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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Pizza and Perfection on the L Train

Cue the rock music, throw on a cool T-shirt and hop in the L train to Williamsburg – Roberta’s cures what ails you. While the possibility of a lamb dish worthy of a spot in Daniel next to a pizza might sound a bit schizophrenic, here it works just fine.

With its woodsy feel and merry, multicolored light garlands on the walls, Roberta’s, est. 2008, has a feeling of a saloon that sits not too far from the 49th parallel – one that hits full swing by 7 and stays that way till the last tippler is pushed into the Brooklyn night at closing time. I was invited by my sweetheart, Elisabeth, who’d picked up on some very strong hints on where I’d like to celebrate my birthday and we were not let down.

These guys, particularly chef Carlo Mirachi, have some serous friends in the food sourcing business. ‘Beef Carpaccio’ shows up with the marbling of something noteworthy and turns out to be Wagyu from a farm on a big, flat state out west. A drizzle of stellar olive oil creates a dreamy, one-two-three-four adagio progression between vegetal freshness, slick vegetable fat, beefy meatiness and Wagyu fat. I got as much pleasure nibbling away at it as watching Elisabeth enjoy it – something she readily encouraged.

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One plate over, tiny bay scallops with crispy bits of trout skin, Meyer lemon and poppies snuggled in a bowl, reminding me of not one but two childhood favorites – Mom’s broiled scallops, and, thanks to the poppies and the almost bread-y flavor to the broth they waded in, the frozen Pepperidge Farm rolls she’d make in the oven when I was little.

The big gun, however, was the lamb breast main course, cooked sous-vide for a long time then sizzled for a short time to create a crispy/melting combination that recalls the textures of a savory crème brulée. Nearby, a comma of yogurt, dollops of a light mint aspic and gently-braised leaves of, I believe, radicchio and Swiss chard provided punctuation marks of acidity, bitterness and a faint sweetness. Any three-star restaurant would be proud to serve the dish at three times the price.

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Next to the lamb, we’d ordered a pizza – this is a pizzeria, after all – and maybe because it was next to something so spectacular, our pie was the evening’s only relative whiff. The ‘Tracy Patty’ pie features tasty mozzarella, ricotta, lip-smacking boquerones (vinegar-drenched anchovies), garlic and savoy cabbage, but it lacked some juicy agent like tomatoes or more of that amazing olive oil to shuttle each slice it to its final home.

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No matter. Next time we go, we’ll likely try another pie. Perhaps the ‘Voltron’ – it’s got sopressata.

While some crow that the bar-like atmosphere is an odd or uncomfortable place for food this sophisticated, we could have cared less. This is the kind of spot where you want to grab good friend or three on your birthday and have one of the best nights of the year, fussiness be damned. Mirachi’s created an American doppelganger of Sicilian chef Francesco Cassarino’s wonderful Pizzeria Caravanserraglio.

On the subway and once nibbling some of Elisabeth’s fantastic birthday cake at home, we got talking about the best dishes we’d ever had. Rare are the meals that engender that sort of conversation.

“What were the tens?” Elisabeth asked, a question that brought us around the world and back to the meal still in our bellies.

Our lamb, we agreed, was a 9 ½, the scallops a scarce point and a half behind.

“What about the Wagyu carpaccio?” I asked. “A solid eight?”

She responded without hesitation.

“That was a ten.”

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Roberta’s
261 Moore St.
Brooklyn
(718) 417-1118
www.robertaspizza.com

(Editor’s note: No reservations at Roberta’s - go early or wait in line.)

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Paris The World Champion of Gastronomy?

That’s the question French food critic Francois Simon posed to a little panel: Nick Lander, Carlo Petrini, Ken Hom, Anissa Helou, Yumiko Inukai and…yours truly. For a recent article in Le Figaro’s magazine, Figaroscope.

Here’s my response in Version Originale…


World capital? That’s loaded question.

Twenty years – even 10 – ago, the question was bandied about for fun but we already knew the answer, but now, just using the places I know well, it’s a legitimate debate. Barcelona combines an unquenchable curiosity and solid base to keep themselves on cuisine’s front edge. Sicily combines incredible raw ingredients with solid value and New York could win on sheer numbers yet it is Paris’ equal in quality and exponentially more diverse. India is a time machine whose cuisine never ages.

Plus, in Paris, coffee is awful and the beer second rate. It’s also pricey. That said, you forget all problems instantly when the former butcher who can hold four bottles of wine in one hand and owns Le Severo puts a côte de boeuf aged 40 days under your nose. You forget it when Pierre Gagnaire boils down a great vat of red wine to make a tiny component of a sauce. You forget it when Laetitia at Le Bistro Paul Bert greets you with a smile, seats you at your favorite table and gifts you with a glass of wine and when it comes to choosing a bottle of wine doesn’t foist something you can’t afford on you. You forget it when three bottles, two glasses of Calvados and one conversation into a meal, you realize with a start that it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve been at the table for nine hours.

Undeniable world champ? Not anymore. However, the French exception still reigns. Let’s call Paris first among equals.

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Friday, September 09, 2011

GOING NATIVE

I met Hilary Nangle, a fellow Boston Globe freelancer, Maine specialist, skier extraordinaire, and all-around good egg, at a travel writer’s conference last year. Late this summer, I sent her a pair of desperate notes:

ME:
Hi! Heading to maine w family for the afternoon. Got any snack/clam shack recs between Kittery and Ogunquit? Thanks!

This is a sort of abuse of a perk of the trade on my part, particularly when you note my timing. Yet within an hour I had a response…

HILARY:
Bob’s Clam Hut, Route 1, Kittery, tops a lot of lists of the best fried clams. If you’re craving Jamaican fare, there’s a funky takeout spot on the inland side of Route 1, in Cape Neddick, north of York. Flo’s Steamed Dogs have a legacy of their own (written about in both Gourmet and Saveur). It’s also on Route 1 in Cape Neddick (ocean side, look for a reddish-brown roadside shack, open to 3 and not a minute later). Brown’s Ice Cream, Nubble Rd, York, is wonderful, and if you want an old timey experience, stop by the Goldenrod in York Beach (makes taffy, fudge, ice cream). No culinary traveler should miss Stonewall Kitchen just off 95 on Route 1 in York (heading north, exit just before toll). In Ogunquit, Bread and Roses bakery always has wonderful treats.

We try as much as we can - Bob’s is the bomb (see photo), the Jamaican joint was closed, Flo’s was fantastic (they serve Moxie!), and Bread and Roses’ coffee (Carpe Diem) does the trick in spades.

ME:
My word, have I not even written back to say thanks? I’m such a dog. One last question - turns out we’re coming up for a lobstah story Monday & Tuesday (post hurricane, I hope!) any Freeport-area places to stay?
Grazie!
Joe

HILARY:
Grin! Freeport, you can’t beat the Harraseeket Inn (http://www.harraseeketinn.com, it’s close to everything—steps from Bean’s, outlets, shops, restaurants, and it has the best dining in Freeport (okay, new chef since I last went, so can’t guarantee that, but innkeepers are committed to excellence and have deep Maine roots.

Other good spots:
• White Cedar Inn, http://www.whitecedarinn.com (Where we ended up staying - Try the pancakes.)
• James Place Inn, http://www.jamesplaceinn.com
Those are both downtown
Just south of town, Casco Bay Inn: http://www.cascobayinn.com
And if all you want is a cheap sleep, try these tourist cabin:www.maineidyll.com

As for food, I prefer Day’s Lobster, on Route 1 on the Freeport/Yarmouth town line. Nothing fancy, but there are picnic tables on the back lawn overlooking a tidal estuary.

Other good spots in Freeport: Mediterranean Grill, Azure Cafe.
H.

All this lady does is throw strikes! Follow Maine’s self-proclaimed Travel Maven on Facebook.

Thank you, Hilary!



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Thursday, February 17, 2011

THE CREPE KING OF OYSTER CITY

CANCALE, France - Dad, Jim and I leave the ladies to roam on their own for a bit and we head to the oyster stands to split a few plates, sitting on the sea wall and flipping the shells into the sea.

Later, we double back for lunch at the Breizh Café. With the mother ship here, and branches in Paris and Tokyo, this place is multiplying like, um, hotcakes and that’s not such a bad thing.

Bertrand Larcher serves classics with high-quality fillings or more creative combinations like my smoked herring, lumpfish roe and cream - smoky, salty and just a little sweet. Whatever you get, the buckwheat crepes are crispy on the outside, downy within.

Nobody at the table offers to share - a good sign - and we wash it down with a Fouesnant cider that has a wonderful, farmy funk.

I run out to feed the meter before the dessert crepes - chocolate and butter and apple compote, cider syrup and whipped cream - are ordered and return to two rather tiny wedges the gang has ‘saved’ for me. Not bad considering I had to push the idea of dessert on them.

After that, we go back out and have more oysters on the sea wall.

Not really. But we thought about it.

Count on 15-20€ with cider.

Breizh Café - MAP
7 quai Thomas
Cancale
+33 (0)2 99 89 61 76
www.breizhcafe.com

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Monday, January 24, 2011

NO MAP, NO PHOTO. NO WAY.

This is a public service writeup for what we call the “run away” column on the Simon Says site.

I’ve spent the last few weeks on the road, working on a Frommer’s guide update in Burgundy and the Rhône. Meeting an out-of-town colleague and his wife for brunch right after my return to Paris, I was happy to have someone else choose the location.

Les Editeurs sits across the street from Yves Camdeborde’s wonderful Le Comptoir and a stone’s throw from the Odeon metro. Walls of books and red-leather chairs make Les Editeurs look like a nice place to while away an afternoon, perhaps that’s best done with a beer or something else that they didn’t create on site.

Yesterday morning, 25 euros bought Sunday brunch at Les Editeurs. Brunch is a Parisian trend I’ve never understood in ten years here - a bad translation from the beautiful, bountiful American original. The French version is often overpriced and boring. Les Editeurs version included watery OJ, bad coffee, a basket of croissants and soggy toast and a plate with small ramekins of unremarkable scrambled eggs, a fruit cup, yogurt and something else that my mind has blocked out.

My colleague’s wife ordered a fifteen-euro club sandwich which she asked for without bacon. She was informed the sandwich was pre-made, but she could remove the bacon.

Really? Why do you need to pre-make a club sandwich in a restaurant? There are other time-saving/corner-cutting measures to take in a kitchen that don’t make bread soggy.

She did her best to push the sandwich around on her plate, but couldn’t bring herself to eat it. The waitress asked her about it and she couldn’t lie. To their credit, they comped it.

I’ve just come off of three days of incredible food in Lyon - fantastic three-course meals for under 20 euros. Yes, you can argue you pay for a prime location, but today’s brunch made me want to walk to the train station and have a few more meals in the Rhône before returning to Paris and pretend like I just got back.

Les Editeurs
4 Carrefour de l’Odéon
75006 Paris

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

STARS BETWEEN THE BUILDINGS

A stroll through Ragusa Ibla will shave hours from the time you need to get to know people.

We’ve just had dinner at Pizza Nove. Suffice to say, Ristorante Caravanserraglio retains its Sicilian pizza crown.

We head up to Ragusa Ibla for a walk, stopping off for a completely unnecessary gelato at Gelati DiVini and Francesco orders cups of jasmine and olive oil. (The olive farmer pleases the ladies in our group with edible flowers and does a bit of marketing at the same time - genius!)

More importantly, how do you turn jasmine - still blooming across the countryside in the Sicilian fall - into gelato? And how do you do it so it doesn’t taste like cheap perfume? This is the place to find out.

We head back into the side streets, staring at the stars between the buildings. Smiling. Present.

Gelati DiVini - MAP
Piazza Duomo, 20

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
http://www.gelatidivini.it

PS - That fuzzy looking thing in the photo of Lex? That’s the gelato - she made us go back the next day. And the blissed-out grin? That’s the gelato, too.

PPS - Gelati DiVini has a host of other gelato flavors - check out writer and Ragusa resident Jann Huizenga’s take on it here, and read my Boston Globe Giro del Gelato here.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

HALLOWEEN IN THE MOTHERLAND WITH THE WOLFMAN

Fueled on gelato and strong espresso, I take a sunset run through town and down into the canyon. Past the chapel dug into the canyon wall and west toward Modica. Nobody but the goats go beyond the shepherd’s farm.

I forget how wild it is out here. There are pomegranate plants, boughs bent with plump, almost-ripe fruit, wild herbs, particularly a form of sage that’s got a near-fruity smell and cactus full of prickly pear are everywhere. Dried carob beans litter the ground, thistles dot the trail and an owl-like bird I’ve never seen flies out of the trees and toward the sun.

I come to my turnaround point, legs nicked from the thick, high tufts of grass and turn on Green Day. The right music makes you feel like you’ve got rockets on your feet. I go as fast as I can the whole run home, thinking I’m going to lose it on a rock and they’ll hear the pop of my ankle echo down the canyon. Instead, I grunt, snort and make animal noises all the way back - who’s going to hear me? It’s the best run of the year.

Past the shepherd’s place, I pass a teenage couple, the air thick with hormones and perfume.

Staring at me, she shrieks “L’uomo lupo!”

Wolfman!

I howl obligingly.

Back in town, the sky purple after the sunset, noisemaking fireworks detonate in the air. Pigeons scatter into the air and school kids in uniform play soccer in a church square. A pair of widows dressed in black walk toward me and say good night to each other and turn in opposite directions, giving the scene an unintentional symmetry.

I’m back in the Motherland. It’s time to eat.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

IN BRUGES: THE END OF THE BEER REPUBLIC

Last blog in Belgium Beer and Fries week! (Or was it ‘Brussels Beer & Fries’?) No better way to end than a final round or two in Brugges…
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Thanks to our great B&B’s beer selections, a belly full of Brussels’ best (where I confirmed I’m more of a gueuze and lambic guy than a Trappist type) and a short time frame, we only sipped suds on the town on one night.

We’d been tipped off that Lokkedize was the spot people from town go to hide from the tourists and found that though there isn’t an enormous selection, beer is the drink of choice. On this night, there’s a great Straffe Hendrik from the town’s Brouwerij de Halve Maan. The food, though it didn’t look like anything to write home about looked like a good, inexpensive option.

Heading back to the B&B, we walked in front of De Republiek, a bar with just the right amount of people, just the right amount of light, just the right amount of noise and a great beer list. Somebody by themselves could come into this big space without feeling self conscious and a group of friends could enjoy a conversation without shouting.
We looked at each other and went in without a word.

The beer list was good enough to have Boon’s Oud Gueuze - a beer that’s been barrel aged for a few years then put in a bottle and stored for a few more. I had one (33 oz.) then another (25 oz.). What can I say? It was my last night in Belgium.

Before we left, I took a sniff and a sip (both deep). I could come up with a set of descriptors, but it was better than that. It smelled good. It made me smack my lips and smile. Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but I said, “This is pretty perfect.”

It was.

Lokkedize - MAP
Korte Vulderstraat 33

8000 Brugge

http://www.lokkedize.be/bistro.html

+32 (0)50 33 44 50

The front of the menu says both “Hard to find and worth the discovery” and “We appreciate cash.”

De Republiek - MAP
St. Jakobsstraat 36
Bruges
http://www.derepubliek.be
+32 (0)50 34 02 29

Beer fans - continue your reading here with my Boston Globe story, Stalking A Wild Brew and Bottled Brilliance in Centurion Magazine. Cap it off with the beer & fry blogs from this past week.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

IN BRUGES: LOLLING IN THE COACH HOUSE

Finding good accommodations online is as fun as buying a plane ticket. In Bruges, where seemingly every other business is a hotel catering to the legions of tourists who descend on this place in the warmer months, it’s particularly intimidating.

To avoid losing a day, I give myself 15 minutes and a budget, opening tabs left and right off of the helpful brugge.be Web site and doing a quick process of elimination.

God bless the off season - I’m now two for two at finding great B&Bs in Belgium.

The full day we’re at ‘t Koetshuis - the one you’d imagine spending all day wandering around one of Europe’s most beautiful cities? Well, the little guest house has a bath, a patio that looks out onto a canal, a fireplace, a big couch and a huge selection of beer; we spend most of the day lolling around, not feeling like we’re missing out at all.

I also like that it’s a pair of professionals - two child psychologists - running the place. Clearly, they don’t need to be doing this, but they’re generous with their time and have plenty of good recommendations for where to go in town.

Next time I’m here, booking will consist of one phone call.

‘t Koetshuis MAP
Sulferbergstraat 38

Bruges
+32 (0)50/348.867
www.gastenkamer.be

One suggestion: go with friends or family: the guesthouse has two rooms upstairs and a the common room (with the fire and the kitchen) downstairs. If the other room was occupied by people you didn’t know, I could imagine the lolling around part being a little awkward.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

IN BRUGES: RESTAURANT REVIEW - I TURNED AND THERE HE WAS…GONE!

The idea was to do a Belgian blog a day until it’s over (it’s almost over), but one or two of you may have noticed that ‘404 Not Found’ notice on these pages 24 hours ago. As my good friend Jerry Romano likes to say: “I turned and there he was…gone!”

Without further ado, it’s time for dinner in Bruges.

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There’s a bit of sticker shock when you get here - your eyes go wide when they gaze up the beauty of the architecture and stay wide when they look down at the prices on the menu. The price of UNESCO status, I suppose.

On a tip and without much time to choose - they’re early eaters up this way - we head to De Wijngaart, just outside of where most visitors stray. The restaurant stays smart and honest in a town catering to so many out of towners that you have to watch your step.

It’s a treat to watch the guy at the grill which is cleverly placed at the center of the tiny dining room; his heat tolerance must be legendary in these parts. With stubby red fingers, he uses a long-handled cinder rake to move coals under the grill, giving him great heat control. It’s a very clever system.

What I also like is that while you’re eating your entrée, the grill man’s got your cut coming to room temperature, instead of going from the fridge to the flames.

One tic: the waiter asks if I want my steak medium rare, I say ‘rare’ and it comes out medium, but it’s still good enough that it doesn’t matter. We also have a salad using bacon that’s grilled right next to my steak that’s worth it just for the salty goodness of the meat.

Dessert? Too sweet. We eat it with a smile.

How much? We did some creative ordering, had a few beers and got out of there for 20 euros a head. Hungry eaters should count on about 30.

De Wijngaert - MAP
Wijngaardstraat 15
Bruges
+32 050 33 69 18
http://www.wijngaert.com

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