Saturday, 24 March 2007

New Orleans...The Big Easy is not the easiest place to eat well

Last October, The noted food critic Alan Richman published a fairly scathing article in GQ about the quality of food in New Orleans post-Katrina. His point was, interestingly, not that the quality had failed to return after the hurricane, but that quality actually had long since disappeared pre-Katrina, and that New Orleans cuisine had become a mediocre, tourist-focused charicature of itself for years now. This understandably prompted a lot of outrage from New Orleaneans, who felt kicked when they were down.

The article happened to coincide with my first ever trip to New Orleans, so I read it with interest, and a bit of skepticism. Unfortunately, after two trips in short succession (one in early November and one in February) and more than a dozen meals in the Big Easy, I have to conclude that he was mostly right about the current quality of many of the places that had come highly recommended (I can't comment on what the food was like pre-Katrina, of course). There were several wonderful exceptions, however, so i'll start with those. You'll note that my first two choices happen to be Richman's recommendations. I would note that I ate at them on my second trip, after finding the other places so lackluster.

Liuzza's by the Track at 1518 North Lopez Street is the only meal I had in New Orleans that was I would call extraordinary. And by extraordinary, I mean one that was so good that I asked what time they closed that night so I could come back and have the same meal for dinner. That meal, by the way, was a bowl of their piquant gumbo and their famous barbequed shrimp po' boy. The latter is not barbequed in any traditional sense. It is small, shelless shrimp, seemingly braised in a sauce of extraordinary amounts of butter, black pepper and other spices, and then generously ladled (sauce and all) into a hollowed out roll. The roll, by the way, is unique in my experiences in New Orleans, in that it is good. The overwhelming majority of po' boys I've had are served on a light facsimile of a baguette with the internal consistency of a cotton ball and a thin skin of stale, papery crust. When I say that the Liuzza's po' boy was divine, I am understating the taste of this heavenly sandwich. The proportions are all perfect: the spices, the consistencies. This is a meal I would fly in just to eat.

August - at 301 Tchoupitoulos is a sophisticated restaurant that has blended traditional Lousiana cooking with modern restaurant technique and presentation. The menu had a large number of interesting choices, pushing me toward the house degustation menu - a promised three-hour meal with wine pairings. It was an excellent way to sample the kitchen's capabilities, with no course less than very good. The most memorable item was a crawfish boil with black truffles. The only disappointment of the meal was that the wines, though copious, were quite average compared both to the food, and to the quality implied by the menu and server in advance. This is an excellent place for an important meal, business or personal, or a splurge. It has the advantage of being directly across the street from one of the W hotels in town, which is an excellent place to stay.

Stewart's Diner - at the corner of North Claiborne Avenue and Desire. We stumbled on this place because it was the only place open for lunch post-Katrina (or open at all, actually) in the 9th Ward where we were working. Little did we know that it's where President Bush ate when he came visited the area. A very simple, clean place with a lunch counter and about eight tables, this family-run diner is excellent. Fried shrimp po-boys (dressed, of course) come loaded with an abundance of good-sized, crisp shrimp. The daily specials include a fried pork chop in a secret seasoning that is delectible. Prices are extremely reasonable, and co-owner Kim Stewart is a pleasure to speak with. We ate there three days in a row.


Lola's 3312 Esplanade Avenue (504) 488-6946. This was another stumble-upon. A neighborhood Spanish place with a very loyal clientele. The garlic shrimp appetizer was fantastic. So good, in fact, that it overshadowed everything else we tried by a significant margin. We all agreed it would be a good place to go simply to drink wine and eat garlic shrimp. (one caveat, they tried to serve us a cheaper wine than we'd ordered).

Napoleon House 500 Chatres Street. Still recovering from Katrina, it is only open for lunch, and with their still-limited staff, waits can be long. We sat in the courtyard, which is both comfortable and very atmospheric. We tried a variety of items, but the standout was the gumbo. Thick and packed with seafood and rice, it was the best I've tasted in New Orleans. That said, everything else was fairly average. One observation worth making, this is the first and last time I had a muffaletta. The muffaletta is a famous New Orleans cold-cut sandwhich on a large round loaf, slathered with a tapanade of olives and vegetables. It never sounded particularly interesting to me, I but I figured I'd try one. Sadly, it was precisely what I'd feared a muffaletta to be: a terrible riff on a traditional italian hoagie. This is not specific to Napoleon House. The problem with these sandwiches is that the proportions are off. There's way too much bread, a particular problem in a city that doesn't seem to know how to make very good bread. I'm told that Central Grocery is the king of muffaletta's, but I resisted, convinced that it would just be another sandwhich. Maybe I'll relent on my next trip.

Cafe du Monde - While they've become a chain, the orginal at the French Market, 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans, La, 70116 is pen 24 hours a day, closed 6pm December 24, opens 6am December 26 504-525-4544 is a delightful place to drink their delicious proprietary blend of chicory and coffee, and gorge on freshly fried beignets. One word of advice as to the latter, they are markedly better hot, so eat them as quickly as you can.

Dick and Jenny's 4501 Tchoupitoulas Street (504) 894-9880 a long cab ride from downtown, this creative, friendly cajun restaurant is known for long waits. We had none, however, as we opted to eat at the bar. The winelist is pocked with reasonably-priced gems (including a Seavey cabernet). The appetizer sampler was a good start, and the scallops were very good, though a bit on the small side.


Acme oyster 724 Iberville Street is as generic as its name. Sitting at the oyster bar the fresh-shucked oysters were ok, and everything else was similarly unmemorable.

Cochon 930 Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse district is a restaurant dedicated to the joys of pork. What could be wrong with this, you ask? Lots, actually. Starting with a wine of a different vintage that they tried to pass off as the same, and then an argument when we raised it, the experience went down from there. The food was ok, but again, the fact that I remember nothing in a joint serving my favorite flavor of flesh speaks volumes.

Mother's 401 Poydras StNew Orleans, LA 70130(504) 523-9656 is famous for breakfast and for its "debris" po' boys -- the remainders of cut roast beef. The portions are huge, but nothing is particularly stand-out.

Don't bother
Deanie's Seafood
1713 Lake Avenue in Metairie promised a real crawfish boil, which is remarkably hard to find in New Orleans. When we got there, we discovered that the crawfish were out of season and therefore only frozen. We opted instead for a fried seafood sampler. The portions are enormous, but the food was average at best.

K-Paul's Lousiana Kitchen 416 Chartres Street Paul Prudhomme's Cajun flagship was dull, hackneyed and terribly overpriced.

Friday, 23 March 2007

The best meal of my life

Those of you reading will start to get the impression that I only eat Italian food, which actually couldn't be farther from the truth. That said, I recently was asked about the best meal I've ever had, and I answered both immediately and unequivocally. Gambero Rosso, in the tiny Tuscan fishing town of San Vincenzo easily takes the prize. I ate there in June 2000 with one of my two best friends in the world - driving three hours from Florence in a torrential downpour just for lunch. The restaurant had been described as casual, so I showed up in jeans and a (damp) black t-shirt. After a couple of wrong turns, we ended up entering what clearly was not a casual restaurant. The incredibly sophisticated by tiny, multi-tiered dining room was guarded at the entrance by chef-owner Fulvio Pierangelini. Earlier photos I had seen had cast him as a warm, soft mensch-type. In person, he was tall, huge and foreboding - and not at all pleased at my casual garb. I apologized profusely in stilted Italian, and we were forgiven and seated. Thank god.

The lunch was prix fixe with the only option being two additional courses, bringing the lunch to eight courses which we happily accepted. As we munched the home baked crescent and multi-grain rolls with an exquisite salted butter, I perused the incredible wine list. Pierangelini has a separate 45,000+ bottle cellar across the street from his restaurant with remarkable allocations at even more remarkable prices. We began with a split of 1997 Gaja Gaya & Rey for $32.50 to accompany a warm octopus terrine with potato, followed by a fish mousse with a pungent pesto sauce. We then had a red snapper salad, also warm, with cous-cous and greens. Next was a chickpea puree with extraordinary olive oil and a generous portion of poached shrimp. This dish had been adopted in many Tuscan restaurants, but is credited to Pierangelini, who executes it in an incredibly memorable manner. As we paused to catch our breath, a beautiful plate of extremely delicate ravioli arrived. The pasta was a fascinating rolled checker board of egg and squid ink, filled with mixed seafood in a very light tomato sauce. At this point, the Gaja was long gone and we moved to a 1996 Argiano Solengo for an incredible $40 (granted this was pre-Euro, but still). We scarfed the sea bass with deep fried tiny baby artichokes and whipped potatoes, followed by squab breast seared with rosemary with spinach and garlic, and crispy squab leg and a fried dumpling of squab confit. Dessert was a chocolate terrine with zabaglione and whie custard, and then coffee with two different trays of petit-fours.

We marveled at each dish, and even now, almost seven years later, I can still taste them as I describe them. When we rose to leave, and nodded our approval and gratitude to Pierangelini, I realized the full extent of his generosity for letting me eat that meal despite my wholly inappropriate attire.

We sat on a bench outside, looking at the sea afterwards for an hour before we could muster the energy to get back in the car and drive the three hours home to Florence. I'd do it again tomorrow.

When in Rome

Rome is unusual for an Italian city, in that it is actually quite possible to have a bad meal. As a general rule, the farther away from tourist neighborhoods, the better the food. The problem is that most of Rome is a tourist neighborhood. I generally break Rome down into lunch places and dinner places.

For starters, for lunch go to Sora Margherita in the Ghetto. It is literally a door in a wall in the Piazza Cinque Scuole. In order to get around some arcane Italian regulation they are a "cultural organization," so you need to be a "member" to eat there. What that means in practice is ther you'll need to fill out a "membership card" when you arrive, it's free and takes about two minutes. Once you have, you're a member for life. The place has no decor, the menu changes daily, but it is family run and the food is delicious. I recommend the tagliatelle cacio e pepe con ricotta, the lamb scottaditto, and the carciofi a la giudia (fried whole artichokes). In fact, you're generally safe with those two things everywhere good in Rome.

Also in the ghetto are Vecchia Roma (formal, starched white table cloths, good for dinner) and Giggetto, both of which are very good. But Sora Margherita is THE place in the ghetto. Unfortunately, it's been discovered, so you'll find more than a few tourists there these days, but it hasn't seemed to effect the food yet.

A similar now-discovered secret that I love is Pierluigi - a fantastic fish place that's a little higher end but not super expensive - still mostly Italians. If you're facing the Palazzo Farnese, walk to your right down via Monserrato until you get to Piazza Ricci, the restaurant is on your left on the corner. The octopus Sopresatta is unique and wonderful, the spaghetti a la vongole always fresh and the grilled whole fish is simple and divine. There's another fish restaurant on via Monserrato on your right side just before you get to Pierluigi, at which I've never eaten but which is supposed to be excellent.

When I have one lunch in Rome because I'm using it as a transit spot in or out of Italy, I go to Taverna Romana. It's at 79 Via Madonna dei Monte which is one block to the left (parallel) to the Via Cavour if your back is to the Forum (making it an excellent lunch spot for sight-seeing). It's run by a cantankerous old Roman couple that don't really speak English. The menu is tipica Romana, and the standards are good, particularly the scottaditto, the cacio e pepe, and the carbonara. The house wine is very tasty as well.

Osteria Romanesca in the Campo dei Fiori was a decent trattoria 4 or 5 years ago, very simple and very cheap. The food was super salty, but I like that.

Dal Bolognese near the Piazza del Popolo is a power dinner place, very good food, a bit more formal. not cheap (but not crazy). reservations likely required.

Il Matriciano off the Collo di Rienzo is a big Italian movie industry hangout. The food is excellent, you'll need reservations. The marinated sardines and the bucatini amatriciana are a must.

In the Testaccio district you could try Checchino dal 1887 (they have a website and take reservations by email). It's very, very famous for organ meat, so be careful what you order, but it's a true Roman institution. Not cheap at all, but an experience, and they have a fantastic wine cellar.

There's also a place called Tram Tram that I liked, near the basillica of San Lorenzo, which is out of the way. Not touristy, trendy with locals. The menu is fish-focused. I'd take a cab there and back, as some of the side streets are a bit sketchy at night.

Finally, there's this place Alfredeo e Ada on Banchi Nuovi, 14, Near Castel St. Angelo, that I've been dying to try - little hole in the wall, a bunch of old italian ladies. It doesn't seem to be open all the time and it's hard to find (no sign).

And of course, don't forget gelateria Giolitti near the Pantheon. It's simply fantastic.

Friday, 2 March 2007

My standard Florence recommendations

I've been lucky enought to live in Florence, Italy twice - and as a result have spent a lot of time vacationing there. While it is susceptible to lots of fair criticisms: too many tourists, too many restaurants catering to tourists, etc., it is a wonderfully accessible city, particularly when visited in late fall or winter.

There are a number of places I frequent whenever I go back. Most are mentioned in reliable guidebooks -- which is often the kiss of death for an Italian restaurant. These nonetheless have maintained a high level of food quality, service and atmosphere.

My first stop is always Cibreo Trattoria, located in a residential neighborhood behind the Duomo about 10-15 minutes near the Sant' Ambrogio market. Chef-owner Fabio Picchi has a bit of a dynasty going in this neighborhood, with a trattoria, ristorante, bar, and dinner theater all next to one another. The food is creative Tuscan, you're unlikely to recognize anything on the menu and much of it looks underwhelmingly simple when it arrives. But wait until you taste... The intensity of flavors is extraordinary. The more formal restaurant requires reservations, and the trattoria next door (literally) with the same menu from the same kitchen at less than half the price (the portions are slightly smaller, more limited wine list and no reservations - plenty of food and by far the better deal). The pomodoro in gelatina (spicy tomato aspic) is outstanding, as is the sformato di ricotta e patate (think a gnocchi flan), and the calamari inzimino (squid and black cabbage cooked with hot peppers and squid's ink). I adore this place.

Aqua al 2 (Via Vigna Vecchia 40/r - 055 28 41 70) is a very lively, inexpensive restaurant right behind the Bargello (sculpture museum) popular with locals and students. Most nights these days it's packed with Americans until the late night Italian crowd wanders in, but don't let that scare you. The menu is not particularly Tuscan: Excellent pasta dishes - particularly the fusilli with porcini mushrooms and marscapone. They do an assagi di primi, a tasting of 5 different pastas that come out separately as each is made to order. The tagliata (sliced steak with arugula) is quite good as is the chicken curry believe it or not, and I love the tiramisu here. Wine list is limited but reasonably priced. I've been eating here since I was a student almost 20 years ago, and the owners, Gianni, Stefano and Lucia have always remembered me and treated me like family.

Quattri Leoni – Via de dé Vellutini 1R in the Piazza della Passera Tel 055/218562, has a number of wonderful dishes and a good wine list. The fiochetti a la pera - pasta stuffed with taleggio cheese and pears in an asparagus cream sauce - is marvelous. The tagliata di pollo is thin slices of marinated grilled chicken that are intensely flavored, and the torta di pera e ciocollato (pear and chocolate cake) keeps the pear theme going perfectly.

La Giostra – Via Borgo Pinti 12/r (Behind the Duomo on a small side street off Via del Oriouolo) tel. 055 241341 – is very romantic, though overrun with tourists and expensive. The food is very good, and the wine list is pricey but voluminous. One side note, they perform an extensive ritual when serving the wine, that includes taking a glass from your bottle, presumably to be served to the owner.

Borgo Antico Noe, Volta di San Piero, 6r, Phone: 055.2340838, just across Via del Oriouolo (in a scary little covered alley between it and Borgo degli Albizi) is a slow food spot that is very good, simple and cheap food. They have a take out sandwich place next door that is also excellent.

Though I used to be fond of Gelateria Vivoli, I think they've suffered from a good reputation. Instead, I now return to Perche No? (Why not?), notably the location of a gelato eating contest my mother won when she studied in Florence in college (which is where she met my dad). Very centrally located and delicious.

If you're thirsty rather than hungry, Florence has some very fun bars. The trendy spot changes at any given moment, but some reliable stand-bys are: Slowly – near the leather market is a dark, lively bar with DJ's, booths and a VIP section upstairs. Rose’s just off via Tornabuoni is much quieter and serves food. It's a good place for a quiet, intimate conversation. La Dolce Vita, is an almost exclusively Italian crowd in the Oltrarno with a huge section of outdoor tables and a great appertivo. A great place to sit, drink and people watch.

In terms of hotels, one of the best deals is Torre Guelfa on Borgo Appostoli. Clean, simple, reasonable very, very central (a block from the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria). Rates include breakfast and there is great roof deck. The only caveat is not to get a room facing the left side alley (facing the building), as the push carts for the leather market are stored in garages there and start moving with significant noise at 5am. For old-world style and luxury, the Grand Hotel and the Excelsior are both Starwood hotels on the Piazza Ognisanti on the Arno. Rooms with wonderful views of the Arno in a convenient neighborhood that is a bit quieter, these places are not cheap. For hip, modern accomodations, the Hotel Gallery Art and Hotel Continental are both across the street from one another and from Torre Guelfa. The style comes at a high price. If you want CHEAP – Hotel Locanda Orchidea (11r Borgo degli Albizi) is about $50 us a night, clean, shared bathrooms, no frills but acceptable. Very central. The owner, Miranda Cook, is English and is very friendly.

The best trattoria in Manhattan

If you know me well, you've been to Il Bagatto with me. Located at 192 East 2nd Street in the East Village, this wonderful little trattoria is going on 12 years - making it a pioneer in what was once a fairly gritty neighborhood. The owners, husband Julio and wife Bea, have created a haven - the perfect communal Italian kitchen for their ever-expanding extended family of clientele. Bea is from Rome, and the food is therefore not surprisingly Roman and Roman inspired. Indeed, all of the food is inspired. The basic menu consists of antipasti, pasta, and secondi which are excellent. However, the real treats at Bagatto are in the specials, 4 antipasti, 3 pasta, and 3 secondi that are created fresh by Bea every day. Salads are always incredibly fresh and flavorful. Cheeses and salumi are imported from Italy, or homemade. The grilled calamari is amazingly delicate. Pastas sauced with homemade ragus, handmade pastas with seafood, and the Sunday lasagna that is invariably sold out by 7:30 pm are mouth-watering. Simple grilled fish, spicy pork chops, saltimboca a la Romana for secondi couldn't be better. And the dessert list provides too many options, all of which are wonderful. Add to this an all-Italian wine list that is fairly-priced and includes some remarkable, rare selections (and the bonus of an even more extensive wine list availablefrom the enoteca next-door, Il Posto Accanto, also owned by Julio and Bea), and you have the perfect site for a weekly meal, particularly because the prices are incredibly reasonable.

The atmosphere is lively on any night, rising to chaotic on Fridays and Saturdays. The decor is warm and inviting, romantic enough for a serious date while fun enough for a first date or a casual dinner. There is an unbelievably dedicated following of regulars who all seem to know one another because they actually do know each other due to Julio and Bea's incredible ability to introduce everyone to everyone. Reservations are a must, particularly Fridays and Saturdays, though prepare to wait those nights even with a reservation. Fortunately, the bar downstairs is well-stocked and the bar tenders are able and extremely friendly. This place is the best.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Frasca comes to Florida!

The owners of Il Bagatto in New York City - an unbelievable Italian restaurant in the East Village, and the subject of another post shortly, introduced me a couple of years ago to a wonderful friend of theirs, Luciano "Frasca" Maddii in Levane, Italy, just outside of the the town of Montevarchi (best known as the home of the Prada outlet). Tucked away on a winding rustic road is an idyllic compound on the Ambra river that houses Frasca's refined and sterling ristorante and inn, "La Valle dell'inferno da I' Frasca." The food is Tuscan using the highest quality ingredients and outstanding technique. Bistecca Fiorentina is enormous and possibly the best I've ever had - the perfect marriage of momentarily seared beef, olive oil, and salt. Fish dinners involve plate after plate of the freshest seafood in simple, exquisitely flavored preparations. Pastas are sumptuous and copious. The wine cellar is packed with gems. If you find yourself in Tuscany, you simply have to make the trek. 055 9180031.

And here's the good news:

If you don't get to Montevarchi quarterly (ah, that we all could) Frasca has now opened his first North American outpost near Miami in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ristorante Da I' Frasca is located at 3145 Commodore Plaza (305 443 3142) in the main commercial section of the Grove. I was lucky enough to get there twice over a recent long weekend, and was thrilled to find that the food is (not surprisingly) up to Frasca's same fantastic standards. Frasca happened to be in the U.S. at the time we were there, and he has a partner here, Marco, who is from Pisa. Antipasti of crostini and salumi were excellent. Spaghetti was cooked true al dente, reminding me how overcooked almost all American pasta is, and serve amatriciana -- delicious. The tagliata di manzo was perfectly seared (almost still kicking) and drizzled with Lussini olive oil. It couldn't have been more tender. The second dinner was fish, starting with an warm octopus and potato salad that was delicate and wonderful, and a tuna tartare with finely minced carrot, celery and lettuce. Fusilli with lobster and fresh tomato was again delicious, followed by steamed Alaskan king crab legs with a touch of the same wonderful Lussini olive oil. Wines included a recent Brolio chianti that was perfect. Desserts were also outstanding. Tiramisu, panna cotta, chocolate mousse and zuppa inglese all done wonderfully. The restaurant is casually elegant, a place appropriate for a romantic meal or for business. In short, this is one of those rare places that takes you to Italy without needing a passport. I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Milan and Venice Restaurants

A long overdue post from some honeymoon dining. I haven't spent that much time in Milan, not that much to see and the euro has killed it as a shopping destination. Both times I've been there as an adult, I've eaten at the same restaurant, which is excellent.

Da Giacomo (via Pasquale Sottocorno 6 - tel. 02 760 23313) - reservations required, closed Mondays. It is very fish-focused, and really, really delicious. They have a great wine list that is well-priced. The spaghetti a la vongole and the shrimp and squid brochette were particularly good, and the desserts rock (get the profiteroles).

In Venice much of the food is not very good and is absurdly over-priced. Wine also tends to be very mediocre. The best food, given the location is fresh fish. In particular, the scallops, (capesante in Italian) are big and have a bright reddish-orange appendage on the side I've never seen in America, that is the best part of the scallop. Their famous "spider crab" is ubiquitous, pricey, and totally uninspiring. Nonetheless, there are a couple of gems we found:

Altanella (Giudecca 268, Rio de Ponte Longo tel. 041 522 7780) - reservations essential, not a lot of english spoken and it is very hard to find but totally worth it (closed Monday and Tuesday). You need to take one of the vaporetti (mass water taxis) to the Giudecca which is across the Grand Canal. The restaurant is down a dark alley-like street just before the Ponte Lungo. They're famous for gnocchi cooked in squid ink, which is worth trying, though a bit odd and incredibly rich.

The other great dinner we had was at La Furatola (Dorsoduro 2870, Calle Lunga Banaba tel. 041 520-8594) Closed Wednesday and Thursday. - also out of the way but on the regular side of the Grand Canal. Again, reservations are a must. It is reputed that if the fish at the market isn't fresh enough, they won't open. The spaghetti vongole was great, as were the simple grilled fish.

Da Fiore (San Poli 2202, Calle del Scaleter tel. 041 721 308) came highly recommended, but we didn't get there. It looked very good and is fairly central. mostly Americans, in contrast to the other two places. they're closed Sunday and Monday.

There are also a number of wine bars serving food that seem good and frequented by lots of locals near the fish market. If you're walking away from the Rialto Bridge towards the fish market, stay all the way to the right by the canal and you'll find it. There are tables set out and people standing everywhere drinking from wine glasses. I had some good risotto there.