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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gran San Carlos

After the bicentenario blow-out, there was one last stop for us in Mexico--Monterrey. Having done a bit of reading up on the area, I knew there was one thing I wanted try there, and that was cabrito (roast kid goat). As usual, the schedule was conspiring against it: the day after the bicentenario celebration, the orchestra flew to Monterrey spread over three flights... of course, the last two were late, leaving barely enough to time drop things off at the hotel, get to the concert hall, have a quick sound check, and gulp a few bites of food before the 8:00 concert--and we were returning to the States early the next morning. It was our immense good fortune, however, to encounter an angel named Erica working for the Teatro de la Ciudad Monterrey. Diego, our tour manager, had mentioned to her our desire to try the cabrito there, and she not only advised us which place was the best in town (and which of the two locations she preferred), but called to reserve a table and asked them to wait for us to get there after our concert. She even called a taxi for us at the theater. In the post-concert rush to get packed up, I did not get a chance to thank you properly, Erica, so I'm thanking you now--I hope you read this one day.

We arrived at Gran San Carlos shortly after 11 p.m. to a warm welcome--and a large, practically empty restaurant. Yes, it was a bit late, but I didn't find out until I returned home that everyone in Monterrey was afraid to go out at night because of all the drug-war-related violence. But as they say, ignorance is bliss, and our bliss was two-fold that evening: the food was even better than I had hoped it would be. One orders cabrito here by the desired part of the animal: we asked the waiter which he recommended, and the reply was "pierna" (leg). So, pierna we ordered, and it was wonderful. There isn't much to say about expertly-prepared roast cabrito... crispy skin, juicy, tender white meat (the kid must be less than 40 days old)... perfection. My dining companions were also delighted with their sopa azteca (tortilla soup) starters.

Word among those who know in Monterrey is that El Rey del Cabrito is the huge party joint everyone knows about, but if you want real quality, go to Gran San Carlos. I can vouch for the second part of that statement.

Gran San Carlos
Av. I. Morones Prieto 2803
Monterrey (Nuevo León), México
(+52) (81) 8344-4114

Friday, September 24, 2010

“Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos

After Oaxaca, we returned to Mexico City to rehearse and perform what turned out to be a rather amazing concert: Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas (or Orquesta Filarmónica de las Américas, if you prefer) was the opening salvo of the musical performances invited to play at the huge bicentenario celebration of Mexico’s independence in Mexico City on Sept. 15. There is a clip on YouTube of the first work we played (which I guess was broadcast all over the world… who knew?), the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Marquéz, where you can see yours truly engaging in one of the activities that actually helps pay his rent. You can watch it here, and there are clear shots of me at mins. 1:09, 5:22 and 9:30. The orchestra was then joined by some very well-known Mexican singers--Natalia LaFourcade, Ely Guerra, and Lo Blondo--who sang a selection of Mexican songs, marvelously arranged by Lev Zhurbin. This took place on a stage set up at the Ángel de la Independencia, in front of a reported 25,000 people standing in the plaza and the surrounding streets... definitely the biggest party I've ever played for! It was thrilling in a way I never expected... but, after all, we classical instrumentalists are definitely not accustomed to being received like rock stars!

This time in Mexico City, we were a bit more centrally located than before, adjacent to the neighborhood known as the Zona Rosa. Quite unexpectedly, the area is home to a large number or Korean establishment (among its many diverse attractions)--there are at least 15 or 20 Korean restaurants in a 3-square-block area. For lunch one day we picked one (Song Lim, c/Liverpool 158, 2nd floor--but there is no Western writing on the sign, only Korean and Chinese), and were rewarded with, among other things, jja jang myun that actually tasted like jja jang myun, and a fun budae jun gol.


I must say, that was about the last thing I ever expected to eat in Mexico!

This neighborhood was the scene of what turned out to be my favorite meal in Mexico. My first evening there I was strolling through the area, seeing what there was, sniffing around, when I passed a very simple establishment--almost a hole in the wall--that smelled terrific. The sign said they served Yucatán-style food… I had no idea what that was, but I was determined to find out. They were about to close for the evening, so I resolved to return for lunch the next day. And return I did to “Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos. Upon inquiring as to the especialidad de la casa, I was told chamorro. Sold... without having any idea whatsoever as to what was actually going to arrive at my table! But I was willing to put my complete trust in any place that smelled that wonderful, and I was rewarded with the most delicious pork shank I have ever tasted. It arrives in a small trough, with an inch or so of deep orange-red broth on the bottom. The shank has been stewed with achiote seed paste (which gives the broth its distinctive color), a little vinegar and some spices, and served with tortillas and two kinds of onion relish (once again, I was warned that one of them was ¡muy picante!, and it was... a little spicy). The idea is much like eating carne en su jugo in Guadalajara: 1) eat a slice or two of pork, slurp some broth, make a little wet taco with some of the meat and some onion relish. 2) Repeat in any order. 3) Experience bliss. This feast set me back 5 dollars. They prepare chicken much the same way (pollo pibil), too.

I’m not sure I can explain just why I have such incredible fondness for this meal. I’m sure there are more beautifully and carefully prepared versions of this food around, in plusher surroundings. But there is something simple and honest about this place and their offerings... real food for REAL people, and it was a privilege to be able to mix with them for a few minutes and get a taste of something extraordinary.

“Los Arcos” - Antojitos Yucatecos
c/Florencia 43-A, Col. Juárez
Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal, México
(+52) (55) 5533-5877

Thursday, September 23, 2010

La Casa de la Abuela

After the travel day from hell getting to Oaxaca, the LAST thing I felt like doing the next day was playing a concert, I was so damn tired. I also particularly wanted to try one other restaurant in town: La Casa de la Abuela. In an unexpected stroke of luck, the concert was an hour earlier than most of the others, and the restaurant was still open after the concert.

La Casa de la Abuela is much more the kind of restaurant I’m normally drawn to—-very traditional, nothing fancy... grandma-type food. And since “abuela” means grandma, I thought that boded well (it did). Kerrick (note to K: send me those pictures already!) and I shared an appetizer of taquitos de picadillo en mole coloradito (rolled tacos of seasoned ground meat, fried crisp, with coloradito, or reddish-brown, mole sauce).


That mole coloradito was, for me, THE most mind-blowingly wonderful mole I have ever tasted, including the mole negro at Casa Oaxaca the night before. “Complex” hardly begins to describe it... you’ve just got to go try it for yourself. For the main course, I had chicken with mole negro (not as great as the one the night before, but quite good), and Kerrick had the plato de la casa, a combination plate of six or seven varied items.


For me, the best ones were the tasajo, a variation of Mexican cecina (NOT Spanish cecina!--thin slices of beef that are salted and dried for a couple of days, then grilled), and a chile relleno unlike any I had tried before (top center, above the tasajo)—-it had a rather sophisticated pork filling, was battered, then fried... delicious. Also on the plate: a square of grilled cheese, an enmolada (a sort of simple mole enchilada), guacamole, frijoles, a cebolla asada (roasted onion), and a fried plantain. Good, simple, rustic fare.

To sum up: as far as I’m concerned, there are two moles you cannot miss when in Oaxaca—the mole negro at Casa Oaxaca, and the mole coloradito at La Casa de la Abuela.

La Casa de la Abuela
Av. Hidalgo 616 Altos, Centro Histórico
Oaxaca, México
(+52) (951) 516-3544

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Casa Oaxaca

The next concert after Guadalajara was in Oaxaca, and getting there was one of the worst days of my adult life. Because of a recently deceased Mexican airline, there were not enough available seats for the whole orchestra to fly to Oaxaca. So, half the orchestra (as bad luck would have it, my “half”) had to get up at 5 a.m. (this after being returned to the hotel at midnight after the concert the night before, by the same bus driver that got lost TWICE trying to find the concert hall that afternoon) to catch a flight to Mexico City, whereupon we all boarded a bus for the supposed-5½-hour drive to Oaxaca. Instead, it ended up taking NINE HOURS, culminating in a blazing convergence of incompetence and stupidity as we sat on that damn bus in the middle of a busy road for an hour and a half while a key to the gate of a hotel was searched for. The only thing that could save that day from utter wrack and devastation was a great meal. Fortunately, I got it.

Many, including Rick Bayless, have sung the praises of the Casa Oaxaca restaurant, and for good reason. The setting, an 18th-century manor house, is stunning, the flavors fresh and unusual, the execution superb. Normally this kind of restaurant would fall outside the scope of this blog, but the favorable exchange rate meant that the Menú degustación “oaxaqueño contemporáneo”, plus wine, ran about 40 bucks a person—-an almost ridiculous bargain. It entailed six courses, plus a teaser of crispy blue corn tortillas with (from bottom to top) guacamoles, spicy rajas, and tomatillo salsa.


First up was rollitos de hoja santa-—taquitos made with an anise-like herb... subtle and delightful. Then came mole verde con lechón-—green mole with suckling pig. Lovely, although the flavor of the sauce was a bit muted for my taste (I freely admit my bias toward bold flavors). Next was to have been amarillo de venado (yellow mole with venison), but through an oversight it never arrived and we didn’t realize it until the end of the meal, so we never got to try it.

Bolder flavors arrived with the taquitos de pato con coloradito-—crisp little rolled duck tacos in a rich, reddish-brown mole sauce. Excellent. The crowning glory of the meal, however, was the mole negro con pavo-—black mole with turkey.


Neither Kerrick nor I had ever tasted a mole of such complexity and depth and... well, it was simply stunning. And turkey breast was the perfect foil for it: contrasting light flavor, yet a bit more substantial than, say, chicken would have been. For a few blissful moments, the hideous memory of the Bataan Death March plane/bus ride was erased.

The final course was dessert, nieve de leche quemada con tuna (shaved ice flavored with burned milk and prickly pear fruit).


Desserts tend not to be my thing, and though good for what it was, this definitely was not my cup of tea. The mezcal digestif that followed, however, was.

All of this was accompanied by a bottle of Palo Alto reserva, a cabernet/camernere/syrah blend from Chile... 2009, I believe it was. Normally I would have wished the wine to be not quite so young, but its almost-brashness turned out to go quite well with the huge variety of fresh flavors that evening.

Casa Oaxaca
c/Constitución 104-A, Col. Centro
Oaxaca, México
(+52) (951) 516-8531

website

Monday, September 20, 2010

Guadalajara

The next stop on the tour after Zacatecas was Guadalajara, where we were fortunate enough to have a whole afternoon and evening to explore. After perusing the Chowhound boards, I had decided the two things I absolutely had to try in Guadalajara were torta ahogada and carne en su jugo. So, that afternoon Kerrick and I set out to walk from our hotel near the Expo to the centro histórico and the Mercado Libertad (purported to be the largest market in the western hemisphere--it is indeed massive). The walk took well over an hour, and by the time we arrived at the mercado, we were ready for some sustenance. The seemingly endless maze of food stalls on the second floor seemed like the ideal place to try torta ahogada, so we picked a stall at random (one of the several we passed called Rosita—-it features three or four bubbling cauldrons of stewing meats on display up front) and ordered our tortas. They were pretty great: chunks of stewed pork in a bulky, crusty, hero-type roll which is then “drowned” (ahogada) in a thin sauce of red chile, the spiciness of which can be adjusted to your taste. (Photos by Kerrick Sasaki)


I loved it so much, I decided I had to have another before leaving Guadalajara, so the next day between our rehearsal at the theater (the Teatro Degollado in Gudalajara is the most visually and acoustically gorgeous theater I have ever had the privilege to perform in) and the concert, I dashed a few blocks south to a fairly well-known place called La Gorda for another one. Skip this—-it was but a pale imitation of the soul-satisfying experience of the day before.

By the time we made our way back toward the hotel after our mercado experience (that place is wild—-it has to be experienced to be believed), it was time for dinner, and in my mind that meant one thing: carne en su jugo. Luckily, what is probably the best-known purveyor of this dish in Guadalajara has a location near our not-particularly-centrally-located hotel. Karne Garibaldi has it down to a science: the moment you are seated, you are brought the “fixins”—small tortillas, red chile sauce, chopped white onions, chopped cilantro, limes, refried beans spiked with corn kernels, tiny fried corn tortilla chips and lard (lard really makes everything taste better), and fried cebollitas cambray (spring onions much like the calçots of Catalunya, minus the greens).


All that’s left is to decide on the desired size of your meat and what you want to drink. Again, almost immediately a shallow earthenware dish appears full of what looks like small pieces Philly steak meat swimming in a rich beef broth, with bits of crisp bacon on top. The whole spread is actually a bit overwhelming, and we were glad to be able to observe the plan of attack of a neighboring table seated at almost the same time as us. It worked beautifully: drizzle a few spoonfuls of red chile on the meat, then sprinkle some chopped onions and cilantro… maybe a squeeze of lime.


Mix a bit, slurp some of the utterly delicious broth, munch a few pieces of beef, make an impromptu taco with the tortillas-—with or without refried beans, according to whim—-repeat in any order. The meal couldn’t have been simpler in conception, or more inspired. And it’ll run you less than 10 bucks a person.

This seems to me such a great idea, I can’t imagine why it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. No exotic ingredients are required, preparation on the restaurant’s part is not complicated, and the final dish can be adjusted to literally anyone’s tastes (well, perhaps not vegetarians, but who cares?).

Guadalajara locals seem to agree that Karne Garibaldi is not actually the best place in town for carne en su jugo-—that prize apparently goes to Kamilos 333. But a trip to the Santa Teresita neighborhood was not possible this time, and I did not feel deprived in the least.

Karne Garibaldi
Mariano Otero 3019 (at Plaza del Sol)
Zapopan (Jalisco), México
(+52) (33) 3123-2607

website

Gorditas Doña Julia

A couple of days ago, I returned from a two-week tour of Mexico with the Orquesta Filarmónica de las Américas (Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas). It was a hectic tour schedule that left very little time to explore and find good food (except in places where I didn’t want it, like the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City--ick--it might as well have been suburbia), but I did eventually sniff out some meals worth writing about.

The first of these was in Zacatecas, almost a week into the tour, and by that time I was more than ready to eat something worth writing about. Zacatecas is a normally-quiet mining town with real 18th-century charm, the most beautiful place we went the entire tour. We, of course, managed to arrive on the eve of an anniversary of some event, the nature of which I have forgotten, which was celebrated by shooting off guns in the main square. Luckily, very near that main square is a local institution: Gorditas Doña Julia. It’s a simple establishment, and very easy to miss because the most obvious sign above the doorway says “Hotel Posada de la Moneda”. But once you’ve zeroed in on it, be prepared for hearty, honest, expertly-prepared food. The only thing they do here is gorditas: thick, round, tortilla-like bread cooked on a griddle, then split like a pita and stuffed with a wide variety of fillings. (Thanks to Melissa Tong for the photo.)


Doña Julia has at least twelve, and between Kerrick—-my intrepid tour roommate and dining adventure companion—-and myself, we were able to try about half of them. Our favorites were picadillo (seasoned ground meat with diced carrots, potatoes, and peas), deshebrada (shredded pork and cubes of potato in a spicy sauce), and arroz con mole (rice and mole sauce). (Photo: Kerrick Sasaki)


Vegetarians, be advised that the mole contains chunks of pork—-a couple of vegetarian string players in the orchestra found that out the hard way! But really everything here is delicious, from huevo (scrambled eggs) to carne de puerco (pork in a mildly spicy sauce), and friends attested to the deliciousness of the nopales (prickly-pear cactus in a very spicy sauce) and rajas con queso (strips of roasted green chile peppers and cheese, also quite spicy). And at 10 pesos apiece (about 80 cents), they're an unbelievable bargain.

Gorditas Doña Julia
Av. Hidalgo 409
Zacatecas, México
(+52) (492) 923-7955

Friday, August 6, 2010

WonJo

(Edit: A recent visit was notable for a remarkable dip in quality - accompanied by a spike in prices, naturally. If you must have Korean BBQ, do yourself a favor and plan a trip to Flushing or Ft. Lee, NJ, where you will receive infinitely better value. Also, this place is now called "New WonJo", hinting at a change of management. In any case, everything we tried, from BBQ to naeng myun to banchan is now mediocre at best. And do not go here expecting anything remotely resembling good service. This place now sums up everything I dislike about Manhattan's Koreatown; Hyo Dong Gak is about the only worthy destination left there.)

The weather in NYC the last several days has been sweltering, and during such times my thought turn, inevitably, to naeng myun. For me, it's one of the great hot-weather dishes, and I've never had better naeng myun than at WonJo.

Naeng myun is thin buckwheat noodles in ice-cold beef broth. Toss in some hard-boiled egg, a few slices of beef, and some ultra-thin slices of cucumber and pear (!), doctor to taste with the accompanying rice wine vinegar and mustard, and you have an incredibly refreshing summer dish.

WonJo is also notable for being the only place I know of in Manhattan's Koreatown that still does their at-the-table barbecue over wood embers, as opposed to gas grills. For me, the gold standard for Korean barbecue is Emone in Flushing, with great quality and reasonable prices--if one can't make the trip out there, the wood embers at WonJo help in make up for the lesser quality and significantly higher prices (as in at least 30%).

But at $12.95, WonJo's naeng myun, with the attendant, excellent banchan, is a reasonably-priced, delicious way to beat the heat.

WonJo
23 W. 32nd Street, New York 10001
212-695-5815

website

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Old Sichuan

With the demise of the Grand Sichuan at Ninth Ave. and 51st St., and the inflation-commensurate-with-popularity of the prices at Szechuan Gourmet (making it now essentially an expensive restaurant), there has been a void in options for reasonably-priced, good Sichuan food in Manhattan. Thankfully, that void has now been filled by a relative new-comer, Old Sichuan in Chinatown.

Occupying the space directly across the street from New Green Bo, vacated by Yeah Shanghai Deluxe when it moved to the corner, they serve some of the most pleasing Sichuan food west of Little Pepper, including some relative rarities. I'm crazy about flaky turnip cakes with ham but almost never encounter them--Old Sichuan's are excellent. Cold dishes sampled so far--spicy beef tendon and sliced pork belly with garlic sauce--are stellar, with bold, complex, fresh flavors. The same goes for the Sichuan wonton in red hot oil... I wanted to drink the remaining sauce when the delicate wontons were gone. The dry bean curd with spicy black bean is my favorite dry bean curd dish I've tried anywhere, and the sour string bean with minced pork is just what it should be: sour, spicy, delicious. Ask about the special chicken dish on the wall (and not on the regular) menu. It's a dish of which the proprietress seems especially proud: chunks of chicken dry-sauteed with three kinds of pepper flavor... a lovely dish.

Old Sichuan
65 Bayard St., New York, NY 10013
212-227-9888

website

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meste Zé

If you head up the coast from Cascais on the Estrada do Guincho, you're in for a spectacularly beautiful drive. And if you stop at Meste Zé, you'll be in for a spectacular meal.

I first learned the name of this place years ago as "Mestre Zé"... it seems to have lost the "r" in the intervening years, making it even more like kiddie-talk for "Master José" (like "nana" for "grandma"). No matter--the food is definitely NOT child's play. Although this place is a little outside the normal purview of this blog--it's essentially an expensive restaurant--it's home to what is perhaps the single greatest dish I know of in Portugal: a truly sensational cataplana de marisco. This is basically a stew cooked in the traditional Portuguese pan called a cataplana, which looks a bit like a flying saucer and is made of copper....the top half lifts off on a hinge after being sealed up so that all the juices and aromas stay in while cooking. It's made with squid, shrimp, lobster, and various other tidbits, all done perfectly (and since they all require different cooking times, this is no small feat), simmered in a sauce of onion, wine, a bit of tomato paste, chouriço (of course!), and some cream, and served over rice. As far as I'm concerned, one of the most spectacular dishes in the whole country, and they are the only restaurant I know of to make it the way they do.

Meste Zé
Estrada do Guincho
2750-642 Cascais, Portugal
(+351) 21 487 02 75

website

Restaurante Adega O Fuso

If you're in Lisbon and have access to a car, you should definitely take a trip to Arruda dos Vinhos. Take the A1 highway from Lisbon, in the direction of Porto, and exit at Alverca. From there, follow the signs to Arruda dos Vinhos--the trip takes about half an hour from Lisbon, and takes you through some lovely and unusual terrain. The trip is well worth making because of an outstanding restaurant called O Fuso.

The heart of the restaurant is a big, stone lareira--the hearth where all of the house specialties are grilled. And these specialties justify the trip completely: bacalhau grilled over the wood fire--with liberal amounts of garlic, then doused in olive oil--and, my favorite, naturally, costela de vaca--a huge... what does one call it?... beef rib chop, also grilled over the wood fire (remember the beginning of the Flintstones cartoon, at the drive-in? This rib chop reminds you a bit of that....). A grilled chouriço to start, and you're in heaven. The wonderful, local bread they serve is made even better if you ask them to toast it (torrar) over that same fire. The restaurant is easy to find, right on the main drag in the center of the town.

Restaurante Adega O Fuso
Rua Almirante Cândido dos Reis, 94-96
2630-216 Arruda dos Vinhos, Portugal
(+351) 26 397 51 21

Cervejaria Caneca de Prata

If, while in Lisboa, you find yourself in the mood to try vinho verde, do yourself a favor and go to Caneca da Prata (Rua da Prata, 163/165, about halfway between the Praça do Comercio and the Praça da Figueira). They serve it tapped directly from the cask (de pressão), and it's the perfect accompaniment for their marvelous salgados (savory meat, chicken and fish pastries) made fresh throughout the day (almost uniquely in Lisboa....most places make them early in the day and they sit around until they're gone). Ask what's warm at the moment when you get there--their rissóis de camarão (shrimp rissoles), fresh from the fryer are the best I've ever tasted, and those things are EVERYWHERE in Lisbon (although almost never freshly-made). It's also the best place around to get a sandes de leitão (roast suckling pig sandwich). For me, this was the perfect joint for a late afternoon snack--it gets very crowded at lunch-time, and they're all closed up by 7 in the evening.

Cervejaria Caneca de Prata
Rua da Prata, 163/165
1100-416 Lisboa, Portugal
(+351) 21 342 68 05

Restaurante Carreira

If you happen to be up north in Portugal, passing through Guimarães, there are two things you must do: spend an hour or so at the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, and eat at Restaurante Carreira.

It's one of those old-fashioned restaurants I just love where you walk through the kitchen to get to your table. I've only had one meal there, but everything we tried was outstanding. I suspect you really can't go wrong here... really about the best homestyle regional cooking I had in any restaurant in Portugal. It's the kind of place where most dishes come with a nice pot of arroz de feijão (rice cooked with kidney beans, and some bacon and chouriço, of course) on the side. Try anything that sounds good--it will be, I assure you. And it's the only restaurant I ever found that has doce de aletria on the menu--a traditional Portuguese dessert made with spaghetti-like noodles, the ubiquitous sweetened egg-custard, and cinnamon.....sort of like an eggy rice pudding, except with noodles. Sounds weird, but it's delicious. The place can be a bit tricky to find: it's out from the center of town--if memory serves, to the west--in the neighborhood called Silvares (there used to be a lot of car dealerships nearby). But ask around--it's worth the trouble! You also might want to call first...the last time I tried to go there it was closed, on a day when it was supposed to be open.

Restaurante Carreira
Rua 25 de Abril, 1
Silvares 4835-400 Guimarães, Portugal
(+351) 25 341 84 48

Restaurante A Carvalheira

If you're up north in the Minho region, the town of Ponte de Lima is worth visiting for many reasons: it's picturesque, there's a great regional market, and--unsurprisingly for this blog--there's a fantastic restaurant: A Carvalheira.

It's located across the river from the center of Ponte de Lima in the neighborhood called Arcozelo--a very pleasant 5-minute walk across the bridge. It's in an old stone house, and the centerpiece of the restaurant is the big stone hearth, where some of the cooking is sometimes done--it's the perfet spot for a warming, winter evening meal. Although everything I tried was superb, the house specialty is pernil de porco assado, or roast pork shoulder (Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are quite familiar with this cut), and it is spectacular. Crispy crackling--well, I suppose it's not skin, but fat--on the outside, perfectly tender meat on the inside, accompanied by roasted potatoes and greens (couve, something between cabbage and collard or mustard greens, wilted, then sauteed). The potatoes and greens have so much flavor that it's impossible that they're cooked in simply oil--there's definitely lard working its magic in there. One of the other house specialties is arroz de pato (duck with rice, baked in the oven), and it's also wonderful. In fact, everything is of the highest quality. And at about 30 bucks a head, VERY well worth the trip if you're in the vicinity. This place is extremely popular, especially on the weekends, so it would be worth calling ahead. Closed Mondays.

Restaurante A Carvalheira
Antepaço - Arcozelo
4990-231 Ponte de Lima, Portugal
(+351) 25 874 23 16

Restaurante O Toucinho

Another great day/evening meal trip form Lisbon is to go to Almeirim (take the A1 highway to Santarém, and it's just across the river). Almeirim is famous for its sopa da pedra, a traditional soup that evolved from the old "stone soup" legend (and sure enough, in most restaurants, each serving of soup comes with its own polished stone in the bottom of the bowl). It's a hearty, red-bean based soup fortified with potatoes and the usual suspects--chouriço, morcela, and bacon. The best place in town to sample this is the restaurant O Toucinho.

The other specialty here is grilled meats (which they do over charcoal), of which the best is a sort of thick lamb chop, but cut in a way I have never seen anywhere else, the name of which I can't for the life of me remember. Just ask which it is--it's the most popular one and, unfortunately, they're often out of it (a bit of Googling produced the word "rinzada"... I think that may be it, but do some inquiring to be sure). The bread is also spectacularly delicious here, fresh from the oven. The restaurant is a bit tricky to find if you don't know where you're going. Just head for the bull ring, then ask someone for directions. Closed Thursdays.

Restaurante O Toucinho
Rua de Timor, 20
2080-103 Almeirim, Portugal
(+351) 24 359 22 37

Restaurante "O Labrêgo"

About a half-hour-to-forty-five-minute drive from Lisbon, due north along the A8 toward Torres Vedras is a restaurant I think is truly special. It's in an old, low, stone house (which I'm sure was once a quinta) and has that unmistakable aura of "local tradition" about it....in the back, there is a porch, surrounded by grape vines, with tables....perfect for a summer afternoon. The best reason to go here: cabrito assado, their specialty: kid goat roasted in a wood oven, served bubbling in it's own juices in a clay casserole with small roasted new potatoes. This, in turn, is served with one of the most delicious side dishes I have ever tasted--the rice. But it's not just any rice....it's rice that has been cooked in the drippings and juices of the kid goat and its giblets (do goats have giblets?), which reduces to a thick, concentrated sauce. You can ask for it com or sem miúdos, miúdos being the chopped bits of innards that impart all that great flavor. I admit I prefer it sem (without). In a way, it's like in intense, meaty and smoky risotto, but the most amazing risotto I've ever had (and I love risotto to begin with).

This nirvana can be experienced at the restaurant "O Labrêgo" in a "town" (more like a wide spot in the road) called Feliteira, which is a few kilometers south of Dois Portos, which in turn is just south of Torres Vedras. It's not directly accessible from the highway--have a good map handy.

Restaurante "O Labrêgo"
Av. 25 Abril, nº 9 - Feliteira
Dois Portos 2565-182 Torres Vedras, Portugal
(+351) 26 171 22 62

Restaurante Serra da Estrela - Cantinho Regional

If you like hearty, mountain fare as I do, Restaurante Serra da Estrela is an extremely useful restaurant to know about when one is in Lisbon. At first blush, it doesn't seem like my kind of restaurant: it's a chain (albeit a small one), all the locations are in shopping centers (centros comerciais), and it's a touch on the expensive side, though not ridiculous by any means. But the food is good... better than good, and they're open when other restaurants are not. Sometimes you just need a meal outside of normal meal times, and that can be tricky in Portugal!

The food is the real deal--not like O Albertino (what is?), but very good. They use authentic enchidos (the general word for cured meat products like chouriço, morcela, etc.)--very important, since at least one variety figures into almost every dish of the region. The sopa do cantinho, a hearty bean and vegetable soup with a couple of cured pork products (naturally) is a satisfying starter, as is the chouriço stewed in red wine. Having eaten here countless times over the years, some of the memorable main courses I've had include açorda de entrecosto (a kind of thick, moistened-bread stew with pork spareribs), chanfana de borrego (lamb stewed in red wine), rancho à moda da Beira (a hearty stew of chickpeas, macaroni, chouriço, morcela, bacon, and farinheira, a type of sausage made with bread, paprika and garlic), galinha de cabidela (possibly my favorite dish in Portuguese cuisine: chicken stewed with giblets, then rice cooked in the resulting giblet broth, with chicken blood added at the end), and alheira de caça (a fried thick sausage filled with shredded pheasant and partridge meat, bread, and garlic).

And, perhaps best of all, they can always be counted on to have good queijo da serra on hand. Queijo da serra is, for me, one of THE great cheeses of the world--runny ambrosia on a plate. And, at around €4 a serving, a relative bargain.

Restaurante Serra da Estrela - Cantinho Regional
Amoreiras Shopping Center, Atrium Saldanha,
Centro Colombo, Centro Vasco da Gama,
CascaiShopping (Alcabideche - Cascais),
and other centros comerciais around Portugal

Ginginha Transmontana

When visiting Lisbon, it's definitely worthwhile to check out Cascais--the 40-minute train ride along the water is extremely pleasant--and if you do, there's a restaurant out there that should not be missed: Ginginha Transmontana.

It's a tiny place (so it's best to call ahead and reserve), with décor best described as "funky"--a bit like a cluttered, yet well-organized, basement, rounded out with Christmas lights and candles stuck on top of wine bottles. When you sit down, they will automatically bring you their house white wine and the house appetizer: mussels that have been steamed with white wine, onions, garlic, chouriço, and bacon. Accept them. They specialize in meats and seafood grelhado na telha, or grilled on a roofing tile. They set up a piece of terra cotta roofing tile on a salver, on which to grill filet mignon the size of a softball, or scrupulously fresh lobster, squid, shrimp, or fish over flaming aguardiente (brandy). When it is brought to the table, garlic butter is liberally applied, and, in the case of seafood, lemon, to douse the flames. They also do a killer chanfana (kid goat stewed with red wine, onions, and chouriço).

It's a rather long walk from the train station, so it's best to take a taxi (they're cheap). If there is any question about the address, direct the cab driver to the Largo das Fontainhas. It'll run you about $35-$40 a head, and well worth it. Closed Sundays.

Ginginha Transmontana
Rua de Alvide, 366
2750 Cascais, Portugal
(+351) 21 483 26 55

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Restaurante Zé Maria

Valença do Minho is a funky border town in the north of Portugal, right on the Minho river at an important crossing point into Spain. It's got a great old fortaleza (fortress), reasonably-priced accommodations--I thought the Hotel Lara, right at the entrance to the International Bridge, was great--and some excellent food, if you know where to find it (that big "if" is true of Portugal in general). Cozinha minhota has a lot of wonderful dishes in its canon... the trick is to convince someone to make any of them for you. Most restaurants stick to the same boring stuff.

Luckily, there is Restaurante Zé Maria. It seems to be the best-known restaurant in town, and although I passed through Valença twice in the last couple of weeks, I only managed one meal there because the second time was a Tuesday, and they are closed on Tuesdays (I have a special knack for that). But the one meal I did manage bespoke of a kitchen that knew what it was doing. If cabrito is on the menu, I'm probably going to order it... and that's just what I did. It was cabrito no forno: oven-roasted pieces of kid goat with roasted potatoes (that were surely coated in lard before roasting... mmm...), served in a traditional alguidar de barro full of rice.


Not exactly spectacular, but a it was cooking true to its exceptional ingredients, and deeply satisfying. I so wanted to go back and try other things... I kept seeing beautiful bacalhau, seafood, and meat dishes going by, and some great-looking fried potato rounds. Next time.

If you end up staying in the Hotel Lara on a Tuesday, whatever you do, DON'T go to Restaurante Cristina next door. I had a meal there so unbearably mediocre I was not interested enough to even finish it.

Restaurante Zé Maria
Centro Comercial Bruxelas - Av. Dr. Tito Fontes
4930-673 Valença do Minho, Portugal
(+351) 251 82 53 64

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Casa Juanín

There is a restaurant in the mountains of eastern Asturias that I have been going to for at least 17 years. Taken there by my dear friend and Asturian food guru José Ángel, from the very first visit it took its place as my favorite restaurant in Spain, and, therefore, the world. It’s a very small, family-run place that I tried to keep a secret for years, to impart to only the truly worthy. But since there is now a detailed listing for it in the latest edition of the Guía Azul for Asturias, I guess word can safely be considered to be "out". It seems to be called Casa Isabel now, although it used to be called Casa Juanín, named for the dueño, her father, even though Isabel has always done all the cooking--at least since I've been going there.

I returned there today, and am delighted to see that nothing has changed—most notably, the quality—in 17 years. It’s in a tiny pueblo called Pendones--a handful of houses perched up on a mountainside above AS-117 on the way to the Puerto de Tarna. The restaurant is nothing more than two small rooms that comprise (along with the third small room, the kitchen) the ground floor of their house. Everything is homemade, with what are palpably local ingredients. It’s heavy, mountain fare, so perhaps best enjoyed in cooler weather… but I’ve got to grab my visits when I can! The offerings are always the same, plus or minus a dish or two, but you can generally count on: sopa de pescado (fish soup), fabes con jabalí (the oversized white haricot beans used in fabada, stewed with wild boar), picadillo de venado (sauté of minced venison seasoned with paprika and garlic), callos (tripe), and cabrito (stewed kid goat). As great as the cabrito is, somehow that venison picadillo is even more amazing. Sometimes there’s pitu de caleya (stewed free-range chicken). There’s always arroz con leche for dessert, and Isabel makes the best flan I have ever had. Because every bit of it is local and real and prepared by an expert, the food all has more flavor than one would think possible.

Pendones can be a bit tricky to find—it’s not even on a lot of maps. Heading southeast on AS-117, head past Campo de Caso another 5 kilometers or so to La Foz. Keep going another kilometer or two and keep a sharp lookout for small sign pointing you up the mountainside to the left. And because of the tiny size of the restaurant, definitely call ahead for a reservation.

Casa Juanín (aka Casa Isabel)
Pendones, s/n
Pendones 33997 Caso, Spain
(+34) 985 61 37 25

Saturday, July 10, 2010

El Bulevar de la Sidra

The Calle Gascona in Oviedo has traditionally been home to a bunch of sidrerías over the years, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that someone had the bright idea of marketing the two quaint blocks that comprise it as “El Bulevar de la Sidra”. There's even an official website, run by the “Asociación de Hosteleros de la Calle Gascona”. By no means all of the sidrerías on the street are members, and the ones that are seem to me to be more notable for their desire for self-promotion and a certain mediocrity of fare rather than real quality.

I readily admit to a certain perverseness when it comes to these things, so, predictably enough, my two favorites on the street are the oldest and the newest of the sidrerías. Starting with the newest (though it didn't last very long - it's now closed), Sidrería Zandarín (named for a pueblo near Cangas del Narcea) has been open for business just over nine months and has already distinguished itself as one of the better cocinas on the street. I chose it randomly—on the basis of its appealing menú del día, coupled with its appealing price of €10 —when I arrived in Oviedo Sunday afternoon and needed to find a place to eat lunch quickly before everything closed. One of the primero platos was fabada asturiana… I hadn’t had fabada in over a year, and it was a cool afternoon (most important), so I went for it. And to my great surprise, it was excellent. REALLY excellent. I have been served some shockingly mediocre fabadas in the past, in places that should have been serving something much better than goop that could have come from a can, so for years I have confined my fabada-eating to places like La Máquina in Lugones and Casa Gerardo. I was, admittedly, flying blind. But luck was with me: tender, almost perfectly-cooked fabes (beans), and embutidos (chorizo, morcilla, lacon, and tocino) worthy of the very best places. It was good enough to remind me what a great dish it really is. This was followed by an entrecot de buey that actually tasted like ox and not just generic cattle. I went back the next evening for some of the best pollo al ajillo (bone-in chunks of chicken fried with garlic) I’ve ever had.

Sidrería Ferroviario has been around for almost 6 decades, making it about the oldest establishment on the street. And it’s holding up beautifully… no flash, no glitz—just good, reasonably-priced food and, as one review I read said, “buena sidra, bien escanciada” (good sidra, well-poured). After spending time in lesser sidrerías--I even got to watch my friend José Ángel school the waiter in the proper way to escanciar la sídra the other day--it’s easy to forget what a difference this can make. On my most recent visit, they were pouring Peñón sidra (for my tastes, an excellent maker), and these guys know what they’re doing… officially: Ferroviario is well-known for having on its staff winners of international concursos de escanciadores (sidra-pouring competitions). And with sidra, it really does make a difference. Try it for yourself sometime: hit a few of the sidrerías in the c/Gascona, ending with Ferroviario. See if it doesn’t actually taste the best. They also boast an excellent, traditional Asturian kitchen with a great €9 menú del día. And this is one of the few places around you can still get traditional jamón asado. It’s yet another Spanish dish with jamón in the name, but it’s unlike any other: slices of a roast ham, but it is the ham BEFORE being cured. It’s not pink, it’s not salty—just a spectacularly moist, delicious pork roast. It may exist outside of Asturias, but I have never encountered it anywhere else. I had fidegüa there today: a stew of seafood with thick noodles. You NEVER see that on menus any more. And when I ordered arroz con leche for dessert (one of the glories of Asturian cooking—there’s a great recipe for it here), I was asked if I wanted it quemado (with its traditional sugar crust burned on top, like crême brulée). I almost fell off my chair… such a nicety is rarely offered at this price point.

Sidrería Zandarín (closed permanently)
c/Gascona, 22
33001 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 22 77  80

Sidrería Ferroviario
c/Gascona, 5
33001 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 22 52 15

website

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tierra Astur

If there is one restaurant that sums up what is for me the essence of Asturias and its food and drink, it is Tierra Astur in Colloto, on the outskirts of Oviedo. If you’re anywhere nearby, grab as many people as you can and GO, and be prepared for a hedonistic binge of consumption. It’s one hell of a party!

It is, first and foremost, a sidrería (pictures from their website):


The design of the Colloto location—converted from the old Águila Negra beer factory—is fantastic, and the “wall of water” is an ingenious modern take on a traditional way keeping the sidra at the proper temperature, which I first experienced at an outdoor chigre in Soto de Agues, tucked next to a puente de piedra with the bottles chilling in the stream.


Here one can enjoy sidra escanciado, or “de espicha” (from the tap):


You won’t find sidra de espicha just anywhere, so I suggest trying it here. It also has the advantage of being “all-you-can-drink” for one quite modest price, as opposed to paying by the bottle.

The menu is huge, and everything is listed, charmingly, in bable asturiano and castellano. Stick as closely as you can to the traditional parrilla fare—it’s what they do best. For starters, they have a wide selection Asturian embutidos (cured meats of various kinds)… try everything. As much as I love it, this probably isn’t the place to get jamón ibérico. It’s decent quality—not the best—but sliced by machine and not by hand. The same weight goes farther that way, but the texture, and therefore the flavor, isn’t right. But with all the other great cured meats and sausages you shouldn’t miss it.

Hopefully you’ve arrived with enough people to warrant ordering the parrillada, a veritable avalanche of food that easily feeds 5-6, and a bargain at €38: chorizu criollu (light-colored pork sausage), chorizu roju (red, paprika chorizo), morciella fresca (blood sausage), pitu (chicken), costiella de gochu (pork ribs), costiella de xata (beef ribs), llacón (pork hock), churrascu (cross-cut beef rib), entrecó de carne roxa (beef entrecote), paletilla de corderu (lamb), pimientos (roasted red peppers) and fried potatoes. They do a good chuletón de güe (ox chop) here, too. It may not be up to the high quality of Nozana, or even El Quesu in nearby Bobes (Siero), but it's better than adequate. The items from kitchen (as opposed to the grill) tend not to be nearly as good. There’s an incredible selection of Asturian cheeses for postre (once again, don’t bother with the kitchen dessert items).

There are three locations at this point, and for my money the Colloto one is by far the best (if you go, you may be lucky enough to be waited on by Cristina, who will give you some cheeky auténtico asturiano banter while doing a great job). There’s also one in El Bulevar de la Sidra (calle Gascona) in Oviedo, and a newly-opened location on the Playa de la Poniente in Gijón—say hello to my friend Saulo if you hit that one!

Tierra Astur
Antigua Fábrica del Águila Negra
Colloto 33010 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 79 12 28

website

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mesón de Nozana

The parrilla of central Asturias is, predictably, probably my favorite genre of restaurant in the world. The most traditional ones are open, airy structures, the nerve-centers of which are big, wood-burning stone hearths where the meats are grilled in plain view of anyone who cares to watch.


One of the very best of these is Mesón de Nozana in Viella, just a few kilometers east of Oviedo.

Their parrillada is a mountain of grilled meats that easily feeds 3-4 people: beef ribs, pork ribs, sirloin, lacón (like what Americans think of as ham), grilled chicken with lemon, chorizo criollo (white-pink seasoned pork sausage), and chorizo rojo (semi-cured paprika pork sausage).


At 28€, an unbelievable bargain, especially considering the high quality of the meats. They also have a full selection of appetizers, salads, and other basic Asturian dishes, plus a a wine list that covers all the Spanish bases (Ramón Bilbao is an especially good choice with all that meat), and, of course, sidra.

Mesón de Nozana
c/Iglesia, 2
Viella 33429 Siero, Spain
(+34) 985 26 05 36

a bare-bones website

Casa Gervasio

Ah, sidra! You can't go to Asturias without trying sidra, a kind of hard apple cider, and Asturias is almost the only place you can drink it. The cider is fermented for about six months, at which point it should be drunk almost immediately, and it doesn't travel well. It's not sweet, and doesn't taste particularly strongly of apples--it's more reminiscent of new wine than anything. And it can only be had in a certain kind of place--sidra is almost its own subculture, and has its rules. Each green glass bottle has about six small servings' worth. The cider must be aerated for it to be at its best, so for each serving, the escanciador must echar un culín: the bottle must be held above the head so that it can be poured into a large, wide-mouth glass tumbler held below the waist so it breaks against the side of the glass--just enough for one big gulp (folklore has it that if globules present in the bottled sidra aren't broken up this way, they can make you nauseous). When drinking, leave just a bit in the glass, and pour out the dregs (into the troughs built into the bar for this purpose, or a wooden bucket, or the floor, which will probably have some sawdust on it). Because this libation is fairly messy, it's generally not served in fancy restaurants, but in sidrerías only (other key words to look for on signs if thirsty for sidra: chigre and llagar).

Casa Gervasio is a real old-fashioned llagar--it looks like it hasn't changed in 60 years. The decor is clean and simple, and somehow you just know you're going to get something special there. And indeed you do--sidra, of course, and some of the best, simple, Asturian cooking you'll find in Oviedo. Word is they make the best fritos de pixín around here, and it's difficult to imagine better: lightly-battered chunks of monkfish perfectly fried. They make a stupendously good chorizo a la sidra (a soft, Asturian-style chorizo stewed in--what else?--sidra), and the freshly-made tortilla española (the potato-egg cake kind of tortilla, almost like a frittata) is almost a revelation. And don't miss the homemade potato chips... look around and you'll notice a plate of them on almost every table, for good reason. Someone in that kitchen REALLY knows their way around puff pastry (hojaldre) and pastry cream... the milhojas de crema con natas is perhaps the most exquisitely delicate dessert I've had in years (even better than the tarta de hojaldre at Restaurante Panduku, just outside of Oviedo in Granda, for years my gold standard for such desserts), and the canutillos--same ingredients, different shape--are equally good. Ask what they have that day--at any one time they prepare only a portion of the large menu. You can rest assured anything you order will be fresh and expertly-prepared.

Casa Gervasio
c/de Fuente de la Plata, 68
La Argoñesa 33013 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 23 42 55

Restaurante A Coutada

Although the quality has slipped a bit in recent years, Restaurante A Coutada was my overall favorite restaurant when I lived in Lisbon, and it is still one of the most reliable traditional kitchens in the city.

Although soups aren't the most inspired creations of Portuguese cuisine, the sopa campesina is lovely:  bits of cabbage, some macaroni, and red beans in a light broth of puréed potatoes and carrot.


Everything is good: check the pratos do dia (daily specials) first, and if they have the chicken cabidela, grab it (best version of the dish I ever tasted anywhere, including the north), although it will most likely be masking under the picturesque name "frango á tripeirinho". Usually there will be a rice dish special, like an arroz de marisco, arroz de polvo (octopus), arroz de corvina (firm-fleshed white fish--can't remember the English equivalent), or arroz de pato (duck rice). One the house specialties is balchão de gambas--a Goa-inspired, kurma-esque creamy curry of shrimp served in a green pepper with rice (they also do this with chicken). Also excellent are grilled meats on huge skewers--I particularly like the thick pork tenderloins wrapped in bacon, served with arroz de feijão (rice stewed with red kidney beans).


You'll really have to work to spend more than $25 a head here.

It's near the Campo dos Martires do Patria, which is easily reached by the No. 760 bus from Praça da Figueira or Cais do Sodré...from, there it's best to ask, as the side streets go off in odd directions. Closed Sundays.

Restaurante A Coutada
Rua da Bempostinha, 18
1150-066 Lisboa, Portugal
(+351) 21 885 20 94

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sabor Mineiro

Being rather more fond of meat than the next guy, I’m always up for a good rodízio. And outside of Brazil, the king of them all surely must be Sabor Mineiro, near Lisbon.

The hot and cold buffet has a truly astounding array of offerings—many just make that their meal. Over a dozen hot dishes, two or three times as many cold offerings, soups, and, of course, some stellar pão de queijo (cheese “bread”—heavenly little balls more like a cross between a roll and a popover). The rodízio portion (where guys bring huge skewers of meat to your table and cut you off slices until you tell them to stop) includes more varieties of meats than I’ve seen anywhere. Some of the items I hadn’t seen before: cupim (meat from the bump just behind the cow’s neck), and beef “com queijo”—slices from a big hunk of meat larded with globs of cheese which ooze out of it in an almost obscene fashion. Everything is of the highest quality, and you can eat your fill for about €20.

Although there is a location in Lisbon proper, word is that this is the location to go to. With a modicum of adventurousness, it’s a fun trip. From Lisbon, take either the ferry to Cacilhas or the Fertagus train (which crosses the Tejo river via the 25 de Abril bridge) and pick up bus 126 (to Marisol) or 127 (to Fonte da Telha) to Charneca da Caparica… ask the driver to let you know when to get off—everyone knows where it is. Slightly less fun, but more direct would be to catch the bus 159 (to Marisol) from Praça de Espanha in Lisbon.

Sabor Mineiro
Avenida Elias Garcia 992
2820-222 Charneca da Caparica, Portugal
(+351) 21 297 34 07

website

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Restaurante Cabrita

One of the most pleasant ways to spend an evening when one is in Lisbon is to head to Cais do Sodré and hop on the ferry across the Tejo to Cacilhas… it’s an easy, 10-minute ride. Once there, head to the restaurants (not the ones right on the water—they’re not so great and rather overpriced). By the time you’ve taken 50 steps, you’ll begin to smell the charcoal grills, but do not be seduced by the first restaurants you pass. Instead, continue up Rua Cândido dos Reis to no. 87, Restaurante Cabrita.

I lived in Lisbon for a few years in the ‘90’s, and this is one of the tiny handful of restaurants among my favorites at that time that is just as good now as it was then. They continue to expertly prepare fresh, quality ingredients. House specialties include arroz de marisco (rice with seafood) and arroz de tamboril (rice with monkfish). And of course, since Cacilhas is essentially a fishing village, it’s impossible to go wrong with grilled fish. But my favorite dish here is massa de peixe.


This dish is virtually unknown outside of Portugal: it’s a stew of fish and macaroni in a fish stock (seasoned with the barest hint of tomato, sage, and, if I’m not mistaken, a pinch of saffron, too), cilantro, and a shrimp or two tossed in for good measure.


Sounds a little weird, but it’s divine. And it's marvelous with a few drops of their house-made piri-piri (hot sauce). 


Ask for a chouriço assado (chouriço grilled on charcoal) as an appetizer—it’s superb.




The grilled chocos (cuttlefish) are great, and they serve up the best sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) you’ll get in a restaurant anywhere. If bacalhau com natas (a gratin of dried codfish, potatoes, onions and cream) is one of the daily specials, grab it--it’s probably the best version of it I’ve ever had. Considering the high quality of their offerings, the prices are eminently reasonable.

Restaurante Cabrita
Rua Cândido dos Reis, 87
Cacilhas 2800-270 Almada, Portugal
(+351) 21 275 17 80

Gösser Bierklinik

The other restaurant I visited multiple times during my recent sojourn in Vienna was the Gösser Bierklinik. Situated on a quiet cobbled street near the Stephansdom, it’s one of those places that feels suspended in time, and the food is classic Viennese.

I wish I had been able to try everything on the menu, but what I did get was uniformly excellent. The Bauernschmaus was a festival of pork products—roast pork, a piece of smoked pork, roasted bacon, and sausages—on a bed of beautifully-done, almost sweet, sauerkraut, with a Semmelknödel thrown in for good measure. It made me very happy indeed. Fiakergulasch was the best goulash I have had in over a decade, served with boiled potatoes, a grilled sausage, a fried egg, and a sliced pickle—a deeply satisfying plate of food. And the house beer is, obviously, the classic Gösser: not quite up there on Parnassus with the great Munich lagers, but damn close.

Gösser Bierklinik
Steindlgasse 4, 1010 Wien, Austria
(+43) 1 533 75 98 12

website

7 Stern Bräu

Just yesterday I finished up a week in Vienna, Austria, where I had almost no free time to do any exploring. Luckily, the charming fellow at the Hotel Mercure Secession directed me to 7 Stern Bräu, in the Neubau neighborhood, my first night in town… it was so good, I returned twice that week.

Their Käsespätzle mit Speck (cheese spätzle with cream and bacon) is easily the best spätzle I’ve ever had… if you’re the least bit inclined, get it! Knoblauchrahmsuppe (garlic cream soup) was wonderful, and the bratwurst with sauerkraut was everything it should be. Everyone seemed to be getting the klassische Spareribs (ribs grilled with freshly minced garlic) and for good reason… the small portion—you can trust me on this—is enough for the heartiest of appetites. The excellent house beer comes in a dizzying array of varieties.

My last night there, I espied another pork specialty of the house, the gegrillte Schweinsstelze, a large grilled pig knuckle for two. I plan on getting it the first night of my next trip to Vienna.

7 Stern Bräu
Siebensterngasse 19, 1070 Wien, Austria
(+43) 1 523 86 97

website

Lark's Hand Car Wash & Bar-B-Que

Recently, I was on a gig in southwest Michigan. It had been a few days, and I was beginning to think there was no really good, honest food in the area at all when Paul finally took me to Lark’s. I went back every day the rest of the time I was there.

Barbecue and soul food is what they do here, and it’s all fabulous. The best introduction to their art is the Pig on a Bun: a peerless sandwich of pulled pork. Jerk chicken is also stellar (I’m a huge fan of the dark meat)—not exactly what one might expect if one is familiar with Jamaican jerk chicken, but the barbecued chicken with a spicy dry rub is pretty stupendous on its own terms. As is the homemade spicy Polish dog—get it with onions and barbecue sauce (the house sauce is good and vinegary, not too sweet, and spicy enough to be really interesting). Curiously, the only thing I tried that was less than top-notch was the ribs… they were just a tad dry. But the country-style ribs were tender, juicy, boneless chunks of utter deliciousness.

If you go, say hello to Marilyn Lark, a former Queens resident and a great lady.

Lark & Sons Car Wash & Bar-B-Que
174 W. Main St., Benton Harbor, MI 49022
269-926-9833

Monday, May 17, 2010

Babe's Chicken Dinner House

I just returned from a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, where I was able to pay a couple of visits to an old friend: Babe's Chicken Dinner House in Roanoke. I try to get there at least once every time I'm in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, because, as the attentive reader will immediately grasp, this is very much my kind of restaurant.

Quite simply, Babe's is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten in a restaurant. They do a mean chicken fried steak, too, but the far trickier business of mastering great fried chicken makes Babe's a rare gem indeed. When you sit down, you are asked to choose your meat (oh, if life could always be like that!)... everything else is automatic: unlimited salad (iceberg lettuce), mashed potatoes (the REAL thing, in it's most perfect form), cream gravy (also perfection), creamed corn (the kernels were surely on the cob not 20 minutes before serving, with just enough cream to hold them together), and homemade biscuits (with bottles of honey AND sorghum syrup on the table).  (This place is no exception when it comes to the "dim lighting in Texas restaurants" rule...the pic leaves a lot to be desired, but I can I assure you the ones on their website are accurate.)


No desserts (at least not at the Roanoke location), and it's BYOB, if you so desire.

There are several locations around the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and the other ones I've tried serve great food. But there's something special about the one in Roanoke... it's the original, and it's in a converted warehouse built over 100 years ago. Food tastes better when it's rooted deep in time.

Babe's Chicken Dinner House
104 N. Oak, Roanoke, TX 76262
817-491-2900

website

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sheng Wang

(UPDATE 5/15:  Sheng Wang is as reliably excellent as ever, and the prices are unchanged. It's nice to know there are some things in this world one can count on.  Still my favorite Manhattan Chinatown spot.)

I have Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice to thank for putting me onto this little gem: Sheng Wang is now my favorite joint in Manhattan's Chinatown.

This Fujianese place specializes in noodles, but they make the best dumplings I've tried in Chinatown. On the menu they're called steamed dumplings (水餃 - shuǐ jiǎo - these characters mean "boiled dumplings" in Northern Chinese places, but if you actually boiled these, they would surely disintegrate).  Wrapped in skins much more delicate than their northern-style counterparts, the pork and chive filling is so tasty it seems like there must be some trick involved. (Really - I sit there eating them wondering the whole time, "how do they do it?") And at $3.00 for 10 huge dumplings... that's a trick worth experiencing.


Their Potato Ball in Soup (馬鈴薯丸 - mǎ ling shǔ wán) is equally wonderful: ten handmade balls of potato dough filled with seasoned ground pork in a light chicken broth. If you happen to go there late in the afternoon, you can often watch the staff sitting around forming them by hand.


Wonton Soup Fuzhou Style (福州扁肉湯 - fú zhōu biǎn ròu tāng) is a medium-sized bowl of at least 30 ultra-delicate "wontons" - 扁肉 (biǎn ròu) actually refers to a stuffed thin dumpling of Southern China - in Sheng Wang's equally delicate chicken broth. A minor miracle at $2.00.


But the bulk of the menu is noodles, and there are two types here: the hand-pulled, Lanzhou style, and "peel noodle". These are fun to watch being made--I have not yet been able to see them do it at Sheng Wang, but I happened to catch the episode of "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" where he visited a restaurant in China that served every imaginable kind of noodle, and Mr. Zimmern tried his hand at making these, holding a block of dough in one hand, shaving a knife along the top and flipping the noodle into a pot of boiling water. (Come to think of it, that episode the food wasn't so bizarre... there was only one thing he ate that I hadn't already tried--and he was in CHINA!). Anyway, both kinds are great, although I might give peel noodle the edge (boom-CHING!). I'm particularly partial to the soups with bones in them--the pork bone soup has five or six big hunks of pork bones with bits of meat still clinging to them, and the added bonus of often-intact marrow. The broth of the beef bone soup is richer and tastier, but the bones aren't quite as much fun. And all the meat soups come with greens, some minced sour cabbage, and a meat-filled potato ball. All for 5 bucks or less.

Sheng Wang
27 Eldridge St., New York 10002
212-925-0805

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yun Nan Flavor Snack

There's been a bit of buzz lately about a tiny noodle shop in Brooklyn's Chinatown that serves Yunnan-style fare--enough quality buzz that I was inspired to make the trek all the way down there this evening. It was worth it. Yun Nan Flavor Snack is wonderful.

Whatever you do, do not miss the dumplings in hot and sour sauce. "Sauce" is a bit of a misnomer--they (8 or 10 of them--I lost count), in fact, are served in broth. Spiced with at least three different peppers (red, black, and Sichuan) and sour with rice vinegar, it is at once strongly-flavored and subtle. All that is topped with some cilantro, and I could have sworn I tasted lemongrass in there somewhere, although I found no pieces of it in the bowl. Dumplings from the south of China really are different from their northern counterparts--these are made, I think, of shrimp and pork, enveloped in wrappers so delicate that they shrivel and wrinkle when cooked according to the contours of the filling (northern dumplings are far sturdier in construction!). A truly spectacular bowl of delights... for $4.25! In fact, I don't think anything here costs more than $4.50.

They do three kinds of noodle here, each available 5 or 6 different ways (with things like beef stew, spicy meat sauce, broth with crispy meat): rice noodle, wheat noodle, and rice stick, plus a couple of cold offerings. I opted for rice noodle with crispy meat. It was great--noodles in a broth (which they'll make spicy or not, according to your wishes) with a few slices of pork and lots of crispy unidentifiable pork bits. Well, not quite unidentifiable: I'm 99% sure there were several small, thin, round slices of pig bung in there (essentially, pig's anus). But don't you dare let that deter you--it's all part of the adventure.

The friendly proprietor, rightfully proud of his offerings, has already selected my order for the next time I'm there: cold rice noodle. I'm looking forward to it.

Yun Nan Flavor Snack
774 49th St., Brooklyn 11220
718-633-3090

(N train to 8th Ave., then 11 blocks north to 49th St.)

Ay Chung Steakhouse (CLOSED)

I've been finding great food in the most unprepossessing places lately. During a recent spin through the Flushing Mall food court, a busy stand near the center of things caught my eye: Ay Chung Steakhouse, adjacent to the Ay Chung Food stand which, by most accounts, serves pretty authentic simple Taiwanese fare.

Before that afternoon, I had no idea the genre "Taiwanese Steakhouse" even existed, but I'm now a believer! Almost everyone seems to order No. 1: the House Special Steak. It lives up to its moniker: a nice piece sirloin on a sizzling platter, smothered in a thick, peppery dark sauce with enough vinegar in it to keeps things really interesting, with a grilled whole scallion perched on top. No one asked me how I wanted my steak cooked; it emerged a perfect medium-rare. All grilled items seem to come with the same sides: a small salad, a cup of thick, light-colored soup, and some noodles that have been tossed with, of all things, corn kernels (those noodles go especially well with a bit of that sauce from the steak). If you don't feel like beef, they offer a wide variety of alternatives, including pork chop, lamb steak (I have to say I'm curious about that one), seafood, and even a vegetarian option. But that house special steak was so spectacular, I have feeling I won't ever find out how the other offerings are.

Ay Chung Steakhouse
Flushing Mall Food COurt
133-31 39th Ave., Flushing 11354
718-886-5814

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block north on Main to 39th Ave., then turn left)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

La Llar de L'all i Oli

Inspired by a couple of opera colleagues who are in Barcelona right now, I thought I'd add a little review of what is easily my favorite restaurant in or near Barcelona--indeed the only one I tried that I would take any trouble to return to--La Llar de L'all i Oli in Badalona.

In its way, this place is a monument to good ingredients. The cooking is simple and, from what little I know about Catalan cooking, utterly traditional. The obvious care that goes into the preparation results in food that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Standard on every table are a slice or two of toasted bread, some ripe tomatoes (probably from a nearby--or on site--garden) and a cruet of olive oil to make one of the most inspired snacks on earth, pa amb tomàquet. This is accompanied by a little pot of all i oli (garlic mayonnaise, made with garlic and olive oil ONLY--palpably homemade, as is everything here, and stupendous... it is so light it's almost fluffy, if you can imagine that). I began my first meal with a sopa caselona, which turned out to be a rich chicken broth with fideus (noodles). I don't know how they did it, but it was the most delicious soup of that sort I think I've ever had. This was followed by a paletilla de Huesca, which was a whole leg of baby lamb that had been coated with chopped fresh herbs and finely diced vegetables and baked in the oven. It's difficult not to keep harping on the high quality and freshness of the ingredients--the accompanying potatoes HAD to be from someone's garden there... simply done, and unbelievably delicious. I couldn't resist trying crema catalana in such a place and it was, predictably, the best I have ever tried.

I went back the very next night and had another equally wonderful meal, this time beginning with a simple grilled chorizo, but naturally of the highest quality, accompanied by more of those marvelous potatoes. Somehow, this truly transcended the sum of its parts, don't ask me how. This was followed by galtes a la brasa, or grilled pork cheeks. The only adjective for this is "wonderful"...I'm at a loss to describe them--they just need to be experienced. The house wine is, fortunately, just fine (and often the only sensible option for the perpetually solo diner like myself).

Badalona is an easy 15-minute train ride (on the number 1 RENFE cercanía line) from the center of Barcelona. As you exit the front of the Badalona train station, turn left and go 4 or 5 blocks until you reach carrer Conquesta, and turn right. The restaurant is about 3 blocks up, on the left. Closed Sunday nights and Mondays, it's a good idea to call ahead and reserve, especially on the weekends: 93 383 53 07.

(Ed. Oct. 2013: The only reason I even knew about this restaurant at all was because of Jim Leff, from the old Chowhound days. Apparently, this very blog post inspired him to revisit La Llar de L'all i Oli last month specifically to try the galtes a la brasa. There is a nice picture of them included in his post about it, and some pics of pa amb tomàquet and the signature pot of all i oli in an earlier photo essay of his. I love the "coming full circle" aspect of this.)

La Llar de L'all i Oli
c/Conquesta, 87 - Badalona 08912
Spain
(+34) 93 383 53 07

Monday, March 1, 2010

Welcome Inn

Any serious maven of off-the-beaten-track food owes a big debt--probably too seldom acknowledged--to the folks over at Chowhound. They find and discuss the great ethnic holes-in-the-wall before almost anyone else... in fact, that was the first place I ever posted any restaurant info on the internet. Of course, I soon left when Jim Leff's rather draconian unwritten "house rules" became apparent (I had several of my posts deleted for no other apparent reason than that I had the temerity to--extremely politely--disagree with him) and found greener pastures at eGullet. But in recent years the focus there has been trending more and more to high-end restaurants, so... here I am.

But I digress... Chowhound remains an incredible source of useful information--for the itinerant eater especially. So when my gig in Syracuse came up, that was the first place I checked. A couple of posters there mentioned a small, family-run place that served great homemade Ukrainian food called Welcome Inn. I immediately thought it sounded like my kind of place, and it was.

My only regret is that I was only able to get there for one meal. Although I wanted to try, oh, EVERYTHING on the menu, that was impossible and I was forced to choose. Somehow, I finally settled on pyrohy (pierogies) and, since the owner calls himself "Pitmaster Big Papa John", a smoked pork butt sandwich. The pyrohy were perfect--the best I have had in years. And after some decidedly mediocre barbecue at the original Dinosaur the evening before, I was hoping for something better... I was not disappointed. I'm in love with the bar, too--comfortable, homey, and a wide selection of Polish and Ukrainian beers.

The kitchen hours are somewhat limited: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday (I had the impression these hours are somewhat changeable--probably best to call ahead).

From the high quality of the pyrohy, I believe I can infer great things about the kiełbasa (made and smoked in-house, of course) and the holubchi (stuffed cabbage). Oh, well--something to look forward to my next trip!

Welcome Inn
501 Tully St., Syracuse, NY 13204
315-422-3815

website

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Clark's Ale House (CLOSED)

One of the things that makes the tapas scene in Spain so great is that each tapas bar has one or two specialties and, even though they may do other stuff, the house specialty is why you go to a particular bar. Since, in the larger cities, tapas bars tend to be in one part of town—sometimes even on one street—a good tapas crawl means wandering from bar to bar and eating something different and extraordinary in each place. Oddly enough, a little piece of that tradition is to be found in Syracuse, at Clark’s Ale House. They do pretty much one thing, food-wise, and they do it extraordinarily well.

Admittedly, one of the chief attractions of Clark’s initially was that it is across the street from my hotel, and in this snowy weather I was not in the mood to wander very far. I had also read they make a good roast beef sandwich. Fine, I thought—I could go for that. Good thing, as there’s very little else on the menu: barley soup, some cheeses to nibble on, and… that’s about it. Oh, and pickled eggs. I ordered a sandwich, the guy behind the bar turned around and made it, and... it was perfect. Tender, uniformly pink medium-rare roast beef sliced right there and then, doused in a bit of jus, and served on an onion roll. I can’t remember EVER having a better roast beef sandwich. And at six bucks a pop, the decision to order a second one was an easy one.

Clark’s also happens to be an extraordinarily good place to drink beer: 20 well-chosen varieties on tap, complete with information on serving temperature! Now in New York City, this usually means there’s still nothing I want to drink (okay, I’m picky). I happen to think that Munich lagers are the pinnacle of the brewer’s art, but trying to find one on tap in NYC is an exercise in futility. Oh, there’s usually something from Munich behind the bar, but it’s almost always a hefeweizen (which I prefer from a bottle, but that’s another topic) or a starkbier. (Any German beer name that ends in –tor is a starkbier. Is there something inherently yuppie about starkbiers?? I don’t get it.) But never a Munich lager. Clark’s had Spaten lager on tap. I was in heaven.

Clark's Ale House
122 W. Jefferson St., Syracuse, NY 13202
315-479-9859

http://www.clarksalehouse.com/

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lao Village

Strolling around Syracuse, NY, this afternoon I was surprised--to put it mildly--to stumble upon a restaurant purporting to serve Lao and Thai cuisine. Having never tried Lao food before, I knew that this evening's dinner was coming from Lao Village.

The menu, however, seemed to be just a bunch of quite recognizable Thai dishes. I asked the guy behind the counter (from Laos, as it turns out, and I'm pretty sure it was his father in the back doing the cooking) what is really, typically Lao on the menu. The response: "Lao and Thai... pretty much the same." A little internet research suggests this is almost certainly not the case. Still, after ordering the only thing on the menu that even mentions the word "Laotian" in the description, I can tell you their food is quite tasty, if of dubious "authenticity". A soup they call "keang jeut" was broth with ground chicken and a LOT of vegetables (good nonetheless). Approaching stellar status is the noodle dish called "khanoom jean"--rice vermicelli with chunks of chicken, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, mint, kaffir lime leaves, scallion, cilantro, and "Laotian coconut curry paste". I'll take their word on that one... I do know I've never had any curry in a Thai restaurant that tasted anything like it. It was a bit like pad thai, except really delicious.

Definitely worth stopping by if you're in the neighborhood.

Lao Village
208 W. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY 13202
315-435-8151

Friday, February 12, 2010

Emone Gui (Korean BBQ)

While the idea of Korean barbecue is almost always appealing, the experience is almost always--for me, at least--totally underwhelming. I stopped going to the joints in Manhattan's Koreatown years ago after a) they got to be far too expensive for what they delivered, and b) all but one or two places got rid of the wood embers and replaced them with gas grills. Tonight's meal, however, re-ignited my too-long-dormant passion for Korean grilled meats. Emone Gui is Korean barbecue as I had only vaguely imagined it could be.

Investigating a second-hand tip about a really good Korean barbecue on Union St. near Northern Blvd., I happened upon it a several nights ago. I popped in to pick up a take-away menu for future reference--they didn't have any. What they did have was a very helpful fellow--who turned out to be the owner's son-- working there who told me a bit about the place. It certainly "looked" right (with a bit of practice, a surprisingly reliable guide), even if there were only gas grills. Because the answer in the past had always been "no" everywhere else, I almost forgot to ask him if they had gobchang gui (grilled beef intestine). When he told me it's the house specialty, I assured him I'd be back soon with a friend or two. It took 5 days, and, naturally enough, it was with Jose--and his camera.

We settled on an order of gobchang gui, naturally, and an order of maewoon samgyupsal gui--grilled pork belly that has been marinated in hot pepper paste. These were accompanied by a marvelous array of banchan that included everything from the usual kimchi and kongnamul (beansprouts) to shredded potatoes and pieces of pancake to soft-shell crabs in hot pepper paste (!) to a cold soup and a hot cabbage stew to steamed egg. And everything had that "homemade taste":


The removal of the napkin covering the grilling intestine (presumably to keep down splattering):


Close up of the grilling pork belly:


The full grill:


I can assure you everything tasted even better than it looks. Considering the feast one is presented with, its stunningly high quality, and the significantly-lower-than-Manhattan-Koreatown prices, this place is an absolute bargain.


The only way this place could be better would be if they replaced those gas grills with wood embers.

Edited to add a caveat: based on a subsequent visit, it would appear that solo diners should skip this place altogether, unless one wants a soup/stew dish (which are available almost anywhere). They enforce a "2-order minimum" for barbecuing at the table, and the stir-fry dishes are disproportionately expensive, so, with a totally unfounded sense of what proved to be false optimism, I ordered one of the barbecue dishes prepared in back in the kitchen. What emerged was a hot plate of dried-out meat hardly worth eating. They also saw fit to greatly reduce the selection of banchan they were willing to offer just one lowly person, keeping it the most run-of-the-mill stuff. When I had finished the little dribble they initially brought, they had to practically be coerced into bringing me any more. This is also the very first time I can remember having to ASK--repeatedly--for rice in a Korean restaurant. If this had been my first visit, I never would have returned. So go with a group.

Emone Gui (Korean BBQ)
36-26 Union St., Flushing 11354
718-353-3444

(7 train to Flushing-Main St., 1 block east on Roosevelt, then left on Union St.)