Monday, April 30, 2007

Venice, Gato Nero Part 1

I’ve just returned from Venice and I must say that the food and wine there was so outstanding that I’ve decided to blog about it twice. Today’s blog is about my favorite restaurant; the next one will be about favorite dishes in various restaurants.

Gato Nero is a fish restaurant on the island of Burano, known for it lace and its brightly colored buildings, a 30-minute ride from Venice by water taxi.

When we arrived at the restaurant, which is not on the main canal, I could tell that I was in for a major experience. It’s a small place, simple and pure, with great style. We sat outside which is a pleasure as there are no cars and little noise of any kind.

I decided to relax and leave our meal and our wines up to the chef. That turned out to be an excellent idea. We started with a creamy white polenta topped with amazing shrimp (gamberetti) and a drizzle of olive oil. The whole thing melted in your mouth but every texture was distinct and perfect. The charming plates were designed by the chef, Ruggero. When he came to our table he explained his methods and his approach to ingredients and I decided that his was the standard by which I would judge the same food at other restaurants during my stay. I did but none matched the freshness or quality of Ruggero’s.

For a second course we had granseola, spider crabmeat tossed with coral, drizzled lightly with olive oil and served in the shell. We drank a 2005 Gewürztraminer from Hofstatter with both courses and the fruit of the wine was almost perfumed but went well with the sweetness of the crab.

We then had risotto di Go made with a stock from Go, a local fish. Ruggero spent 15 minutes explaining how to make the stock. It was the best risotto I’ve ever had--not fishy, but sweet with chunks of gamberetti in it. The texture of the rice was perfect.

Then they brought a plate of cooked seafood at room temperature that we were instructed to eat counter clockwise from the lightest to the strongest flavor. I can’t remember all of it but the snapper pate stood out as did the Carocche, a gray prawn of some sort. With these last two courses we drank a 2006 Tocai Friulano from Livio Felluga which is one of my favorite white wines from that region, crisp, fresh and magical with the food.

Finally, when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat one more thing Ruggero brought out a whole sea bass, (Branzino) caught that morning on a hook (something he was very proud of) that he had cooked in a salt crust.. That fish was the best fish I’ve ever had. It was chewy yet tender, sweet and minerally with nothing on it but a drizzle of olive oil.

Before I left I asked Ruggero about the secret to his cooking, and he replied that you must start with premier ingredients and stay true to Venetian tradition with the best olive oil, garlic and salt-- not any salt but salt from Trapani. I left Gato Nero changed and ruined; I don’t think I can ever eat fish anywhere else again……

Al Gato Nero
Fdm. Giudecca, 88 Burano

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lunch at Peter Luger's

Since my teens when I had my first food epiphany at a little trattoria off Lake Como, I’ve been getting my food inspiration from Europe. Is it just that everything somehow tastes better in Italy, France and Spain, or is the experience of eating there really so superior?

This past weekend one of my food mentors, Monique DuVeau, the editor/stylist for Cote Sud and Cote Ouest, two great European magazines, was in New York with her partner Jose Esteves for José’s exhibition of lighting at Interieurs in Tribeca. Monique and José divide their time between Paris and Normandy and they both have more style in their little fingers than anyone I know. Best of all, they are not snobs. I was trying to think of an interesting place to take them for lunch since they are always introducing me to great restaurants in Paris. My editor, who was joining us, suggested going to Peter Luger’s, the famous steak house in Williamsburg Brooklyn. What a brilliant idea it was.

Williamsburg is great for Europeans who often don’t get to see that part of New York. When we arrived in the neighborhood, José was thrilled by the Williamsburg bridge. Bridges are his passion and he spent some time photographing this handsome example.

As soon as we sat down for lunch, we were given a gravy boat of Peter Luger’s famous steak sauce causing Monique to exclaim, “I’m having this with everything!” I reassured her by telling her she would be able to buy a bottle or two to go. Knowing that she could take the experience home settled her down. I’m like that in Paris: when I discover something I love, I am already thinking about how I can fit it into my suitcase.

My editor has a tradition at Peter Luger’s: she starts off with a thick slice of crisp grilled bacon and a Grey Goose martini. I was dubious about this but game. Monique and Jose were up for the full Luger experience whatever it turned out to be even though they thought they were getting a vermouth aperitif (as in Martini and Rossi), not a high octane vodka concoction. They had never had a martini before! I’m not much of a martini drinker either, especially at lunch, but a sip of mine with the bacon was an incredible revelation. Somehow the warm thick succulent slab of bacon was perfect with the ice cold martini which washed down the fat. For any serious pork lover this duo is a culinary wonder.

We then had the steak for four. My editor remarked that Peter Luger’s is actually our L’Ami Louis, the famous Paris bistro that serves cote de boeuf. And then I got it: All these years I’ve been chasing great experiences in Europe, while my friends from there are looking for the same experience here. We also ordered onion rings, fries, and baked potato all of which were exceptional. I chose a California wine to complete the American experience--the 2004 Ridge Geyserville which went really well with the food.

For dessert Monique had the cheesecake, something she loves but will only order in New York. I chose the Holy Cow, a hot fudge sundae topped with a cherry and a chocolate dipped wafer shaped like a cow. When it arrived, Monique looked at it in its tall sundae glass and exclaimed, “ I must tell Pierre Herme of this!” Pierre Herme is the most celebrated pastry chef in all of Paris. The fact that Monique saw something new an exciting in this old standard is part of her genius; she made me see it afresh too. She will no doubt inspire Pierre Herme to make his own sublime version.

What made this lunch so memorable was the way that real food people, no matter where they come from, recognize a great food experience no matter where they find it. It is not about star ratings; it’s about finding and loving the real thing. Peter Luger’s is our real thing.

Peter Luger
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11211
718 387 7400

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Perfect Lunch

The perfect restaurant meal for me is one where both the food and the experience go way beyond everything I anticipated when I made the reservation. That, happily, was the case the other day at the bar at The Modern, one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants located in the Museum of Modern Art.

I’ve had been craving their Tarte Flambée, an Alsatian pizza made with cream fraiche, onions, and bacon on a very thin crust. They make it perfectly, better than anyone else. I love eating at the bar at The Modern because it is more casual than the dining room and is great for people watching. It’s also more reasonably priced. The scale of the room really makes you feel as if you are on the set of an old Woody Allen movie; everything and everyone looks quintessential New York, even the tourists.

The chef at the Modern, Gabriel Kreuther, is from Alsace as is Stephane Colling, the wine director. The menu is influenced by Alsace and the wine list is superb.

We started with their liverwurst, which is made with black truffles and served with four pickled vegetables. I asked Stephane to choose a wine for us and he selected the 2004 Albert Seltz Pinot Blanc Reserve which is not on the bar list. He told me that this was a small production wine made by an eccentric producer. Because Alsatian food is so rich you need a great clean wine with enough acidity to balance the food. And what a match this was! The wine had notes of honey, orange peel and a slight finish of chestnuts, and to me it was a magical, velvety, creamy pairing with the liverwurst. Best of all, it wasn’t expensive.

Next we had the Tarte Flambe which was perfection and went perfectly with the wine. The first bite had that fabulous sour taste of the cream fraiche, the onions were perfectly cooked and sweet, the tiny julienned bacon was rich and salty and the crust was thin, crisp, and not soggy. It is that sweet and sour thing that has to happen if you want a perfect Tarte Flambée, and The Modern gets it right.

I want to keep going back and having the same thing for lunch. I’m a creature of habit, and yet there are so many other amazing dishes on the menu that I am going to have to break down and try them all

The Bar at The Modern
9 west 53rd Street
New York, New York 10019