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Archive for the ‘Elsewhere’ Category

Highland Fling

25 Jun
All dressed up and off to a grand dinner

All dressed up and off to a grand dinner

I am almost at a loss for words. Wendy and I just got back from two weeks in the very far north of Scotland where we had the spectacular time of our lives, helping to host the latest Gold Medal Plates trip. If you’ve ever been to a GMP event you’ll know that we auction trips to fascinating parts of the world at our gala events in 11 Canadian cities – the proceeds go to programs that support Canada’s Olympic athletes – which means a guest list of couples drawn from across Canada. This time, we took over the entirety of Ackergill Tower, a 15th-century castle about 10 feet from the North Sea, a gaunt and defensible property that is as luxe as Downton Abbey behind it’s massive stone walls. It is staffed by the friendliest, wisest, most professional group of people you will ever meet, who seemed delighted to drive us about the countryside in Land Rovers, to stay up with us til two o’clock in the morning in the Tower’s private pub, to transform the Great Hall at the drop of a hat from the perfect venue for an educational gin tasting (led by me) to a glittering, candlelit whisky dinner (led by Malcolm Waring of the local Old Pulteney distillery) and still have it ready for breakfast the following morning.

I have no space here to describe the full events of our week. Those who wished to learn were taught clay pigeon shooting or fly fishing on Ackergill’s private loch. We had our own GMP Highland Games featuring archery and toss-the-welly. We took to the sea in superfast rubber rib boats, getting up close and personal with tens of thousands of fulmars, guillemots, cormorants, puffins, oyster catchers, terns and gulls and watching seals in their deep cliff caves. We hiked along cliff tops to ruined castles and visited one that was most decidedly not a ruin – the Queen Mother’s former retreat, the Castle of Mey. We walked from Thurso to Scrabster and had a spectacular lunch at Chef Jim Cowie’s extraordinary little restaurant, the Captain’s Galley, recently rated the best seafood restaurant in the U.K. Four enterprising members of our group took a private helicopter across the breadth of Scotland to Skye for lunch at Three Chimneys; the rest of us took ship to the Orkneys for a private VIP tour of Highland Park distillery. And wherever we went we had music. Staying with us were Spirit of the West’s frontmen Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann, B.C. troubadour Dustin Bentall, the brilliant fiddler Kendel Carson and guitarist Matthew Harder. They played for us most evenings and some afternoons and never failed to enchant. Our resident Olympian was none other than Steve Podborski, who regaled us with tales of the ski slopes and his more recent experiences as chef de mission of the Canadian team at Sochi.

Did I mention the food? Ackergill Tower’s chefs and kitchen are masters of Scottish country house cooking. For the whisky dinner, they prepared the best lamb I’ve eaten in years (sourced from the flock of the Castle of Mey). Lunch might be a perfectly dressed local crab or lobster and chips and a mug of cullen skink (smoked haddock chowder). For the grand dinner on the last night, where the men all wore kilts and full highland regalia and the women wore sashes over their gowns, we were served venison and a mighty haggis piped in by Wick’s local bagpipe and drum marching band. Another night, we all went down to the bothy by the loch and found a great barbecue had been prepared: when we had eaten our fill we went back to the beach and toasted marshmallows over a massive bonfire. No one got burned and there was music and whisky and a northern twilight that lasted almost till dawn.

And we were blessed by the weather. Yes it was windy, and we often awoke to mornings of fog and moist air that curled our hair and made complexions look ten years younger. But the sun came out within an hour. Changeable might be the best way to describe it, but it only added to the challenges of the golfers in our midst who played the local links courses or drove down the coast to try Royal Dornoch. In my heart, I hoped for a mighty storm, such as one often gets up here where the North sea meets the North Atlantic, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe next year… Because we will be doing this again next June, gathering a new clan of guests at the GMP gala events across Canada this fall – people who want to live like lairds and ladies for a week of luxury and aristocratic country activities, wonderful music and delicious food, Champagne teas and rare whisky tastings, highland dancing and fling-the-welly.

Ackergill in the distance

Ackergill in the distance

 

When in Rome

30 May

la quercia

To Rome for a week of spontaneous vacation, spending the days slightly off the beaten track and finding some splendid treasures. We’re staying at the Hotel Lancelot which is lovely, quiet, friendly, very close to the Colosseum, and owned by Mrs. Khan, who was born in Grand-Prairie, Alberta, we discovered at dinner the first evening, though she has been in Rome for over 40 years.

There are parts of Italy – Puglia, for example – where it is impossible to find dull food, where even the humblest osteria will blow the buds away. Roman cuisine, on the other hand, is more simple and robust than passionate and wandering into the nearest little place or sitting down at a breezy table in the corner of a piazza is no guarantee of pleasure. So far we have found two restaurants worth writing home about.

Osteria La Quercia (23 Piazza della Quercia, 06 68300932, www.laquerciaosteria.com) is on a small square between the brilliant, charming and eccentric Palazzo Spada and the forbidden Palazzo Farnese. Local businessmen and French people who work at the French embassy inside the Palazzo Farnese come here for lunch, paying little attention to the modern wooden interior of the restaurant but concentrating hard on the food. Highlights of our experience included super baccalao carpaccio, the juicy slices of reconstituted salt cod sprinkled with poppy seeds, olive oil and lemon juice and flanked by two shavings of salty pecorino. Of course there were also stuffed zucchini flowers, which are everywhere at this time of year. Here, they filled them with mozzarella and anchovy, deep-fried them in a crispy batter and good fresh oil and served them on a square of brown paper.

For a main course, I had a very hearty and homespun mound of fried lamb’s liver and kidney (with soft onions and a bit of lamb’s brain) on toast – the offal exceptionally tender and fresh-tasting, the bread soaking up the tangy juices. Alongside it, a salad of puntarella was the ideal refreshing accompaniment. Puntarella is that weird kind of chicory that looks like a tangle of green and white pasta. It’s more stalk than leaf, crunchy, bitter and has a flavour somewhere between endive, fennel and celery. At La Quercia, they dress it in a thick, anchovy-scented dressing and top it with an anchovy fillet and black olive.

Wendy had a heavyweight pasta that looked like priest-stranglers tossed with a pigeon ragu, asparagus tips and shaved truffle – major carbs for a day hiking the Campo and Navona districts. We didn’t feel like dessert but the friendly waiter brought us slivers of apple cake and jam tart with our coffee. Thus fortified, we set off into the afternoon, heading for the museum devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte’s family, where we wandered entirely on our own through the dignified salons.

Next up – a spectacular dinner in Esquilino.

 

Easy-going weekend

25 Feb
The Royal Frenchmen please the crowd on Decatur Street

The Royal Frenchmen please the crowd on Decatur Street

Kid Kotowich plays trombone with The Happy Pals every Sunday at Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue. She is a jazz phenom and she also knows New Orleans like the back of her hand so it was to her that we turned when planning a swift descent upon the Crescent City, eager for three days of music and cocktails. This was not a gastronomical trip. My wife, son and daughter-in-law have spent too many afternoons and evenings watching me write for hours in a notebook while laborious dishes come and go. So there was no long-drawn-out dinner at Herbsaint or Cochon or August; not even a route march to John Besh’s American Sector. Instead, we just plunged into the  merry party that never stops in the charming old French Quarter and had a really, really good time.

And we heard some excellent music. Some of it was indoors, some out on the street – everything from trad jazz to New Orleans jazz, from bluegrass to blues, from folk to funk – even a busking violinist channeling Brahms. Highlights: Another great female trombonist, Katja Toivola, and her trumpeter husband, Leroy Jones, and their band playing jazz standards at Palm Court on Decatur Street. Three guys in a bar on Bourbon Street digging deep into r&b with some old Derek and the Dominos and Allman Brothers (the favoured soundtrack of my teens). The legendary Alton “Big Al” Carson (“495 pounds of pure New Orleans blues”) and his band reminding a mostly grey-haired crowd at The Funky Pirate what it was like to listen to funk in the 70s and 80s. An energetic Dixieland group called The Royal Frenchmen, who claimed they really were from France, playing outside the French Market.

We had had enough gumbo and deep-fried dill pickles by our second evening so we ducked into Maximo’s Italian Grill on Decatur Street and had a perfectly decent Italian meal – the tastiest food of the trip, as it turned out – then headed on to Frenchmen Street, where Kid Kotowich assured us we would find the best music in town these days. We squeezed into the crowd at the Spotted Cat and stayed for a set from an old-school jazz ensemble called Jumbo Shrimp. We listened to a young trumpeter and his band at Maison but the youth was so pleased with his own talent, we had to leave. Then we found some free-spirited jamming on guitar, six-stringed electric bass and drums in Yuki Izakaya, a tiny outpost of retro Japanese culture with great sake, vintage Astroboy cartoons projected on the wall and framed photos of unidentifiable stuffed toy animals. Excellent.

Gulf oysters, plump and beautiful, but tout sans gout

Gulf oysters, plump and beautiful, but tout sans gout

And to drink? I made it a small personal mission to try a Sazerac in as many watering holes as possible. A surprising number turned out to be dreadful, awkwardly unbalanced, syrupy things that dishonoured NOLA’s proud cocktail culture. The two best were tasted on the same Saturday evening. One (most unexpectedly) at Brennan’s, where Sara the bartender took the time to mix me a first-class version, complex, herbal, harmonious, like a bittersweet Manhattan with a Louisiana accent. The other at a fine and well-kept oyster bar, also on Royal Street, called Royal Oyster. We also ordered two dozen of the finest local oysters on the half shell – plump, glossy beauties, impeccably shucked. They tasted of absolutely nothing at all – not even salt water. Gulf oysters, growing up so quickly in those tepid waters, have no flavour. I know this but I persist in tasting them just in the hope that they might somehow have acquired a little personality since the last disappointment. Nope… I guess that’s why they are more often smothered in garlic and butter or bacon and cheese and set under the grill or deep-fried and turned into po’boy sandwiches down here in the south where frying is the default culinary method. I loaded mine up with Crystal hot sauce, horseradish and lemon and muttered voodoo mutters. An old lesson learned yet again – but it was never going to be woeful enough to dim the lustrous dazzle of our purple, green and golden Mardi Gras beads.

 

A Tale of High Adventure

20 Feb

 

Adam Kreek and three friends are rowing across the Atlantic. photo credit: www.erinnjhale.com

Adam Kreek and three friends are rowing across the Atlantic. photo credit: www.erinnjhale.com

The Canadian Wildlife Federation Africa to the Americas Expedition left January 23rd from Dakar, Senegal to row unassisted across the Atlantic Ocean on a daring 3569-nautical-mile journey to Miami, USA. Using human power to propel the boat, and solar and wind power to charge its instruments, the four-man crew are conducting research on the ocean and themselves to share it in real-time to viewers world-wide. It’s an extraordinary adventure and you can follow the team’s progress at www.oarnorthwest.com.

Meanwhile, I was wondering what the four of them are eating to keep up their strength, rowing in pairs, non-stop, day and night. Adam Kreek wrote back to me this morning to tell me. Here’s part of his letter.

“… It can be exhausting out here, but it is also fascinating. It will be an experience that will stick with me for a lifetime.
“We have broken a couple oars, and have gone through some homesick blues. Other than that, the wildlife, camaraderie and sunrises have been incredible. The Ocean has a deep and infusing power that can elevate your soul as quickly as a big wave can crush your spirits.
“…Regarding ocean food. This is what I can tell you. Our breakfasts consist of quick oats or flaked quinoa mixed with sulphur-free dried pineapple, cranberries, apples, raisins and mangos. We mix in some cacao nibs and organic coconut flakes. To add caloric density we will also add coconut oil to the oatmeal.
“Lunch consists of an array of Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried meals. My favourite flavours are the Pad Thai, Macaroni and Beef, Southwest Chicken, and astronaut ice cream.
“For dinner we have been eating a lot of De La Estancia polenta mixed with freeze-dried vegetables and cheese. We will also have instant rice and bean flakes mixed with freeze-dried vegetables and canned wild salmon. Both meals are generously spiced with chili flakes, pepper and garlic powder. We also mix in a healthy portion of Olive Oil for flavour and caloric density.
“Snacks consist of e-frutti gummies, and “The EDGE” energy bars.

“We also are drinking a lot of tea on this vessel. Our favorites are the powdered Jaga Silk Macchai, and the powdered London Fog. We are also eating/drinking ground hemp and maccha powder. We mix it as a warm drink, add it to our oatmeal or dinner dishes for texture, substance and health effects. It has a high protein content and good fats which make it a great superfood.
“Our diet is supplemented with Vitamins from Natural Factors. We have Omega 3 fish oils, vitamin ester C, ultimate antioxidant, acidipholous and bifidus, and a multi-vitamin. Finally, the majority of our sundries were provided by Lifestyle Markets in Victoria BC.”

Tuck in, guys! Safe voyage and a happy return!

 

Santiago Sunday

04 Oct

large as life

To Chile for a week as the guest of Wines of Chile to check out some of the latest vinous treasures in a dozen or so wineries in this very long, very narrow, very hospitable country. We arrive on a Sunday and are whisked off to a splendid lunch in the Central Market, a spacious 19thcentury hall with a wrought-iron roof like a mini Les Halles. Out on the sidewalk is an alpaca, its saddle decorated with knots of coloured wool, and bands of uniformed waiters urging us to try their establishments. There used to be scores of small restaurants inside the market but most have them been bought by the most successful, Donde Augusto, and it is there our group of six sits down to eat surrounded by crowds of Chilean families, strolling singers with old guitars and a general mood of day-out merriment.

Donde Augusto restaurant - more than merry!

 

 

Alysson Silva, our hostess and guide from Wines of Chile, suggests we all share a bunch of dishes, the specialities of this fish and seafood restaurant – and the plan is a good one. First bread appears – flat heavy buns called hallulla which have been pierced with holes like the Easter loaves in Greece, and have the cakey texture of a scone. Bowls of a loose salsa called pebre are set down alongside – a sort of garlick-free chimmichura of onion, tomato and herbs. Does everyone want to start with a Pisco Sour? Of course! And it’s a beauty – pisco, lemon juice and sugar, no egg white – bright and refreshing. It only needed a few drops of Angostura bitters on its creamy, foamy head to be perfect.

And then lunch… Cold chunks of abalone the size of a child’s fist, unexpectedly tender and with the subtlest of rock-pool flavours, dressed with mayonnaise and surrounded by lettuce and tomato. A little casserole of scallops, rims and orange roes attached, briefly cooked in oil flavoured with big crimson curls of dried chili, coarsely chopped garlic and green herbs. A second casserole of juicy shrimp as thick as my thumb cooked in just the same way. Almost stealing the show are razor clams on the half-shell smothered in melted cheese and then put under the grill until the cheese bubbles. Deep fried squid rings are deep fried squid rings – and always will be.

curiosities of the cold southern waters

The main course is a platter of pan-fried fillets of fish – salmon, of course (it’s one of Chile’s five main exports – copper, molybdenum, salmon, wine and fruit is the order of importance) and conger eel (big flaky petals of the creature with no bones and the texture of monkfish), sea bass (corvina not the Patagonian toothfish we call Chilean sea bass) and reynata – a new fish to me that has the oily texture of mackerel but a snow-white flesh. Elsewhere in the market are the fishmongers with counters piled high with curious clams and shellfish and strange, hideous, glistening South Pacific deep-sea fish, half of which I don’t recognize. They are all Impeccably fresh, as they should be in a country with 4,000 kilometres of coastline.

After lunch, we go for a walk, down to the cathedral where a parade is marshalling in honour of St. John the Baptist – groups of people in satin hoods and boys’ brass bands in pseudo-military jackets with outsized epaulettes and clusters of the devout around statues of local saints and heroes. A good beginning.

 

 

 

On the road

23 Aug

Alongside a quay in Stockholm, this extraordinary piece of art draws attention to the plight of refugees everywhere.

On to Stockholm for four or five days – a city I had never seen but must now place high on the list of favourites. We came upon free rock concerts just across the water from the Parliament buildings, paused to admire the mounted brass band and timpani of the Royal Guard as they played in the courtyard of the Palace, visited some exceptional museums (especially the one built to house the Vasa, that remarkable but unlucky ship that sank after sailing only a few hundred yards on her maiden voyage in 1628) and tasted many delicious things. Best of all was the grilled reindeer at Slingerbulten (incredibly tender, lean, sweet meat) and the mildly salted bleak roe on fried bread at Sture Hof. Almost as good was a dinner in one of the labyrinthine basement rooms of Den Gyldene Freden – a bit of a tourist trap but full of charm. I had heavy cured herring with capers and perfect little boiled new potatoes; delicate, much more lightweight herring with sour cream and a bitter spicy edge from horseradish; sweeter, saltier herring with honey and cherries; and cheese that had been drowned in aquavit for two days. These dishes comprised the first course, to be followed by wild duck (the breast pink and pleasingly tender, the leg frenched and confited).

Wendy and I had hoped to visit our old friend Goran Amnegard who has built an extraordinary hotel/restaurant/vineyard a couple of hours west of the city (his Vidal Icewine wins prizes regularly at the major French wine fairs) but he and his family were away on holiday in Italy. Next time…

Then it was a quick hop to Berlin where we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a lavish dinner at the 2-Michelin-starred Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer. The room was delightful – like a peaceful library in a large country house but with a view of the Brandenburg Gate – and the service exemplary. Chef Hendrick Otto’s cooking is in the very haute modern French-European style – complex and clever and evolved. Every component is orchestrated to the nines but such is his mastery of harmony that nothing is ever remotely dissonant: it’s like listening to Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic – super if you love Haydn. A parfait of goose liver for example, was graced with brioche cream, orange, coffee and polenta, the natural texture of each ingredient transformed… Silver salmon received the blessing of a white bean fumé, an escabeche of vegetables, tiny cubes of jellied salt water as well as mango and bell pepper. Scallop and pork belly flirted with a curry emulsion, moments of banana, fennel, artichoke and passion fruit… And so on. The wines chosen by the sommelier were all fine but nothing breathtakingly good and original – things like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner that seem fairly commonplace in Toronto (I was hoping for some spectacular German wines). But it was all very fine but ultimately not nearly as satisfying and pleasurable as the whole turbot we shared for lunch the next day down on Quarré’s sidewalk tables along Unter der Linden. It’s not a fish one comes across often any more – and I can’t really afford it when I do – but we were still under the anniversary spell.

And now we are in Corfu, at our old house, getting ready to go up to the bar where our koubaros, Philip (aka Pakis) has finally decided the moment has come to offer food as well as drink. He has built a small but impressive kitchen, taken on a business partner in a chef called Spiro, and proposes a small menu of mezethes that will change every night according to the whim of the management. We have been asking Philip to do food for more than 30 years but he has always dismissed the idea, though he is a fabulous cook. How will tonight’s mezethes turn out? Please watch this space.

 

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

 

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.

 

Alinea – Chicago

27 Sep

No flashes permitted at Alinea - hence the dull yellow hue to this picture.

There are surprisingly few restaurants open for dinner on Sunday in Chicago but luckily Alinea is one of them. “Why go there,” asked friends in Toronto. “Okay, it’s number seven in the world according to the San Pellegrino charts, but everything has already been written about the place.” And about Grant Achatz, its chef and co-owner, a man still in his mid-30s whose artistic energies were honed at Charlie Trotter’s and the French Laundry and then molecularly realigned (so the story goes) by a trip to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Catalonia. He created Alinea five years ago and has not yet opened his next Chicago venture or ventures – The Aviary and/or Next Restaurant – which may or may not be the same place – despite a staggering amount of prescient press pressure that has been going on for months… Such are the games this chef plays with the world.

The Sunday in question was spent walking round Oak Park’s leafy avenues admiring Frank Lloyd Wrighteous architecture, humming Paul Simon’s beautiful song and agreeing that FLW was indeed a precociously modern genius of both arts and crafts (like Chef Achatz) and a man dictatorially determined that his vision and his taste should completely surround and envelop his customers (like Chef Achatz).

Our heads were full of Wright’s visual rhythms and melodic lines as we dressed for dinner in the hotel. Then – suddenly – sapristi! Where the devil were my cufflinks? Egad… Still in a box in Toronto. A potential disaster was only averted by some swift MacGyvering, twisting four bobby pins into makeshift links like anorexic spiders to grip the snowy cuffs. Robert Tateossian’s preeminence was in no danger but I was rather proud of myself for taking something commonplace and turning it into something strange and unlikely but satisfying and successful (again, just like Chef Achatz).

Alinea looks like a regular house from the outside – a black façade with modest signage. Open the door and you are faced with an introductory moment of theatre, a black corridor lit by concealed pink lights that narrows dramatically so that for a fraction of a second it seems very long, until your eyes correct the mistake. Some might call it a cheap trick, a moment borrowed from a carnival haunted house, but it made me smile.

Take a left turn and now you are in the building proper. A glimpse of the kitchen to the right – dozens of cooks bent in concentration over their work stations – a lounge to the left, another salon perhaps – but our table is up the glass-hedged stairs in one of three or four small rooms. This way. The staff here are dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna – bussers and waiters in the sporty Z-Zegna line, sommeliers and maitre d’ in the more formal Sartorial suits and ties. They are polite but firm and they will be with us all evening, explaining, instructing, hovering, listening (once commenting on something my wife had just said to me – which was a step too far). For the first 15 minutes, we find ourselves bridling at such a bossy tone and longing for a moment of privacy, but gradually we are won over, coaxed and seduced into the Alinea experience. It isn’t the house that is responsible – the décor looks lovely on the web site but is banal in reality with dull paintings on the wall – it’s the food and the clever wine choices and the quirky eccentricity of the servers (our wine waiter has hair like Edward Scissorhands and the mannerisms of David Tennant’s Doctor Who)… But mostly it’s the food.

Our research had implied there are two menus at Alinea, one longer and even more expensive than the shorter version. On our visit there was only one. It consisted of 21 courses, some very small, others not, all of them fascinating – and it cost the earth. From the outset, there is a palpable insistence that the customer should give up all sense of independence and go with the program. We were offered our choice of waters but it was the last moment of freedom. Before I could form a request for a cocktail, one was set in front of me – a frozen, chewy Pisco Sour, like a mixture between nougat and ice cream in terms of texture but tasting intensely of a real-life Pisco Sour.

Course two was another cocktail, called a Juliet and Romeo, or so we were instructed. Its texture was similar to compressed watermelon or even the crunchy jelly of sea cucumber – it was a green gelatinous cube and it tasted, miraculously, of Plymouth gin, cucumber, rosewater and mint. I felt a little like an adult confronted by an accomplished conjuror. I could figure out how he did it but that didn’t detract from my admiration at how skillfully he pulled off the trick.

The third cocktail was a play on a Manhattan – half a macerated cherry topped by a foam – tasting just like a Manhattan. Achatz has been to Barchef on Queen Street in Toronto and tasted some of Frankie Solarik’s work. We’re talking kindred spirits.

Course four is the one that blew the last vestige of doubt and cynicism from Wendy’s mind. Picture a chilled pea soup garnished with drops of olive oil, a little Iberico ham, some honeydew melon, fresh basil and a trace of sherry. Got that? But here it came in a tumbler and the soup was a very cold powder, soft as talc, and packed like yesterday’s snow, with some crunchy round green moments, some salty, hammy flashes, some sudden jellies, etcetera… But tasting like the real thing as the textures melted and adjusted on the tongue. Was it better or more satisfying than an actual bowl of soup would have been? Nope. But it was no worse. Just different and clever. And it was unlike our experience at L20 the night before because the tricks were working. The wow factor was there – five out of five – because there really was an awesome flavour of pea and ham and all the other elements in that glass of powder.

Next came a very crispy wand like a tiny caduceus with serpents of raw white shrimp twsited around it. It was made of dehydrated soy milk skin but it tasted like a cross between very fine pastry and ethereal pork crackling. The shrimp flesh was real, sprinkled with black and white sesame and the whole thing was stuck into a tiny inkwell filled with a rich miso dipping sauce. Part of the same presentation was a fibrous morsel of sugar cane that had been infused under pressure with shrimp stock. “Chew it then spit it out like gum into the paper provided,” were the orders.

Now came the dish that won my curmudgeonly heart. It was almost the first thing we had eaten in Chicago that had some local provenance, some geographical relevance – a presentation of heirloom tomatoes from Michigan (almost as good as their Niagara kin) some very thinly sliced, some tiny and blanched and peeled, surrounded by eight mounds of different powdered condiments, some chilled, some crunchy – things like pine nut or fennel or basil or balsamic. Great ideas. And the whole plate was set down gently on an inflated pillow filled with air that had been carefully scented with the smell of freshly cut grass. The weight of the plate gradually pressed the air out of the pores of the pillowcase, adding a new aromatic dimension to the dish. I loved the idea.

And so on – and on… Here a roto evaporator had been used to create a low-temperature “distillation” of Thai flavours. There we were invited to build a structure of metal legs that could support a tiny flag, glossy as latex, emblazoned with flower petals that were once things like mustard and mango, and to load it up with dried garlic chips, a kind of belly pork rillettes, cucumber spheres, lime zest jelly, red bell pepper coulis, young coconut ribbon, etcetera etcetera. Such a lot of work for one slightly sticky bite in which all the flavours and textures combined into a single mouthful.

Then there were games with crabmeat and plum or with a piece of pheasant fried like tempura with walnut, green grape and sage to be eaten in one bite while oak leaves smolder and smoke.

Another dish showed off the flavour of a local lamb with such props as the fat from the saddle fried in panko crumbs (the size of a bean), fried green scallions, a maple bourbon gastrique…

A hot confit of potato with a slice of truffle was poised like a brooch on a pin over a spoonful of chilled truffle and potato soup. “See how we contrast hot and cold textures!!” the dish declared. (Yes dear, very clever.)

There was a main course. It was a cylinder of Australian wagyu tenderloin beef cooked according to a classic recipe from Escoffier, circa 1902, surrounded by morsels of fried banana, grilled green chilies stuffed with foie-gras-enhanced rice, peeled tomtaoes and a little classic Chateaubriand sauce. It was intended as a moment of respect and antique purity (and a reminder of the labour-intensive techniques of the past) and we were given antique cutlery to eat it with and an antique wine glass to accommodate the supersmooth wine – an Anima Negra An 2005 from Mallorca. Then a black truffle explosion (“put it all in your mouth and close your lips when you bite”). Then a scrap of bacon wrapped in apple and hung out to dry on a wire frame (“pull off the bacon and eat it in one go”). Then it was into the five dessert courses, one of which necessitated the spreading of a pale green silicone cloth over the bare wooden table so we could dispense with plates and mess up chocolate mousse frozen to crumbly honeycomb in liquid nitrogen and dressed with all sorts of candy sauces and menthol whipped cream and crispy herbs and micro-anise-hyssop. But let us draw a modest veil over all of them (it’s late, they were great).

Indeed, the whole experience has a greatness to it. It is very carefully choreographed and constructed – so precisely that there is no room for any improvisation from the customer (if I had embarked on a five-minute chat with the wine waiter about the relative merits of blaufrankisch or pinot noir in an Austrian bubbly the whole kitchen might have imploded). It is theatre. It is Cirque du Soleil and the fact that the miracles will be repeated later in the evening for each and every customer – and again tomorrow and again, hundreds of times, in the months to come – does spoil the show a little. If you like jazz – in other words, if you like improvisation and risk-taking in real time – you will hate Alinea. If you like avant-garde architecture – blending art and science and engineering to create an art form that is repeatable and spectacular (the first time you see it), this is the restaurant for you. Do expect to be amazed by the technical excellence of the dozens of cooks in the kitchen and by Chef Achatz’s vision – and by the quality of the cooking and ingredients and wine matching. Real gastronomy is happening here, not just smoke and mirrors. Do not hope for even a single minute when you can actually talk to your wife before the next course comes.

 Alinea (rhymes with Lavinia) Dinner only, Wednesday through Sunday. 1723 North Halsted, Chicago. 312 867-0110. www.alinea-restaurant.com.