PATRICIA WRITES FOR INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE & OTHER PUBLICATIONS
A JULIA CHILD REMEMBRANCE by Patricia Wells - Aug 14, 2009
One of the most amazing things about Julia Child was her total straightforwardness. Once, years ago, when I bemoaned a friend’s passing, she quipped back, “But he lead a good, long life.” And so did she.
Julia was my mentor, friend, a model for how to conduct one’s life. It was totally fitting that my first encounter with this grande dame was a fan letter she wrote in 1984 upon publication of my first book, The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris.
We met face to face shortly afterwards, and for a good decade, nearly every time she came to France, we would get together. The quips and stories of her never stopped. Once she and a younger friend flew from California to Paris and immediately boarded the TGV to Provence. As she looked out the window watching the porter-less travelers struggling with their bags she said to my friend “I wonder what old people do.” She was well past 80 at the time!
She and her aging husband, Paul, came to my 40th birthday party, we celebrated her 80th with a dancing party on the terrace, complete with live music from a Barbary organ. One year we were panelists at a Young President’s Organization meeting in Cannes. After the first day she called me on the phone and said “This is sort of like a Shriner’s convention. Let’s get out of here and go to a good restaurant.”
That evening, we had a magical dinner at Restaurant du Bacon in Cap d’Antibes, a place I knew well and was well known. Julia loved all the attention that was showered on us, and begged to go the next night “to a place where they know you.”
That was the time she also instructed me to dye my hair. It had become mousey brown, with streaks of curly grey, but I was too much of a Catholic Girl to consider anointing my hair with scandalous dye. Julia just looked at me and said simply “People say you look younger if you don’t dye your hair. That’s a mistake.” The next week I made an appointment at Carita in Paris and have never looked back.
But the best part of the story is Julia’s Stove. When Julia lived in Grasse in the 1960’s, she outfitted her kitchen with a La Cornue stove, a shiny white Art Deco-style model. In 1991, she stayed with us at Thanksgiving, on her way down to close down the summer house for good. I asked if I could buy her stove. (For me, it was the equivalent of having Freud’s couch.). She said no. But the next morning she came down to breakfast and said she’d changed her mind. I could have the stove.
We created a cool, summer kitchen with a stone floor, a marble sink, and Julia’s Stove, a cantankerous two-burner gas stove with an oven that seems to have only one temperature, 450 degrees F, no matter how you set it. This summer I have had a quiet ritual: I light the stove each morning, then head for the vegetable garden to gather what has to be picked that day. I make Rustic Tomato Sauce and Eggplant Towers, Stuffed Squash Blossoms and Roasted Pumpkin. By the time I am out of the gym, lunch has been made.
Only last week I emailed her to again thank her and deliver news of her trusty La Cornue. As usual, she emailed back within seconds, saying she only wished she could be here and cook on that stove once more.
For years, I have been saving mementos of her trips. Pictures, menus we’ve all signed, songs that students have written after cooking in Julia’s Kitchen. For no reason at all, today I decided to frame those pictures and mementos and hang them in Julia’s Kitchen. I was nostalgic and felt her presence more than ever. Then I got the call of her death. Sweet Julia did indeed live a good long life.
A Rare Italian Symphony - May 18, 2009
PHILADELPHIA --- As I sat feasting a few weeks ago at a corner table in the small and intimate restaurant run by Marc Vetri, I could have closed my eyes and believed I was in Italy. A passionate Italian cook would be alone in the kitchen, cooking his heart out, creating a rare symphony of fare that depended upon great ingredients, an inborn knowledge of how they must go together, and a palate that would out match anyone’s in a heartbeat.
That is Vetri in a nutshell: A 10-table, three year-old restaurant in the center of Philadelphia, the creation of young Marc Vetri, an American who worked in Italy, New York and Los Angeles before settling here in 1988. The next year he was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. And the phone has not stopped ringing since.
When Italian food is great, it can’t be beat for simplicity, sensitivity, sensibility to ingredients. Vetri gets all this, and he also understands balance. His pasta dumplings are delicious on their own, but it is as if he understands exactly how much sage (the herb that kill a dish with its pungency) and how much pancetta will create a perfect balance that ends up in pure, warm, ethereal pleasure.
I felt the same exactness of measured ingredients in his spinach gnocchi, teamed up with shaved smoked ricotta and brown butter. Butter you say? But somehow, here, with perfect balance, the butter was an essential, can’t leave it out ingredient. Not butter for butter’s sake, but because it HAD to be there to make the dish the star it is.
The lightest touch of all was his ricotta with fresh fava beans with just a few drops of walnut oil, making for a refreshing mid-meal pause.
But I would go back again and again just to same his perfectly roasted spring baby goat, served with simple parslied fingerling potatoes. What is it about goat? So subtle, tender, pure when roasted to a crisp. There is that touch of wild about goat meat that makes one feel daring as a diner. And you palate says thank you for not offering it the same old tastes, day after day.
1312 Spruce Street (between Broad and 13th Street)
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Tel: 215 732 3478
All major credit cards. Open for dinner only, Monday through Saturday. About $50 per person, not including wine or service.
All Is Well at Taillevent - Feb 02, 2008
Paris - The death in early January of Jean-Claude Vrinat, the longtime owner of Taillevent, left a big vacancy not just at the celebrated Paris restaurant but in French gastronomy.
Practically until the weekend before he died (on January 7 after treatment for lung cancer) Mr. Vrinat made that temple of haute cuisine the very epitome of a grand French restaurant. He paid relentless attention to every detail of the service and especially to the comfort of his clients. Whether you dined there frequently (as Walter and I had the great privilege of doing) or were a one-time visitor making the splurge of a lifetime, Mr. Vrinat put his customers at ease. He wanted to assure that every diner had a memorable experience.
Mr. Vrinat’s presence is certainly missed, but returning there recently – both to pay our respects and to celebrate one of those “passages” birthdays – we found that nothing else had disappeared. While his daughter, Valérie Vrinat d’Indy, is now in charge of the business, she will not have a presence in the restaurant. That role will continue to be filled admirably by Jean-Marie Ancher, Taillevent’s long-time maître d’hôtel.
Mr. Vrinat was not a chef but a businessman. There have been a succession of chefs over the years, but with the current one, Alain Solivérès, Taillevent now offers a truly splendid table. In several visits over the last year we found the new chef’s preparations inspired and dazzling, while still very much in the Taillevent tradition of the purest flavors extracted from the best ingredients. And of course the pre-eminent Taillevent tradition of ultimate discretion.
On our most recent visit we had a starter of risotto d’épautre aux truffes noires, a creamy and rich combination that made the utmost of the elegant earthiness of seasonal black truffles.
Next came a triumvirate of juicy scallops, each dissected with a slice of black truffle and served in a light reduction of fish fumet.
And finally we were served tiny perfectly round noisettes d’agneau, like little filets mignon, accompanied by delicious slices of fresh baby artichokes and the airiest tiny gnocchi I have ever tasted.
In other words, all is well at Taillevent.
Following are excerpts adapted from the obituary I wrote for the International Herald Tribune’s Jan. 9 edition:
Besides the grand restaurant, the enterprise that his daughter now directs includes the Caves Taillevent, a wine store, and l’Angle du Faubourg, another restaurant. All three addresses are near one another in the elegant 8 th arrondissement.
Mr. Vrinat built his business on the foundation left to him in 1962 by his father. From 1973 to 2007, Taillevent held the top rating from the Michelin Red Guide - the coveted three stars. In March 2007, in a controversial decision by a new editor of the guide, the restaurant was demoted to two. It was a blow that came without clear justification and that Mr. Vrinat - and his clients - could not understand.
Taillevent was unique in that Mr. Vrinat modeled his enterprise on the image he aspired to, one of constant perfection. In an age in which chefs and owners are frequently absent from their kitchens, it was a rare day that Mr. Vrinat was not present and paying attention to every detail - the silver, the haircuts of the staff, the lighting, the menu and wine list and, most important, the satisfaction of his clients. He was a taskmaster, and he demanded the highest standards of his staff.
Always impeccably turned out, sharp and smiling, Mr. Vrinat treated customers as friends, moving from table to table with grace and focus to make sure people were satisfied.
Taillevent is in an elegant townhouse near the Arc de Triomphe in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. The restaurant was not noted for innovation, but it set standards that few others could meet. In many quiet ways, it was the most advanced restaurant in the city.
The menu and extensive wine list are printed on a single folded sheet, so one never needed to balance two heavy tomes while trying to make conversation. And Taillevent set wine prices that were among the best in the world. Although it is a grand restaurant with an enviable cellar, Taillevent's wine prices are among the best in the world.
Born April 12, 1936, in Villeneuve-l'Archevêque, near Chablis in Burgundy, Mr. Vrinat graduated in 1959 from l'École des Hautes Études Commerciales.
In 1962 he joined his father, André Vrinat, at Taillevent - named after the court chef to King Charles V in the 14th century - and helped to turn it into one of the most respected restaurants in the world.
A Royal Soup with Humble Beginnings - Nov 14, 2006
Marseille – Bouillabaisse is one of those magical words, conjuring up vivid images of azure enchantment and a blindingly beautiful Mediterranean sky. It’s a word that whispers of a special kind of French connection – a delicious one and, it now seems, one that belongs to a storied past and is lost to us unlucky ones of the present and future.
That’s because – as we have all been told – a “real” bouillabaisse is at best rare and probably now on the list of things that money can’t buy. The Mediterranean has been fished so dry that it’s impossible to count on getting the one or two varieties that are absolutely essential for that “real” mythical dish.
But there’s a disconnect between that mournful chant and the rustic beginnings of what was maybe never just a simple meal, but a basic one. For bouillabaisse was not a Carème creation, but a way of using up the tiny leavings of the day’s catch. There was plenty of flavor in those spiny rock fish but no commercial appeal – the scrawny leftovers couldn’t be sold and so there was nothing to do but make them palatable for the family.
But the working class origins of bouillabaisse actually enhance its pedigree rather than diminish it because many flavorful rituals have had ordinary, even earthy beginnings..
Those little rockfish were only scaled and gutted and then boiled, really boiled, with tons of garlic and fennel and tomatoes. As the pot roiled along, the fish were pummeled and their bones crushed and pounded to extract maximum flavor as well as to let the broth thicken and turn into a luscious stew.
Then passed through a sieve, the broth was returned to the flame and reduced further. In time more fish was added to be poached quickly. Those fish would be filleted at table and served after copious amounts of the broth had been consumed with croutons, the garlicky rouille and potatoes nearly crimson with saffron.
The key to the ingredients is a variety of fish – the purists say there must be five, or four, or not more than some other very precise number. They may include baudroie or angler fish, rascasse (scorpion fish), daurade (porgy), chapon (scorpion fish), Saint Pierre or John Dory, gallinette (gurnard), and vive, the eel-like weever. But never, ever salmon, and shellfish is debatable. Why put mussels in bouillabaisse when a great moules-marinière is even easier and more appealing?
But then purists aren’t always doing the cooking, especially not in Marseille, a city where the people are better known more for their independence and resourcefulness than for following anyone’s rules.
Those are the choices for the fish – or the obligations. Then there’s the flavoring – garlic is essential both in the stew and for the rouille, or the thick saffron-rich sauce that’s served with croutons. There are fresh tomatoes. A hearty amount of fresh fennel is essential also and it’s easy to come by in Provence since it grows wild there and perfumes even the road banks. There can also be a little of the anise-flavored Pernod to boost the intensity of the fennel as well as add a dollop of sophistication.
In the making of bouillabaisse, “authentic” is more important than “pure,” and over the years in Provence we have pursued with moderate passion a quest for a good one. On a recent September day, with enough Indian summer sunshine to make even the drabbest spirit sparkle, we once again took our quest to Le Petit Nice, a luxurious restaurant nestled into Marseille’s scraggly shoreline and looking out at the sea and, among other sites, the Chateau d’If.
Gérard Passédat, chef and owner of that redoubtable landmark, prepared a bouillabaisse like no other. Even the spelling of his “bouille abaisse” is singular, though it emphasizes the origins of the dish by describing what happens in the pot – kept over a fast flame, the soup boils down to a delicious essence. Though Passédat’s version owes much of its inspiration to that poor fisherman’s stew, it has been dressed up to reflect his restaurant’s two-star elegance.
Our meal began with a simple salad of squid sautéed oh so lightly in olive oil and flavored with parsley. I might say that our meal began several hours earlier, at the Quai des Belges on Marseille’s famed old port, since we were with Passédat when he bought the squid. After that we moved through a trencherman’s menu that included a “Royale,” at once airy and unctuous, made from that Spanish delicacy, Pata Negra ham. There was also something I have never encountered before, a “molecular” version of tomato juice. Literally, it was a scoop of tomato juice held in a ball by molecular tension on the surface. That’s not something I’ll be trying in my own kitchen, delectable and tantalizing though it was when it burst like a ripe grape on an eager palate.
And then, the serious stuff, Passédat’s bouillabaisse. The fish selection – in tiny, triple-bite-size filets arranged on a long platter – consisted of merlan (whiting), vive (weever), gallinette (gurnard), baudroie (angler fish), chapon (scorpion fish), daurade (porgy) and Saint Pierre (John Dory). A small amount of the rich broth was poured over, and the waiter thoughtfully left the pitcher of soup on the table within easy reach. There were clams and mussels in sculpted side dishes. There were potatoes and saffron. There was a spicy, rarefied rouille rich in tomatoes, garlic and saffron. There were Melba-toast thin, parmesan-enhanced bread crisps. And just to drive home the point that no fishwife was in the kitchen, there was a chunk of Brittany lobster.
At 125 euros for the menu, not counting any wine, this was not a poor man’s repast. But oh was it good.
There was wine, of course. A crisp, perfectly chilled 2002 Cassis blanc from Clos d’Albizzi and a mellow and fruity red 2000 Baux de Provence from Domaine Hauvette.
There are of course many other places in Marseille that are famous for bouillabaisse, and one of the most charming is Chez Fonfon, which has a storybook setting overlooking one of the tiny rocky inlets off the Corniche John F. Kennedy. Traditionally bouillabaisse is prepared in two services. A bowl of soup first, with the croutons and rouille. And then the fish, removed from the still simmering pot, presented at table and then filleted as the diner watches.
Chez Fonfon, whose traditions are now being carried forward for the third generation of the Pinna family, offers plenty of charm in a beautiful setting. The night we were there was magical and the fish was fresh – and the soup wound up on my companion’s pants. He didn’t spill it, the waiter did. It was accidental of course – as he filleted the fish his platter tipped and a bowlful landed in my husband’s lap. Aside from taking it all back – which was a different kind of magical thought – the restaurant could not have done more.
My husband – thinking only of his well worn chinos – kept saying, “It’s not serious” to reassure the deeply embarrassed waiter. But from an adjoining table another diner kept responding, “yes it is, yes it is.”
Towels were brought, K2R was abundantly squirted, even a clean pair of pants was offered though declined. The owner was solicitous and the deeply embarrassed waiter was endlessly apologetic. It was a truly an unforgettable evening. And the bouillabaisse was as authentic as the experience.
Passédat Le Petit Nice
Anse de Maldormé -130 Corniche J.F.Kennedy
Tel: +33 (0)4 91 592 592
Fax: +33 (0)4 91 592 808
140 Vallon des Auffes
Tel: +334 9152 1438
Fax: +334 9152 1416
Rising Stars in Bordeaux - May 23, 2006
Pauillac, France – Anyone hoping to discover one of France’s rising star chefs would do well to reserve a table at Thierry Marx’s Château Cordeillan-Bages just 54 kilometers from the wine capital of Bordeaux.
With two coveted Michelin stars already under his belt, the creative, energetic, thoughtful Marx was also recently named chef of the year by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau. In French food circles, his name comes up each time one discusses future three-star chefs.
Balding, with intense, piercing eyes, Marx could be Bruce Willis’s twin brother. At the age of 44, he seems to be redefining the cuisine, lifestyle, and philosophy of his generation of young French chefs. A black belt in judo, Marx also gathers his staff for regular boxing sessions to help them de-stress. He is a runner, as well as a vegetarian. The Parisian-born Marx lives frugally and simply, spending three months each year in a tiny room in Tokyo, with little more than a futon and books, and as he adds, “ambition and modesty.” From his Japanese base, he fans out all over Asia during the winter months, searching for culinary as well as spiritual inspiration.
His culinary roots run deep. He has spent time in the kitchens of Taillevent as well as Joël Robuchon’s Jamin, attaining his first Michelin star at the age of 26.
But an evening at the table of his simple but elegant dining room is not made for everyone. As even Marx admits, “I’ve had plenty of clients you just said to me, ‘I didn’t get it at all.”
Look at the titles of some of his dishes and you simply may want to run the other way. Liquid quiche Lorraine? Virtual sausage? Bean sprout risotto? Sweetbread spaghetti? Wacky, yes. But Marx is not taking food to another level of perfection or enjoyment, but to a different level. Food such as his makes up open our eyes, look at taste in a new way, take our palates out of the box. In my book, none of this would be any good if the food did not offer pleasure as well as amusement, shock as well as satisfaction. And it does. Most of the time.
For me, the most satisfying, surprising, and enjoyable dish of some 15 little tastes was his smoked Aquitaine beef. Marx sears the filet ever so quickly, slices it, then sets the beef upon a miniature hibachi set above burning Merlot vine clippings. All is wrapped in clear thick plastic (the kind used by florists), tied with ribbon, and paraded to the table. As the wait staff unwraps your dinner gift, light, delicate, pleasing smoky aromas waft through the room. The end result is a meat that is juicy, delicate, sweet, and oh so gently smoked. A dish created with a stroke of genius.
I marveled, as well, at his bean sprout risotto: The tender soybean sprouts are cut precisely to the size of a grain of rice, warmed gently in a touch of butter, then tossed with a sauce of shallots, mushrooms, oysters, cream, and white wine and adorned with a slice of black truffle. You feel the drama, energy, and attention to detail in every dish. Four kinds of butter appear at the table, including an intriguing, intensely-flavored sheep’s milk butter. Little shards of cookies and breads with most dishes make for a light meal with a broad range of flavors. (The variety of homemade breads is amazing, and worth a detour all on their own.)
The choice of wines is, of course, vast. Our dinner samplings ranged from a young and flinty Sancerre to a coveted 1999 Château Gloria, vigorous, open, and a happy companion to the smoked filet of beef.
And in the parade of tiny sweet tastes at the end, I was surprised to fall in love with a sweet eggplant millefeuille, adorned with a rich, intense basil sorbet.
See for yourself and let Marx know if you “get” it.
Yet another reason to head over the Bordeaux way is the modern, enticing, self-confident food of chef Philippe Etchebest at the Hostellerie de Plaisance in the charming village of Saint Emilion, 40 kilometers from Bordeaux. With a single Michelin star (and everyone says, a second on its way), the chef that could double as a rugby player is a meilleur ouvrier de France offering us a food that is at once modern, creative, personal, and sure to please.
The dining room at the 14th-century hotel and restaurant is soothing and cozy, with service that is careful and attentive. Starters here might include an airy sea urchin brouillade, or light scrambled eggs teamed up with a delicate lime cream, offering a fine acidic note to a dish that could easily become heavy and one-dimensional.
Bright sea scallops take on an Asian accent here: a pair of meaty scallops are quickly seared, then topped with a twirl of light rice vermicelli seasoned with garlic and ginger, anointed with a surprising, refreshing turmeric foam. Etchebest flanks the scallops with a pair of spicy madeleines and two rectangles of chilled, seasoned beets. The dish is at once inventive, surprising and satisfying.
But my favorite dish of the meal was his beautiful mousse-like round of extremely light mashed potatoes tossed with a mixture of bruccio – Corsica’s answer to ricotta – and cubes of tangy Granny Smith apple. This ethereal mixture is painstakingly studded with thin slices of black truffle and single leaves of lamb’s lettuce. This is a dish of contrasts, color, texture, flavor, even aroma. A sure success!
The pink-stoned, elegant Hostellerie is owned by the outgoing Chantal and Gérard Perse. Wines from the Perse vineyards to sample here include the rarely seen white Bordeaux Monbousquet 2001, a Saint Emilion made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, a dry white with a pleasantly crisp acidity and an easy-going personality. Try, for sure, the 1998 Pavie, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé -- a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon -- a controversial wine that I found full of life, energy, and intensity.
Telephone: 05 56 59 24 24
Closed Saturday lunch, all day Monday, and Tuesday lunch. 60 € lunch menu. 110 € dinner menu. A la carte, 95 to 120 euros per person, including service but not wine.
Hostellerie de Plaisance
33330 Saint Emilion
Telephone: 05 57 55 07 55
Closed Monday. Closed Sunday dinner and all day Tuesday November 1 to April 30. 32 € lunch menu. 60 € menu on Sunday. A la carte, 50 to 105 euros per person, including service but not wine. All major credit cards.
Brilliant New Simplicity in Northern California - Dec 30, 2005
There’s a new crop of bright, upright and unpretentious restaurant offerings in Northern California. Gone are the gimmicks, and what one can expect is food that is simple and straightforward with wine lists that will keep diners coming back again and again. Everywhere, one sees as well The Alice Waters Effect: Vegetable lovers can rejoice, for if it’s in season, it’s sure to be on the menu at these new, smart spots.
One of the newest is Ame, set in the recently opened Saint Regis hotel in San Francisco. Chefs Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani have already proven their talents and the highly successful Napa Valley restaurant, Terra, in Saint Helena. At the couple’s new Ame (French for “soul”) one can expect serious, sublime fare in a warm, elegant, setting in tones of chocolate and white.
The food here has a clean, crisp edge, deftly touched by Hiro’s Japanese sensitivity and solid footing in America, France, and Italy. I loved the unusual octopus “carpaccio,” (really thin slivers of cooked octopus), layered with tiny slices of fingerling potatoes, equally lean slivers of caper berries, all punctuated by little dollops of a perky lemon aioli.) It’s a dish I’ll repeat at home, for sure. An equally good starter is the fricassee of Miyagi oysters, leeks and forest mushrooms, all tangled in an artful architectural form, bathed in a soothing sauce beurre blanc.
Main courses range from grilled quail served with sautéed forest mushrooms over a Fontina cheese polenta; red wine braised beef cheeks and sweetbread cutlet in a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce with cauliflower purée; and grilled Kurobuta pork chops from the Japanese breed of pig, with roasted winter foot vegetables and Dijon verjus sauce.
I opted for a broiled, sake-marinated Alaskan black cod – which tasted at though it leapt from the waters only hours before – floating in a delicate shiso broth and teamed up with light, feathery shrimp dumplings. The perfect wine for this dish was Joël Gott’s Sauvignon Blanc, offering equally bright, clean, flavors and a fine balance of fruit and acidity, and well-priced at $30 a bottle. Aged in stainless, as all good Sauvignon Blanc should be, the wine offered a fine balance of fruit and acidity.
The pair always surprises us with new takes on old classics and their unusual spaghettini “crabonara” prepared with fresh, seasonal Dungeness crab was a delight, rich with crab flavors and soothingly satisfying.
Desserts range from black currant tea crème brûlée on tea shortbread with Huckleberry ice cream, to a pleasant warm Bartlett pear crisp with pecan streusel and gingersnap ice cream.
689 Mission Street at Third Street
San Francisco, Ca
Telephone: 415 284 4040
Web: www. Amerestaurant.com
Open daily. From $45 to $55 per person, not including tax, service, or wine.
Napa Valley’s Yountville has waited with anticipation, as chef Richard Reddington, formerly chef at the famed Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, California was set to open his own restaurant. We dined there right after the opening, and though I loved the food, I did not love the dining room, or the overly casual look of many of the diners (read torn blue jeans.) Something does not sit right when a bevy of well-outfitted waiters are there serving diners wearing clothes I would not even wear to take out the garbage.
The newly refurbished dining room reminded me of a wedding reception hall, all hard edges and no personality or sense of purpose. But thank goodness there was personality on the plate, and plenty of it in certain dishes.
I don’t think there is any dish that’s more of a gamble, almost anywhere, than risotto. Most often it is disappointing, either too soupy or too dense, and almost always you have that sinking suspicion that it was not made to order. Well chef Reddington can make risotto for me any day: His Carnaroli risotto with Maine lobster, lemon confit, and watercress is a work of art, creamy, steaming hot with rich, real lobster flavor, scents of the sea, laden with large pieces of lobster with almost every bite. The main course was a nice match for the 2004 Lewis Cellars Russian River Chardonnay (not inexpensively priced at $67), a wine with a nice balance of fruit and acid, a big wine but not marred by an overlay of heavy oak.
Equally brilliant was his marinated yellowfin tuna, paired with beets, radishes, and lemon oil. I never would have thought to combine them all, but they were at home together, a fine contrast of flavors, colors and textures. There they were, silken, thin slices of red raw tuna, topped with sweet and glistening baby red beets, thin lengthwise slices of radish, with just a touch of lemon oil. And each element was expertly seasoned.
His autumn salad hit the spot on a rainy fall weeknight, combining fall fruits, endive, and walnuts with a creamy Roquefort dressing. There were some strange and less than satisfying dishes, such as the Maine crab and tangerine salad with avocado and fennel bathed in a citrus vinaigrette, studded with strange bits of tangerine jelly. Equally disappointing was the sautéed skate – without flavor – awkwardly paired with butternut squash, wild mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and sage. The dish appeared to be more of an afterthought, or perhaps conceived in a cleaning-out-the- refrigerator spree.
Homey and wholesome was the superbly simple roasted chicken with a carrot and salsify ragout and potato purée surrounded by a simple juice prepared with the giblets.
6480 Washington Street
Yountville CA 94599
Telephone: 707 944 2222
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, dinner daily, and Sunday brunch. From $30 to $50 per person, not including tax, service, or wine.
The only problem with Fish, a lively fish shack on the waters of Sausalito just north of San Francisco, is that it is so far away from me. I’d like it in my backyard. What is there not to like about the freshest and simplest of seafood served right on the water?
The place is casual with a capital C (place your order at the cash register and they’ll bring the fare to your table.) Indoors there are a few tattered tables next to a fireplace, while outside, there are plenty of picnic tables for waterside dining. If it’s chilly, blankets are supplied. The menu is vast, and hard as we tried to make a dent in it, we couldn’t do it justice.
Favorites include their autumn ceviche, a mix of local, fresh white fish cured in a blend of citrus, red onions, and tangerines, with a welcome hit of cilantro and jalapeno. With plenty of crusty bread from Acme bakers in Berkeley, the feast is in the making.
We arrived the first day of crab season in early December, and quickly devoured both the simple, roasted crab, gorgeous and incredibly rich, its claws laden with sweet, alabaster meat; as well as the can’t-stop-eating-it spicy crab with Asian noodles, a meal on its own, laced with hot peppers, cilantro, garlic, and of course more of those sweet crab claws.
If it’s on the menu that day, don’t pass up the fish and chips, one of the best versions of this classic I’ve ever sampled. Bright, cloudlike chunks of fresh halibut are deftly breaded and fried, with the chunkiest, most wholesome of fries.
You can wash everything down with sips of crisp, grapefruit-like Australian Redbank Sauvignon Blanc, served casually (too casually for me) out of small Ball canning jars.
350 Harbor Drive at Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965
Telephone: 415 331 3473
Open daily. Cash only. www.331fish.com Prices range from $4 for a cup of chowder $24 for a whole Dungeness crab or a baker’s dozen of oysters.
Dining with the Angels - Nov 11, 2005
PARIS -- I have fond, distant memories of my first days in Paris in the early 1980’s, when Sunday lunch meant sitting amidst large family tables of Bourgeois Parisians at the traditional, Burgundian Chez les Anges. Food was plentiful, robust and serious, with such classics as oeufs en meurette, coq au vin, and boeuf bourguignon, sharing star billing with Charolais boeuf en crôute, accompanied by the obligatory, creamy Dauphinois potatoes. The wine – mostly the white Rully and red Mercurey – flowed easily, and surely the meal would end with a few sips of heady marc de Bourgogne.
Now, the place that was all red velvet and Rabelaisian, is pristine, white, and modern – even a bit playful – and very much on its way to becoming a current-day institution. Jacques Lacipière – who also owns the hugely popular bistro Au Bon Accueil, also in the 7 th arrondissement – is a romantic at heart, taking over a failing business that was last a trattoria, but that also had a rather good run as Paul Minchelli’s namesake restaurant. It was home to politicians (belated president François Mitterrand) and the fashion world (Pierre Berge of Yves Saint Laurent) and of course fish lovers from all over. You were never sure what the eccentric Minchelli was up to – he loved to charge outrageous prices for cans of vintage sardines – but you were always assured of impeccable fish and shellfish, albeit the price of an arm and a leg.
Lacipière dream is to bring Les Anges back, creating a contemporary brasserie that’s convivial, open, and refreshing. If anyone can do it, Lacipière can, for he has impeccable taste, high standards, and an almost genetically coded passion for the business. He still does all the middle-of-the-night marketing for both restaurants, returning with impeccably fresh fish and shellfish, fruits and vegetables, as well as autumnal game. The current menu is loaded with seasonal stars, including wild mushrooms, romanesco and pumpkin, along with wild duck with turnips, partridge with apples, venison with salsify, and wild hare. In season fish and shellfish are abundance with scallops grilled with a curry-infused oil and turbot teamed up with wild mushrooms, pumpkin, and romanesco broccoli.
I began my little feast with half a dozen chilled, plump, briny oysters set on a pillow of thick cream nested in the oyster shell. The oysters, deftly marinated in a touch of sherry, were topped with ultra-thin Japanese style strips of crunchy red radish and a slight touch of horseradish, making for a surprising, refreshing, dish providing contrasts of color, texture, and flavor.
Another worthy starter is his offering of oversized warm – and warming – ravioli of giant shrimp, aloft in a coral-toned bisque made of rich baby crabs, or etrilles. Flavors here are full and forward, but unmasked. What you see is what you get.
Generous portions of plump, moist monkfish, or lotte, were bathed in a gentle Thai-inspired mixture of lemon grass and fresh coriander, a soothing, successful dish that surely makes me want to come back for more. And sole meunière lovers will have a field day here, with a gorgeous, fresh, alabaster sole, filleted tableside, and paired with a butter laced with lemon confit.
The wine list is brief but well-selected, and includes treasures from conscientious winemaker Jean-François Coche of Coche-Dury in Burgundy. We opted for an affordable, straightforward Bourgogne blanc (a veritable bargain at 48 euros) 2002, a textbook example of what a 100% Chardonnay should be, creamy, lush and satin-like. A wine that insists you sit up and take notice.
Chez les Anges
54 Boulevard de La Tour Maubourg
Telephone: 01 47 05 89 86.
Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. Menu at 35 euros. A la carte, 42 to 72 € per person, including service but not wine.
Come Taste Oysters in Le Canon - Sep 09, 2005
Cap Ferret, France --- As I passed a display of espadrilles in the local supermarket, reading the sign that said Mettez Vous en Vacances! I laughed out loud. “Put Yourself on Vacation,” of course! Only the French would come with an idea like that.
Truly, there is nothing better than watching the French on vacation. They get into it 100%, with the proper costume for each region and for each sport. It seems that people who may be sour and serious the rest of year, turn into, well, children during those long and lazy days of summer vacation.
Come Taste Oysters in Le Canon
A recent tour of the Bassin d’Arcachon along the Atlantic Coast southwest of Bordeaux netted plenty of good time observing the French on vacation, as well as time to savor plenty of the region’s bounty. We began each day in the lively Arcachon market where indoor and outdoor stalls provided plenty of inspiration for an ideal breakfast: The cannelé – or crenulated little rum-filled caramelized cakes from Bordeaux – at the stand of the house of Baillardran beckoned, with not one type of cake, but three perfectly formed, glistening sweets. We sampled them all, of course, the lightly cooked Tendre, the Croustillant, cooked a little bit longer and offering a soft interior and crunchy exterior, and finally the Croquant, a truly dark mahogany color, so crunchy the exterior stuck to our teeth. We took a table right at the edge of the outdoor market, sipped double express and made ourselves part of the French vacation celebration.
Next step, La Route des Saveurs de l’Huitre, a driving tour that can include visits to some 21 port villages, each with its own set of oyster farmers, or ostréicultuers. One can stop for a snack or a whole meal, or just watch the farmers at work, tending the oyster beds. They call themselves paysans de la mer, or farmers of the sea, and that is what they are. Oysters have been harvested here since Roman times, but by 1859 the wild oyster crops was nearly exhausted, and oyster farming began for real.
A House with No Name, in Village de l'Herbe
A tour of the port towns --- with simple, charming names, such as Village de l’Herbe, Canon or Cap Ferret, and hard to pronounce ones such as Claouey and Gujan-Mestras – can easily fill a day or more. Many, such as Village de l’Herbe, Canon and Claouey are big enough for strolling through the rows of tiny, colorful one-room cabanes, or cabins that hug the waters. Most are dolled up with window boxes, bright red or blue trim, and each, of course, has a romantic name, such as Eugenie or Bon Abri. I laughed out loud again I came upon a pristine, newly restored cabane trimmed in red and white brick. Either the owner has a great sense of humor or a total lack of imagination for the house, quite simply, was named with a large question mark!
Each oyster farmer’s shack offers the same “menu,” for eating there or for takeout and prices are uniform and regulated. A dozen oysters will cost from 6 to 11 €, depending upon the size and the season. Our first stop was at the farthest point along the Bassin, the village of Cap Ferret, one of the most chic villages in France, where politicians and film stars make waves, as well as summer homes. Catherine Roux’s little waterside, open air dining room, Cap Huitres, was just what our palates had in mind: Superbly briny oysters opened only seconds before, a few sips of the traditional local white Entre-Deux-Mers, a pleasant enough wine made primarily from the Semillon grape, with a touch of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. At its best, it’s a fruity, zesty, lively dry white that thrives in the company of oysters. Fresh lemon, rye bread, and butter are the traditional accompaniment but here, Catherine Roux came up with what I now refer to as “special bread.” She had sliced the rye bread, buttered it, “glued” the loaf back together so to speak, then cut the loaf crosswise to make for festive, buttery, layered slices.
In other villages, such as Le Canon and Port de Claouey, one finds full-fledged waterside restaurants, such as A La Bonne Franquette and La Cabane d’Edouard in the Port de Claouey. There was no room at the charming Cabane, with real wooden bistro tables and chairs and the general feeling of a successful, well-entrenched eatery. We opted, then, for La Bonne Franquette nearby, a large, totally unpretentious open-air restaurant on the water.
An oyster shack in Le Canon
An Oyster Shack in Le Canon
The spot was true to its name, it was all familial and in true simplicity, white plastic chairs and blue oilcloth lines and all. The food was fabulous, tons of ultra-fresh oysters, some of the plumpest mussels around, and sweet, miniature shrimp from the local waters.
We all learn early on in France to only eat oysters in months that end in an “r”, September to December. Most today agree that the legend has little merit today, as it dates back to the days of Louis XIV and a royal edict forbidding farmers from harvesting wild oysters during the months ending in a “r,” the period of reproduction. During the days before oysters were cultivated, this was done to preserve the resource. That said, the oysters do take on a different color, flavor, and texture during those reproductive times. During this time of year we always ask “Are they milky?” and along the route we did indeed see signs saying “Vente d’Huitres Non Laiteuse.”
Note that while the oyster shacks remain open year-round, one will find the villages more lively and active in the summer months. Off season, one may need to pull up a rock to sit on rather than a chair for oyster sampling, but it’s fresh, one’s 100% outdoors, and on vacation, if only for a few moments.
Galeries des Grands-Hommes, Bordeaux
Telephone : 05-56-79-05-89.
La Route des Saveurs de l'Huître
Quartiers des Pêcheurs du Cap Ferret
Telephone: (33) 05-56-60-67-97.
A La Bonne Franquette
Port de Claouey
Lège Cap Ferret
Kicking Up Your Heels in Saint Jean de Luz - Sep 02, 2005
Saint Jean de Luz, France — If I had to choose one region in France to explore in the greatest depth, it would be the Pays Basque, a colorful stretch of France that hugs the Spanish border. Is it the pristine white houses sporting blazing red shutters and strings of welcoming Basque peppers? Is it the rolling, expansive hills that make you feel as though you and the world could go on forever? Or simply the appealing cuisine, one of the freshest Atlantic fish and shellfish, haunting and mildly spicy Basque peppers, the soothing and rich sheep’s milk cheese, and unpretentious, quaffable wines?
Saint Jean de Luz is my favorite city in the region, a manageable walking town with vast, memorable beaches and just enough to keep one busy but not frazzled for several pleasurable days. Begin the day with a bracing coffee at one of the cafes that surround the village market – on Boulevard Victor Hugo in the center of town – then wend your way through the stalls. Saint Jean de Luz is a major fishing port, so here you’ll see a variety and quality unsurpassed elsewhere in France. Come late August you’ll begin to see the famous strings of red piment d’Espelette, but can solace yourself with the dried version all year long, for seasoning sauces, sprinkling of cheese or wedges of fresh polenta.
I’d hoped to return to an old-time favorite fish restaurant, Arrantzaleak in the village of Ciboure just across the estuary from Saint Jean de Luz, but it was closed. I’d have to wait for another visit to sample the impeccable white albacore tuna grilled over a wood fire. As it turned out, I am glad they were closed, for I might never have discovered chef Georges Piron’s remarkable talent. As I sat down on the sun-filled terrace of Chez Dominique, overlooking the harbor, I had no idea what was in store. Piron, a native of Brittany, knows his fish better than most, and his cuisine has the personality and verve of someone in love with their work. As his tartare of dorade was placed before me, I couldn’t decide whether to dig in or race home to try to recreate it. The dish was a symphony of colors and flavors, with chunky, well-seasoned cubes of fresh dorade (porgy) dotted with miniscule bits of lemon confit and an avalanche of minced chives, then wrapped daintily with filets of freshly cured sardines. A crunchy chickpea galette and a welcoming confit of eggplant and cumin were not simple embellishments, but considered accompaniments.
Just as successful was the filet of Saint Pierre, or John Dory, roasted and served with cubed potatoes showered with a warm saffron vinaigrette, a touch of garlic as well as spicy chorizo. It would be hard to beat his delicate filets of rougets sprinkled with an emulsion of fresh basil and olive oil, served appropriately with a creamy mound of polenta laced with aged Parmesan.
Service here is impeccable and friendly, and it would be hard to find a better wine to pair with Piron’s food than Domaine Brana’s white Irouléguy, an obscure white from the region that wine writer Jancis Robinson calls “the essence of spring in a bottle.” I’ll second that, for this citrusy, finely acidic wine – vinified from Petit Courbu and Petit Manseng variety of grapes – seems to be in love with fish and shellfish.
Come dinner time, after a long walk on the beach and a stroll through the fine walking streets of the city, reserve a table on the sidewalk at Le Kaïku, a colorful spot on the pedestrian rue de la République right down from the beach. Here, in a 16th century house, one of the oldest in town, owner Serge Latchère runs a neat, tight ship. The place sizzles with energy, and the helpful staff helps make dining at Le Kaiku a memorable experience. We began our sunset hour dinner with plump and briny oysters from d’Oléron up the Atlantic coast, along with a perfect tartine of finely cured fresh anchovies. But it was the tuna tartare that made me want to don my new pair of black espadrilles stamped with the red piment d’Espelette and kick up my heels. A perfect fish tartare is a sheer culinary feat and one that is rarely perfection. The fish of course must be ultra-fresh, that goes without saying. But go overboard on the seasoning and you’ve completely lost it. Go timid with seasoning you have nothing but a bland mess. Le Kaiku’s version was sheer perfection, tiny cubes of tuna studded with chives and the gentle crunch of finely minced shallots. The fish was clearly not ‘cooked” by the seasoning, but left one with a fine hint of acidity. Your palate retains the clear, vibrant flavors of the sea with just a tiny boost of texture and punch. As may plate was being cleared, I looked up at the waitress and asked, hopefully, “Of course you sometimes give this recipe away to grateful diners, don’t you?” She replied as though she’d had to do so many times, and just laughed, “Even I don’t know the secret.” At home later, I think I came pretty close, showering the mixture at the last moment with a touch of sherry wine vinegar and of course a touch of the famed piment d’Espelette.
Perfect slices of local farm sheep’s milk cheese made a fine ending, along with sips of the local acidic and light Jurancon sec from Domaine Bru Baché, made from those obscure grapes such as Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Corbu. Light and straw-colored, the wine is full of exotic citrus flavors, with gentle notes of honey.
15 quai Maurice Ravel
Telephone: 05 59 47 29 16.
Closed Sunday evening, Monday and Tuesday. About 45 euros per person, including service but not wine.
17 rue de la République
64500 Saint Jean de Luz
Telephone : 05 59 26 13 20.
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday. About 40 euros per person, including service but not wine.
A day in Brittany, with neither Lunch nor Dinner - Aug 26, 2005
Riec sur Bélon, France — I think of it as the day I got neither lunch nor dinner, but ate very well indeed.
After an hour-long, early morning jog through a pine-lined stretch of road just steps from the Bélon river near the southern coast of Brittany, we headed off in search of sunshine, oyster beds, and scenic views.
Lunch was clearly on our minds.
We parked at the edge of the slender river, tide very low, and headed towards the famed Chez Jacky, the quintessential waterside fish restaurant known for its lively ambience, sparkling fresh Bélon oysters, and giant platters of fish and shellfish that might include baby shrimp, plump mussels, tiny periwinkles, and colorful spider crabs. Alas, it was Monday and my favored fish spot was locked tight.
But right next door there was a buzz of activity going on at the Huîtrières du Château de Bélon, an operation that’s existed since 1864, when August de Solminihac became one of the pioneers in oyster reproduction, or oestréiculture, in Brittany. Here, a handful of young men were busy sorting oysters, packing oysters large and small in round balsawood baskets for shipping all over France, while others opened oysters for the handful of vacationers already on hand to sample the famed, nutty-flavored flat bivalves.
Historically, Bélon oysters have been prized for their unique, mineral-rich perfume and flavor, and the hint of hazelnut. When they are at their best, they have greater nuance than the more familiar crinkle-shelled creuses, since the plate oyster is aged in the Bélon river, a delicate mixture of sea water and freshwater.
Even though it was only 11 am, the aromas and ambience got the best of us, and soon we were watching as a lean, tall young Frenchman deftly opened our order of a dozen pristine and fresh Bélons, six tiny # 4s and six slightly larger #2s.
The setting had a certain, gentle charm: Though the tide was low, the skies were a brilliant blue, and there was just enough activity of fishing boats rolling in and out to make one feel part of the action. We settled down aside a small white plastic table and waited for our order, inhaling the myriad owners of seaweed, water and sea breezes.
My companion reminded me, with a touch of assurance in his voice, “This doesn’t count as lunch, you know.” I nodded, knowing that it surely did not.
The oysters arrived, as did real porcelain plates, slices of fresh and earthy rye bread, and real glasses, ready for sampling a few sips of Daniel Gratas’s fine Muscadet Sevres et Maine Sur Lie 2004. There are few more perfectly matched food and wine combinations as the chalky, flinty, mineral-rich white Muscadet and the equally flinty, fresh and pure oysters. A more pleasant feast could not have been created in a regal, three-star restaurant. Somehow, at that moment, culinary perfection was reached, with a tiny squeeze of fresh lemon, a sheer spread of salty butter, the oysters one by one, the sips of pure, fresh Muscadet. The tiny Bélon oysters reminded me of an Olympic gymnast. How do those tiny bodies explode with such power and energy? I wondered how these miniature bivalves could manage to capture so much intensity, long-lasting flavor that didn’t just fill your palate but your entire head. The sea gulls cried, the birds chirped, we watched hikers enter the fern and oak-filled forest nearby. All was right with nature and the world.
About six hours later, following an afternoon of touring, various brocantes, and walks along the water, our car was beckoned off the road on the western edge of central Brittany as we saw a tidy, colorful terrace lined with green-stained picnic tables with a breathtaking view of deep blue waters of the Aulne river, which, like the Bélon river, leads right into the Atlantic.
The large sign advertising Les Viviers de Terénéz tempted us with the thought of pristine, fresh oysters, crabs, as well as fresh and smoked trout. Because of the early hour, the place was deserted, save for the staff that scurried around tending to the spotless fish tanks holding monster lobster, giant crabs, all manner of mussels and plenty of plump creuses oysters. We seated ourselves at a bare picnic table overlooking a slender beach, festively carpeted with newly discarded shells representing previous diners feasts.
After we gave our order --- half a dozen small oysters, half a dozen medium sized oysters, a whole freshly steamed torteau or crab, a few slices of Aulne river grown rainbow trout, and some welcome Muscadet, my companion looked up and announced with clear determination, ” This doesn’t count as dinner, correct?” I agreed, and soon we had tiny oyster forks in hand, satisfyingly slurping up the freshest of oysters, plump, with crystal clear and briny liquid and the sort of flavors one can only get at the source.
The crab – which had come in from a fisherman in Roscoff just hours before – was lifted from the viviers, or fish tanks, and instantly put into the stainless steaming oven for a quick, efficient cooking. With tons of sweet white meat, the crab was pure, pure pleasure. We finished off with slices of their rich rainbow trout (owners Pascal Brisset and Catherine Fitamant grow more than six tons of trout each year) that had been slow-smoked for a full seven hours over beech wood, or hêtre, then cured in salt for another two hours. Richly flavored and lightly smoked, the trout was right at home with Domaine La Paonnerie’s organically grown Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire 2002 with light, floral overtones of mint and honeysuckle.
Not so bad, for a day without lunch or dinner.
Huîtrières du Château de Belon
Port de Belon
29340 Riec su Belon
Telephone: 02 98 06 41 43
About 15 euros for two, a dozen oysters, bread, butter, lemons and half a bottle of wine.
Les Viviers de Térénez
Route de Térénez
Telephone: 02 98 81 90 86
About 60 euros for two, for a tasting of oysters, crab, smoked trout and wine.