Purple Cauliflower Is a Cosmopolitan Polyglot

Emboldened by the postmodernist innovative ideas from our recent trip to Chicago, I embarked on culinary experimentation of my own. Inspiration was promptly provided by a beautiful purple cauliflower from Dupont Circle farmer’s market called Sicilian-Violet. I thought it to be a particularly appropriate choice, given the fact that my good friend The Blissful Adventurer has just returned from a trip to Sicily.

The idea was to start with a simple base (such as oven-roasted cauliflower florets), and to pair them with a few different flavors. Clearly, I was already nostalgic about playing with the succulent brine-and-butter Glidden Point oysters from Maine, and a set of tinctures at the Office on our Chicago trip (green peppercorns, smoke, curry, lemon, ginger, and fennel, for anybody interested :-)).

Speaking of Chicago, we had a tasty cauliflower dish at the Purple Pig (a “cheese, swine, and wine” kind of place, by their own description), which involved charred cauliflower, toasted breadcrumbs, cornichons, and parsley. I think it is only logical to eat purple cauliflower at the Purple Pig, if it is too hot to eat pig…

Our favorite homespun combination turned out to be furikake-seasoned cauliflower (a perfectly balanced Japanese mixture of sesame seeds, salt, sugar, and seaweed). This method is also perfect for Hakurei turnips that remind me of the Russian baby turnips (“repka”) that I liked to snack on when I was growing up. I ate them raw – they had delicate skin, and were as sweet as honey, as a Russian would say. As you can imagine, roasting makes them even sweeter.

The other two combinations involved dips: a Greek yogurt dip ( seasoned with lemon, salt, mint, red pepper, and sumac, which is one of my very favorite Middle Eastern spices), and Thai sweet and sour curry made with a Por Kwan-brand Tom Yum paste, light coconut milk, and kefir leaves.

Cauliflower and turnips were washed down with a Spanish Verdejo, which, to me, is the ideal summer wine. It tastes of the salty ocean and tropical fruit, and has the acidity and backbone to stand up to garlic, spice, aged cheese, char, and just about anything else you throw its way. Besides, you can get a very tasty version for as little as $12.

To complete my light lunch menu, I made a super-quick summery Russian-style sorrel soup with new potatoes. Just in case you are unfamiliar with sorrel, here is what it looks like:

The fastest way to make sorrel soup is as follows: cut up new potatoes (I don’t bother with peeling them), and cook them in vegetable organic stock. Once they are very close to being done, add the sorrel, and lots of lemon juice. Cook for another minute. To serve the soup, add quartered boiled eggs, and sour cream, or crème fraiche, to ramp up the tang. You can eat it hot or cold.

So, to recap: a Sicilian cauliflower variety with a Japanese seasoning, also served with a Greek dip with a Middle Eastern spice, and with a Thai curry. A Japanese turnip as a Russian childhood food memory. A Russian soup with American cage-free organic eggs, stock, and French-style crème fraiche.

This is one tasty melting pot…

Chicago: The Future Is Now

A mere two hours away from home, I have hit upon a place of confluence of futuristic trends. Architecture, cocktails, food, coffee, art, you name it. I am an impressionable type, and this was my first time in Chicago :-)

 

 

 

Let’s face it: Chicago is home to some of the most exciting restaurants in this country, including Next, Schwa, Alinea, El Ideas, etc… Unfortunately I did not manage to get into all the restos I wanted to visit, – Chicago proved to be the hardest city for reservations that I have ever encountered. Silly me – I had thought reserving a month and a half in advance would get me everything I desire…

Still, I was pretty pleased with my weekend line-up: Topolobampo, the Art Institute of Chicago, L2O, Intelligentsia, futuristic landscapes of the city, the Girl and the Goat, the whimsical Aviary/The Office, Avec, Sable… I was fortunate to explore and experience the efforts of such restaurant moguls and weather-makers as Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, and Paul Kahan.

 

 

Many of those experiences were light-years beyond your average resto experience. I could certainly delve into the imperfections of each place, but I think this time (for the most part), I will focus on their refreshing originality, innovation, and playfulness.

Chicago clearly packs a ton of food knowledge and passion, most of which is delivered with a very flat Midwestern accent. The general theme is subtlety and purity of ingredients (with the exception of Girl and the Goat, who made it their calling to cater to the American palate with in-your-face flavors, while encouraging their patrons to eat and drink more through use of loud music). Here are some comments on just a few places we visited:

Avec: Ironically enough, the decor makes it look like a sauna, except that it is actually quite chilly inside. If you show up in early afternoon, before the hordes descend upon the restaurant, you can enjoy delectable dishes such as their chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon and piquillo-pepper tomato sauce in peace, and drink fun obscure stuff like the grassy, assertive biancolello from the island of Ischia and a mouthwatering pecorino from Abruzzo.

Aviary/the Office. One word: molecular mixology. I have heard it aptly described as one-fourth chemistry lab, one-fourth theatrics,  one-fourth “How the… and WTF?”, and one-fourth blur. The theatrics are certainly hokey, but all-in-all, this crazy cocktail is pretty balanced. If you have an occasional need to feel important (I do!), perhaps you can score an invitation to the Office, a VIP-style underground speakeasy, inaccessible to the uninitiated. There, one can quietly enjoy a well-crafted pre-Prohibition-style cocktail, such as a rum, green tea, blood orange, pu-erh, and lime concoction. Accoding to Chef Achatz, they have about 30 different syrups, 165 different tinctures, eight different fresh juices, and five different fresh herbs to complement their drinks, as well as house-made custom ice that is hand chipped and/or molded in Japanese press molds. Pretty cool stuff…

I will venture a few random personal predictions about the future (hopefully, this will catch on in the rest of the country):

  • stuffed morels are in; they are tasty little devils.
  • succulent and pure seafood (this time of the year, ceviche from Topo alone will make anyone happy, with choices like Ceviche Fronterizo (lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, green chile), Ceviche Yucateco (steamed Mexican blue shrimp & calamari, lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jcama & cilantro), or Coctel de Atun Tropical (sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna, avocado-tomatillo guacamole, tangy mango-grapefruit).
  • cubed food is in :-)
  • in the coffee realm, stunning springtime centrals have arrived. It is all about seasonal coffees, such as the gorgeous El Machete from Panama, or La Tortuga from Honduras. Another favorite: Ngogomo Burundi – funky and floral, bursting with flavors of cola, pecans, and dates; perfect as cafe solo.

I yet have to find a shop that would match Intelligentsia’s quality and skill level. They meticulously select the perfect method (V60 pour-over, cafe solo, chemex, espresso, etc.) for the best quality beans money can buy.

Lest anyone think of me as a person who only eats cube-shaped food, I wanted to mention that one of our culinary highlights in Chicago was lunch at Spoon Thai (we ordered from the unpriced Thai menu at the back, of course). Rustic and inelegant in its presentation, the food was to die for: Isaan-style lightly fermented rice and pork sausage, shrimp and lemongrass salad with scallion and lime juice, preserved egg salad with garlic, peanuts, ginger, and lime juice; and lightly sour fish soup with lime leaves and lemongrass (tom khlong plaa chawn).

And finally, our architectural tour on our last day in Chicago confirmed something for me that I already knew: I am a child of the postmodernist era.

The movement of Postmodernism began as a response to the perceived blandness and the perfectionism of the Modern movement, which was focused on the pursuit of an ideal, and attempted harmony of form and function, through dismissal of “frivolous ornament”.

My idea of postmodernist contextualism (check out the earrings purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago!)

Postmodernism openly challenged Modernism as antiquated and “totalitarian”, favoring personal preferences and variety over objective, ultimate truths or principles. This is how the modernist “Less is More” is replaced with the postmodernist “Less is a bore”, and I hope this trend really does catch on…

Cezanne, St. Jacques, and Saint-Pierre

Let’s straighten this out from the very beginning: only one of these is (was) a human being. “Coquilles St. Jacques” is the French for “scallops”, and “Saint-Pierre” is a super-delicious Mediterranean fish known over here as John Dory. The question is: what could possibly bring all of them together? And the answer is, Aix-en-Provence.

 

Aix was the largest (and also most vibrant and youngest) city we visited on our trip to Provence, and I am certain everyone who has been there has a special memory of their own. It is many things to many people, but in my mind it will always be squarely associated with Cezanne, and with most exquisitely prepared fish straight from the market.

one of the many symbols of Provence (and a distant cousin of Two Pigs) in Place Richelme, – location of Aix farmers’ market

Aix is the town where Cezanne was born, where he worked, and died; and therefore, one of the million things for a tourist to do there is to follow in Cezanne’s footsteps. One can visit his last studio (Atelier Cezanne), where everything is painstakingly preserved as at the time of his death, and then walk 1,800 meters up le Chemin des Lauves on the hilltop overlooking Aix. Views from Terrain des Peintres (Painters’ Terrain) are both amazing and familiar, as those are the landscapes that inspired Cezanne around his beloved mountain Sainte-Victoire (the motif of almost 50 of his paintings and watercolors). See if you recognize any of them:


Ok, it is time to get back to Mssrs St. Jacques and Saint-Pierre…

I think we all have had serendipitous perfect dining experiences (or at least, we all have dreamed of having one), where we take a chance on an unresearched restaurant in an unfamiliar town, and this dark horse of a restaurant turns out to be the best meal of our trip… After gazing at Mont St. Victoire for a good while, we started getting peckish, but the descent back into town made us arrive at the planned lunch location at the tail end of the Lunch Period. To make the long story short, they did not have a table for us. By the way, the French offer one quite a short lunch-eating opportunity, – typically between 12-2, or even 12-1:30.


The back-up plan option was unavailable as well, and we went to a place I knew virtually nothing about (not something I like to do on eating trips in Europe!). It turned out, Le Formal (which took pity on us and gave us the last available table) was located in a former cellar space with abstract paintings and vaulted ceiling:

Since it was lunch, and we had been snacking, we went with the 26 euros 3-course option (rather than the 7- or the 9-course option). The restaurant had a well-chosen wine list (always a big plus!), but also delicious by-the-glass selections, such as Chateau de Triennes (a minerally and satisfying Chard), Domaine de la Realtiere Cuvee Cante Gau, or Maison Delas Viognier. After visiting Provence, I am still amazed at how top-notch restaurants have the guts and conviction to serve exclusively (or primarily) wines from the region.

In a true “Farm to Table” manner, it was deja vu all over again at Le Formal!

Among many choices, we noted the spectacular scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques) we had just admired in the marketplace a few hours ago, now served with passion fruit mousse, or with fois gras and wilted arugula. It was also my first time trying John Dory, easily the most tender, sweet and delicate fish I have ever had.

Le Formal was truly sophisticated without being too fussy or pretentious. I think it is fair to say it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable eating experiences in Provence (and overall on the trip). Later I found out that the chef, Jean Luc Formal (who, incidentally, made a point to shake our hands on the way out of the restaurant as if we were regulars), uses some of the techniques and equipment invented by the chef at El Bulli. We certainly found our meal to be flawlessly executed, and a fantastic value to boot. And Aix – to be a new source of inspiration, both gastronomic and aesthetic.

Food Porn: A 2-Michelin Star Restaurant L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel

Sometimes there is just nothing like eye candy… but rest assured it was as delicious and complex as it was beautiful.

And also inventive, fun, whimsical, and lighthearted… Enjoy!

 

 

“Creations” tasting menu at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.

April 7, 2012 in Arles, France (in no particular order). For French (and food&wine) buffs, here is the file with the line-up, including the wine pairings:

The Man Himself

 

 

Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

Muse from the Northwest

I am easily pleased. I eagerly go to my “happy place” aided by something simple like crispy duck fat potatoes with a nice olive-tarragon aioli. Add to that a glass filled with an obscure Italian varietal (a 2007 GrosJean Freres Vigne Rovetta Torrette Superiore from Valle d’Aoste, perhaps?), and the job is definitely, positively done.

 

My blog is a journal of things that please me and that I get excited about. Sometimes I like to stop and think about the culinary “Muse” that generated the interest and produced the visceral response that made me cook and write. Especially after such a great trip as our last weekend in Portland, Oregon!

Portland is a culinary paradise and a place with real food snobbery in the best sense of the word (most of the time, sadly lacking in DC). I am generally not interested in re-creating restaurant dishes but I quite happily steal small ideas and ingredients when I eat out. Also, I am a planner, and I start getting excited about places when I first read their menus online. Often I just look at the combination of ingredients, and can almost taste the dish. Yes, I am excited by words…a true mark of a blogger :-)

Here are just a few of the memorable moments from our weekend in Portland:

-          Snacking on pickled things (a salad of pickled chanterelles with fennel, herbs, and citrus at Navarre; house-made pickles at Avignon (including golden beets and green tomatoes); a pickled tongue sandwich and pickled carrots at the Jewish deli Kenny & Zukes;

-          Drinking a 2005 Vina Cubillo Rioja by Lopez de Heredia by the glass (!) at Le Pigeon;

-          Slurping plump and briny Washington state and Oregonian oysters at Avignon;

-          Getting stuffed on grassy olive oil and Ken’s Artisanal bread at Navarre (before 4 more dishes arrived)

-          Savoring barbecue eel toast at Le Pigeon

-          Sneaking a cardamom sesame truffle from Alma Chocolate into Heart (which may not offer the best cup of coffee in a town packed with fantastic coffee shops, but is big on atmosphere).

Heart: a quintessentially Portland institution

On my trips I am wide-open to wine exploration, but my heart truly belongs to Burgundy and weird Italian varietals.  The biggest revelation of the trip came from Puglia, Italy (where we just went last September!). I have no intention of knocking Puglian wines, but they can be monochromatic and what I call “friendly” (a yummy, jammy cuddly bear of a wine). I am interested in elegance, acidity, and out-of-this world aromatics. The delicious and relatively inexpensive Alberto Longo Cacc’e Mmitte di Lucera from Puglia, Italy had it all.

 

 

Every now and then, the best, most inspirational experiences come about by nothing more than happenstance. Last Saturday night, loopy from lack of sleep and tango hangover, we set off for a restaurant that does not take reservations and that is recommended by all foodie sources, without a backup plan (!!??). After being told that the wait for Pok Pok was going to be around an hour and a half, we backtracked several blocks to check out the place we saw from the cab on the way to the restaurant. It was called Avignon, which happens to be where we are going in a month – quite providential! After we got the aforementioned Torrette, duck fat potatoes, and the eerie good paprika-spiced hazelnuts from Freddy Guys farm (despite being from Oregon, my husband Jeff usually does not eat hazelnuts at all), our Saturday night dining luck turned a full 180 degrees…

By the way, their food, while certainly not ugly, was not picture-perfect or especially picture-worthy. That was probably true of most of the places we visited. Pinterest junkies would be disappointed, but I guess true inspiration really does come from within…

And sometimes, inspiration comes purely by association. When we got back to DC, I kept thinking about rainy Oregon, wet earth, forests and mushrooms. I also fondly remembered the wonderfully textured grain dishes we had at Noble Rot: the lemony barley bed for my wild sturgeon, and Jeff’s delectable lentil, quinoa, and oat cake stuffed with mozzarella and served with tomato sauce, melted leeks, and mushrooms.

My love of quinoa goes back to the time I discovered Karen McNeil’s “Wine, Food and Friends” series some 10 years ago; it is where my favorite quinoa recipe came from. Yesterday I had no morels on hand, so I reconstituted dried porcinis (yet another staple in my pantry), and cooked quinoa in the fragrant porcini broth (in a 1 to 2 ratio). When it was done, I added fresh shitakes sauteed in butter, with shallots, garlic, and thyme, and spiked the dish with a bit of soy sauce, in order to kick up the umaminess another notch. In accordance with the principle of “what grows together, goes together”, this dish called for an Oregonian Pinot, such as an excellent 2009 vintage bottle from PatriciaGreen Cellars.

There is only one drawback to having such a prolific Muse: you may end up like this piglet, lying on the bathroom floor in the corner unable to move…

A most appropriate mascot at Le Pigeon

Hot Stuff

Despite my heritage, I don’t consume gallons of tea on a daily basis (although my Russian pedigree shows up in my weakness for fine Japanese and British china :-)). There are three things that invariably make me reach for a tea cup: cold weather, (nasal) congestion, and company. The recent blustery weather activated the Russian spirit in me, and thus the old romance with tea was rekindled. It provided me with a perfect reason to revisit a few tea shops in my general neighborhood, – the greater Dupont Circle area.

Teaism

Teaism was the location of my first DC lunch ever, when we moved to DC some 6 years ago; I suspect I will always have a special relationship with that place. According to their site, it was originally intended as “an alternative to the obfuscation, over-formalization, and xenophobia of traditional Asian and English tea houses”. Their belief is that drinking good-quality loose-leaf tea should not be a luxury, and that substance should always triumph over style. Their shtick food-wise is simple offerings from the cuisines of tea, such as bento boxes from Japan, curries from Thailand, and tandoor breads from India. The tea selection is pretty limited, with a few solid offerings in each category (tisane, green, oolong, black, white).

Teaism is fast and efficient: no frills, no pomp, no circumstance. You pick up your food and tea on a plastic tray when they call your number at the expo counter. It is cheap and tasty: for $15, you can get a full meal AND a pot of tea. And it feels very comfortable like an old shoe, and does not push one in scary directions, away from the cozy comfort zone.

My personal favorites are: ginger scones, tea-smoked salmon, tasty bento boxes featuring dishes like sweet potato salad, cucumber-ginger salad, etc. with Genmaicha or a nice oolong. The cute Asian garden upfront is an added benefit in nice weather.

All in all, I would call it a social venue and lunch place first, and tea shop second; a kind of a coffeeless coffee shop. It is a very casual and egalitarian place with a young vibe (I was easily the oldest person there :-)) that seems to be always crowded and buzzy, especially on the weekends. It is very DC.

Ching Ching Cha

The catchy, alliterative name has an explanation: CHA is the Chinese word for tea, and Ching Ching is the name of the founder. It is a traditional Chinese teahouse: a tranquil, lovely space with an authentic setting (beautiful rosewood tables and chairs, platform seating with fluffy cushions, etc). Ching Ching spends a few months each year visiting different tea regions of China, Taiwan and Japan, searching for new unique teas and teaware to bring back. It is a place steeped in tradition.

It is not a very appropriate lunch spot, unless you have a couple of hours to linger and enjoy the classic tea ritual; it feels much more otherworldly and eclectic than Teaism. Everything here is an accessory or afterthought to the tea; tea is the focal point, and the lengthy tea selection is further proof of that. Food offerings are reasonably limited; they are primarily light lunch Items. My personal explanation for that fact is that they don’t want you to come in very hungry, as you would be unable to focus properly on the tea. So, if you have a big appetite, come “primed”.

We enjoyed sitting in the shoe-free platform seating area where you can show off your freshly manicured toes, or cute socks, or alternatively, hide your feet under the table :-)

The staff is very knowledgeable and passionate about tea, and is there to help you enjoy your tea the way it was intended, using the proper brewing and serving technique. It gives one a nice feeling of being initiated into the art of tea.

My personal favorites: five spice peanuts, marble tea egg (egg cooked with star anise, peppercorns, soy sauce, and tea leaves), Mongolian dumplings, and the coconut tart with any of the recommendations of the staff.This time, we decided on a beautiful Dong Ding Oolong served kung-fu style, and a Golden Blossom artisan flowering tea.

Ching Ching Cha is truly a House of Tea, not just another Georgetown lunch spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tea Cellar at Park Hyatt

The Tea Cellar located next to Blue Duck Tavern at the Hyatt (at 24th and M street) features more than 50 rare and limited production, single-estate teas from remote regions of China, Japan, Sri Lanka and the Himalayas.

The language on their website – “fine art of tea”, “exclusive and sophisticated”, “subtle nuances”, “gourmet teas”, “at the level of flavor and complexity of fine wines” can be considered off-putting by some, and a class marker by others. The actual experience is different from what one might expect: the place itself is more relaxed, and the staff – courteous and approachable. Of course, the prices for individual teas can be steep…

The slick, spacious modern interior (glass, stainless steel, natural wood) allows for a more intimate experience. The tea expert on duty is available to assist in the tea selection process.

There is a different tea drinking format available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, from 2:30 to 4:30 pm, for $30 per person: it is the traditional British afternoon tea, where tea selections can be enjoyed with the various sweet and savory finger foods, such as cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones, etc.

It is funny how much more comfortable and familiar a “Western” tea ceremony feels, regardless of how many Japanese and Chinese ceremonies you have attended before…

One easily forgets how much caffeine tea can have, and we arrived at the Tea Cellar already hopped-up on the Ching Ching Cha selections. Thus, we took it easy, and went the aromatic, mellow route with a magnolia oolong and a lemongrass/wild rose tisane…

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As a result, we have got three very different aesthetics, three very different tea drinking experiences to choose from, within a mile radius. Next time, give quality loose-leaf tea a try, and discover the experience that works for you.

Tasty Little Brains, or A Halloween Special

One of my very favorite dishes at Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in NYC, is Frittura Romana. This dish is also known as “fritto misto alla romana” (a mixed plate of “fried things”, – traditionally, fried suckling lamb or veal brains, sweetbreads, and artichokes, sometimes with a few substitutions). The organs and artichokes are deep fried in olive oil, and served with lemon wedges:

tasty little brains and artichokes at Maialino, NYC

It is no secret that Romans’ penchant for deep frying knows no bounds; and neither does their love of offal, the so-called quinto quarto (“5th quarter”). According to Wikipedia, in Roman slaughterhouses, the meat would be divided up in quarters: the prime quarter would go to nobility, second best to the clergy, third – to the bourgeoisie, and forth – to the soldiers. The remainder (the rejected, nasty bits such as heads, intestines, hearts, livers, feet, etc.) went to the working class. As a result, it is hardly surprising that quinto quarto is just as important to the Roman cuisine as the other four quarters.

Before you say “euh gross!” to offal, consider that it is responsible for the existence of such delicacies as fois gras and paté. Of course, offal also includes tripe (stomach lining), and a number of other organs and unmentionable animal parts… I admit that I have to be in the mood for tripe, and have only truly enjoyed it on two occasions (at Checchino dal 1887 in Rome, and Barbacco in San Francisco), both prepared traditionally (stewed in supertasty tomato sauce). But I do adore hearts, livers, brains, tongue, and sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas) on any occasion, and I will mourn forever the closing of NYC-based Convivio, with its incredible, melt-in-your-mouth sweetbreads, testa, and tongue.

R.I.P. Convivio! Till (I hope!) it comes back from the dead, perhaps, as suddenly as it disappeared last March…

Happy Halloween!

Our Favorite Dishes of the Trip

Best gelato:
-Herb-based offerings from Gelateria del Teatro in Rome (sage & raspberry; wild fennel & caramelized almonds, and lavender & white peach.

-Fig gelato from Fior di Latte in Trastevere, Rome managed to capture the essence of seasonal small figs called “settembrini”.

-Crema della Nonna (custard-flavored gelato) from Natale, Lecce.

Best seafood dish:
-Grano con cozze: grano with mussels in a simple tomato base at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli, Puglia. Grano is one of those fascinating ancient whole grains: http://www.sunnylandmills.com/grano_ancient_grain.shtml

NB: Grano was one of the very few food items we brought home from Italy.

Best fish dish:
Tuna steak (and I don’t even really like tuna and never order it!) as part of the 10-item appetizer course (antipasti della casa) brought to us at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli, Puglia. It was seared on the outside (with a slight balsamic glaze), pretty rare on the inside, and was unlike any tuna I have ever had. I was already full, but I still wolfed it down with pink peppercorns and red onions from another appetizer. It was as big as my head.

Best pasta dish: We ate MANY pastas on this trip, so I think it is fair to include several:
-Cacio e pepe with fried zucchini flowers at Antico Arco in Rome (pasta with pecorino romano and freshly ground pepper). Jeff also wanted to make sure I gave a shoutout to Roscioli’s version because of its amazing texture :-):

cacio e pepe at Roscioli

-Orecchiette integrale con broccoli e capocollo at Il Ritrovo degli Amici, Martina Franca (whole-grain pasta with broccoli and grated local cheese). It is impossible to describe the complexity and texture of this dish, so I am not even going to try.
-Fusilli mollica e crusco (if you thought the previous pasta was not basic enough, here is a pasta with breadcrumbs and crushed red Senise peppers, a Lucan specialty). The ultimate embodiment of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine), this dish does not feature any fresh vegetables, fish or meat. The owner of Le Botteghe quizzed me about the translation of “crusco” before I was allowed to order it (I passed); quite understandable, since it sounds like some very rare and delicious crustacean.
-Ceci e tria at il Frantoio in Puglia: a ribbon-shaped pasta with a sauce of whole and pureed chickpeas.
-Bottarga spaghetti at Antico Arco featuring mullet’s roe from Cetara on the Amalfi coast. It was topped with the most amazing seabass carpaccio (actually, “carpaccio” was their description; the pieces of fish were actually pretty substantial, much to my joy.

What all these pastas have in common: absence of fancy ingredients and complex sauces.

Best appetizer:
-Very lightly marinated zucchini with mint (part of the 14-course appetizer offering at Parco di Castro, Puglia). Zucchini were in season, and during the course of the trip, we had them on pizza (at Forno del Campo dei Fiori in Rome, – it was incidentally the most inspired by the slice, or rather, “by the chunk” pizza we had);

zucchini pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori, Rome

as a carpaccio in a salad, and in a number of pastas.
-Bruschetta at A’Paranza, Atrani, Amalfi coast (crusty country bread, tomatoes and olive oil). Brilliantly simple, it was our favorite rendition of the ubiquitous classic.
-Caponata at Al Vino Al Vino, Rome. This delectable Sicilian dish is made fresh every day by the Sicilian mother of the wine bar’s owner. I am fascinated by the sweet-and-sour combinations, especially by something that is as incredibly balanced as this version.
-Lampascione and other preserved vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at Il Cucco, Cisternino, Puglia.

Best cheese:
-Burrata with semi-dried pugliese tomatoes at Roscioli in Rome
-Different types of ricotta, scamorza, mozzarella, all eaten within 10 seconds of being made (and the smoked and aged stuff – straight in the cheese aging room) at Caseificio Crovace, Puglia:

Best contorno (side dish):
A plate of porcinis with parsley at Cumpa Cosima, Ravello.

Best fruit:
-Moscato grapes from the neighborhood market in Rome on via Montebello.
-A fig from the orchard at b&b Casa Cuccaro, Nocelle

Best dessert:
Miniature cannolo from Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome
Best soup:
Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa, Montepertuso, Amalfi coast.
Best pizza:
Di Matteo
I Decumani

(both in Naples…)

Best pastry:
Warm frolla from Sfogliatelle Mary, Naples (more on that later).
Pasticciotto con pignoli from Avio, Lecce, Puglia (Leccese specialty pastry with a custard filling and in this case, pine nuts).

Best sign:

sign in front of a shop in Ravello