Friday, June 30, 2006

Chez Panisse

Everything else seems to change, worsen, or disappear but Chez Panisse is a place I can return to and find that, if it changes at all, it is always a change for the better. I may be voting for a winner here but I agree with people who think Chez Panisse is the greatest restaurant in America. Better than that, it is a place I call home. I had my first meal there when I was 20 years old and on a blind double date. The food was the most memorable thing about the evening.
Whenever I come home to San Francisco, I make my first stop in Berkeley to have lunch in the upstairs café at Chez. It's a tradition.
Today I am having lunch with my friend Sue Moore who is the meat forager for Chez and has her own company, "Let's be Frank", a grass fed hot dog outfit.

To start with I order the brandade that is served on toast baked in the wood oven and accompanied by a fennel salad. I adore brandade which is a puree of cod and potatoes. The texture of this brandade is perfect as is the long slice of baguette. The salad of fennel and parsley is quintessential Chez. The parsley is pungent yet subtle and parsley-like—a hallmark of Chez Panisse where each ingredient is brought to perfection.

My next course is the Hoffman Farm chicken al mattone with fava bean fritters, coleslaw, and gremolata. The whole combination is delicious, especially the fava bean fritters with their light breadcrumb crust and tender interior. I must have this recipe…

Finally, I order the nectarine and summer berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. The cobbler has the right kind of biscuit nicely baked with the fruit and it is not too sweet. The ice cream has a slight vanilla bean flavor and the whole thing exudes the essence of summer.

We are drinking a bottle of the 2005 Bandol Rosé from Domaine Tempier, a wine that seems to go with everything I love at Chez. The 2005 is one of the best vintages I can remember from Tempier. Incredibly elegant, soft tannins and really expressive concentrated fruit.
Partway through lunch I sense that something in the restaurant has changed, but can't figure out exactly what. Then, as I am served my main course, I realize that the plates are not the standard white that the restaurant has used since the very beginning. Recently, Alice has collaborated with Christine Kim from Dosa to create a dinnerware line produced by a local pottery company, Heath Ceramics in Sausalito. The hues are beautiful pale shades and will be available in retail outlets. Ten percent of the profit goes to Alice Waters' foundation The Edible Schoolyard. So I guess Chez is always changing a little bit and always for the better.

Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California 94709. 510.548.5049

Heath Ceramics, 400 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, California 94965. 415.332.3732.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

La Quercia Prosciutto Americano and Pancetta Americana

I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to produce a great proscuitto in this country and I think someone finally has. La Quercia, a company started by Herb and Katherine Eckhouse, seems to do everything right. The ham is from a Berkshire cross breed raised by the Midwest Organic Valley Coop, and the cut they are using is the culatello (the hind muscle, a prized cut in Italy). The meat is free of antibiotics, nitrates, or nitrate substitutes.

I recently bought some La Quercia prosciutto and pancetta at Murray’s cheese in New York. The prosciutto had incredible texture, a sweet finish and a delicious taste straight through and it was not overly salty. It didn’t have the power of Prosciutto di Parma from Italy or the rich nutty flavor of Pata Negra from Spain, two of my favorite cured hams, but that didn’t matter to me. Why compare Bordeaux to Burgundy? What it did have was integrity.

I picked up some orecchiette pasta from Rustichella d’Abruzzzo at Murray’s and made a pasta with the pancetta, sautéing it until it was crisp with some broccoli rabe, a little cream, and pecorino cheese. It was also incredibly tasty. Again, the pancetta lacked the punch of Italian pancetta but it still had impressive flavor.

I’ll eat prosciutto di Parma in Italy, and Pata Negra in Spain, but La Quercia is the first organic prosciutto and pancetta produced in America and I will be proud to serve it at my American table. Check the website for availability but you may also be able to find it at Whole Foods.

La Quercia, Llc
400 Hakes Drive
Norwalk, Iowa 50211
(515) 981.1628

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pizza, Amore Mio!

After packing up our offices, with all the emotional stress that goes with a move, I decided this was the perfect moment to visit Luzzo's, an Italian restaurant down on First Avenue that specializes in Neapolitan pizza made in a wood- and coal-fired oven. My Neapolitan friend, the wine importer Dominic Nocerino, spoke highly of Luzzo's saying that the pizza was great and the wine list was simple but good. So along with a few fellow editors, each carrying remnants from our old offices, we piled into my car and off we went. I brought along a few bottles from my wine cooler, a 1996 Chardonnay from Gaja and a 1995 bottle of Rancia, a great Chianti, both from Dominic's portfolio as it happens.
When we arrived it was early so the restaurant was quite empty except for two elderly women who sat opposite us. If I hadn't known about Luzzo's from Dominic, I might have walked right by, though, on closer inspection, there was a telltale photo in the window of Martha Stewart with the pizza maker.
So now to the food! I had a hunch we were in for something good so, I thought, why rush things? Instead of ordering the pizza right off we started with a salad, insalata di rucola with apple and pecorino. They added one other ingredient that I have not seen on a salad since I was in Italy—canned corn. What is it with Italians and canned corn? Anyway, the salad was perfectly dressed and delicious. I asked our waiter to recommend a pasta and he didn't hesitate to insist on the scialatelli with artichokes and shrimp. Scialatelli is a regional pasta from Naples and they make it by hand at Luzzo's. It was great and absolutely perfect with the Gaja.
Then when we asked our waiter which pizza we should have he said, again without hesitation, "La Pizza Napolitano" which on the menu is called Bufala di Mozzarella and Basil. We did as we were told. When the pizza arrived I knew it was the real deal. The crust was thin but the edges were irregular and crusty brown from the coal and wood oven. I asked for some crushed red pepper and they brought it along with pepperoncini oil which I drizzled sparingly on my pizza. Perfection. I don't know that I ever had a crust with that texture before, firm and chewy at the same time, very tasty and neither oily nor soggy. The sauce and the bufala mozzarella were all in perfect balance. The Rancia was genius with the pizza but I thought we shouldn't stop with that so I asked our waiter to suggest a wine from their list. He said we had to try the Nero D'Avola, a red wine from Sicily. It was only $38.00 and it was fantastic just as he said, a lot of spicy fruit to complement the food.
The first thing I said after my first bite was that I would drive here any night to get pizza to go. I was immediately reprimanded and told this pizza was too good to travel well and I realize that's true. Food tastes different when you eat it in Italy and the pizza tastes different at Luzzo's, so I am afraid you must travel there to get the real deal.

Luzzo's. 211 First Avenue, between 12th and 13th St.,
NYC. 212.473.7447. Open Tuesday thru Sunday.

Friday, June 9, 2006


Half the pleasure of having a dinner party is setting the table. How the table looks and feels is key to creating the setting for a perfect meal. At Le Bernardin as I was about to be seated I noticed their charger, which I coveted at once. I've been looking for a perfect charger because I love the look of a plate with a napkin on it when you first sit down. Trust me, I'm not into overly elaborate table settings, but making a table look simple is not so simple. Luckily, Melissa Feldman our fabulous Style editor was present and knew exactly where the charger came from—J.L. Coquet's "Hemisphere" Collection, available at many retailers. I love the platinum striped version Le Bernardin uses, but they make a white textured one which appeals to me as well. Maybe I'll get both. A charger makes all the difference.

Loving Rosé
While talking about Spanish wines with Troy Daigle, the new wine director at Le Bernardin, he mentioned that he had had a blind rosé wine tasting with the chef/co-owner, Eric Ripert. Troy gave Eric two rosés to taste—a Spanish rosé from Muga, a producer in Rioja, and one from Domaine Ott, the cult rosé from the heart of the Côtes de Provence region of France. Eric, a member of the Domaine Ott cult, was shocked to discover that he had picked the Muga. Jay and I tasted the Muga in Spain last spring and loved it. (The price is also outstanding.) Check out Jay's upcoming column in August on rosé. He hits the bullseye again.

Le Bernardin. 155 West 51 St. NYC, 10019. 212.554.1105.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

A Perfect Politically Incorrect Dish

I hardly ever taste something so exhilarating that it revs up my appreciation for fine dining. But that's the experience I had recently at Le Bernardin, the famed New York restaurant that specializes in fish. I try to visit Le Bernardin at least once a season and I'm often in for a surprise when I do. The name of the dish that turned me around recently is Foie Gras Terrine; dashi "en gele," mache, Hijiki Seaweed Salad.
Usually when I see a title that long I flee to another part of the menu, but at this meal my guests and I had ordered the tasting menu so we were in for this dish before we knew its name. For the most part I avoid foie gras, not because it is considered politically incorrect (at least in the States), but because if I'm going to overload on calories I'd much rather get them in the form of, let's say, an extra glass of wine or two. But the smokiness of the dashi-infused gee which was cut up into tiny squares, atop the smoothest, creamiest foie gras served on a perfect toast round was absolute genius. To top it off, the mache salad, dressed with a slight citrus finish, tossed with little specs of hijiki and seaweed matched perfectly. It took the whole thing to another level. What that level was can only be described in my humble opinion as perfection. The real genius of the dish is the way it introduced fish into the mix. If I was handing out stars, I would have to invent a fifth one.
To go with this course we had a 2003 Kamptal Gruner Veltliner "Thal" from Hiedler. A refreshing wine with a slight white pepper finish that worked well with the Foie Gras. Very reasonably priced and a perfect match.

Friday, June 2, 2006


My therapist's office is located deep in Manhattan's lower east side so before and after my sessions I've been exploring the neighborhood with great results. First up is September Wines & Spirits on Ludlow and Stanton where they had a 2004 red from Owen Roe, an excellent winery in Oregon state, a promising start.

Then I noticed a 2001 Rioja from Remelluri. I'd just had their white at Le Bernardin which was so unbelievable. I trust the red will be just as good. Lots of great choices, great prices and most important a good edit. Then off to an early dinner at Barrio Chino before it gets crowded and noisy. I start with the fresh grapefruit margarita, (two if it was an intense session) made with top shelf agave tequila, ( I ask for an añejo because I prefer the smoky flavor), and then order their amazing chunky guacamole. After that I have the green chicken enchiladas which have just the right amount of chicken and sauce and are not at all mushy. If I have an early afternoon session I stop by Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Orchard St., the best to-go gelato in New York made from organic milk from Evan's dairy in Norwich, NY. YEAH! My favorite is the mascarpone. (They ship nationwide as well)… If it was a rough session and I need some comfort food I go to Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery and have a chocolate cupcake with white icing. It's a little like Magnolia Bakery but funkier. There is a giant photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy on the wall that I find very comforting. Finally, I check in at Russ & Daughters to see if they have the wild Baltic salmon, which is pale peach in color and the best wild smoked salmon I've ever tasted. That's for my breakfast the next day. Gosh, I hope my therapist never moves.

September Wines & Spirits, 100 Stanton St., NYC, 10002. 212.388.0770.

Barrio Chino, 253 Broome Street, between Orchard and Ludlow, NYC, 10002. 212.228.6710.