a brilliant textural contrast; a big salad of julienned tomato, cucumber and lettuce with a lemony dressing; tangy red cabbage shredded and dressed with yoghurt; a very runny tomato concassé like the topping for bruschetta; awesome fried green chilies and zucchini strips; a mild-mannered, perfectly balanced tabbouleh; a cabbage salad that occupied the broad middle ground somewhere between kimchee and coleslaw; a warm dish of “tinned fish” which was clearly just that – some kind of bone-in slice of white fish in a tasty but commercial tomato sauce; and on and on… Best of all was an awesome roast aubergine, nine-tenths of which had been peeled and squashed with a fork into a bowl of tahini which was then sprinkled with sage and drizzled with olive oil. The stalk and first purple inch of the eggplant was left like a marker buoy in the middle of the dish. The flavour was amazing – smoky and sweet, rich with sesame, creamily textured with that golden oil lubricating everything… We drank Israel’s own Gamla Chardonnay which was dry and good and we were full and happy by the time the baked fish dish arrived.

I had expected it to be encased in a salt sarcophagus, the way it would be in Italy. Instead the whole fish had merely been sprinkled in salt which crusted in the oven – but the final effect was the same. Once the inedible skin had been broken away, the plump white flesh beneath was fabulously moist and delectable. There were grilled lemon halves to squeeze while all the preliminary dishes that hadn’t been finished now did double duty as condiments – in particular a hank of fresh dill chopped up and seasoned with chili, salt and vinegar and a lively red pepper and tomato salsa with its own fiery heat.

Tel Aviv is a city of restaurants these days – many of them offering the imaginative, avant-garde cooking of the next generation of Israeli chefs. We didn’t really want to work that hard last night so Benny the Fisherman was just what the doctor ordered (03-5440518).

Napoleon Patisserie in old Jaffa - much more charming than its namesake

This morning, the wind had dropped a little though the rain was still torrential. Guys in wet suits were out surfing and we walked south down the empty beach for half an hour towards Jaffa. The hotels come almost to the sand in Tel Aviv – it reminded me of the deepest level of fantasy in Inception, especially since some of the buildings seem to be crumbling away.

Jaffa sticks out on a low promontory, the city where Jonah set sail prior to his encounter with the whale and where Napoleon, trying to walk home to France from Egypt with his army, massacred the Turkish prisoners he had captured – an ugly moment, even for Bonaparte. These days, the old stone lanes, alleys and gardens of Jaffa have been restored as an artists’ colony and in their midst is a super little bakery called, with who knows what irony, Napoleon. There we made a tasty breakfast of mushroom and onion quiche with a mixed salad, cappuccino coffee and the best freshly squeezed orange juice I have ever had. Stands to reason, I suppose, in Jaffa. I asked the young man who owned the business if he made jaffa cakes – or if he had ever met the Mad Jaffa-cake Eater. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. But you know, dear reader, don’t you? Meanwhile, onwards to Jerusalem.

 

Scent of a Woman

07 Mar

 

And all the clouds that lowered upon our house...

Here’s something excellent to do tomorrow, for anyone who may be in the neighbourhood, the news of it passed on by our friend Richard Woods. I have no doubt it will soothe the bruised skies and banish the storm.

The Corfu Chamber Opera is putting on a concert to celebrate the UN International Women’s Day on the 8th of March at the Ionian Academy at 21.00 and tickets will be 10 euros. The concert will comprise music for voice, violin and piano composed by famous women composers such as Clara Schumman, Cecile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Pauline Viardot, Amy Beach and Alice Kollias.

The soloists are Rosalinda Poulimenou, soprano with the National Opera and head of Vocal Studies at the Ionian University and Redona Kola, violinist and professor of the Ionian Conservatory and Philharmonic Society. They will be accompanied by Vicky Stylianou, pianist, member of the Orchestra of Colours and professor at the Filippos Nakas Conservatory. This will be a special and not often heard repertoire.

A reading of excerpts from the books by the Corfiot writers Katina Vlachou and Liana Vrachlioti will precede the concert.