Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Lunch with Mario Batali

by Erin

Okay, okay, so I didn't actually have lunch with Mario Batali, but I was lucky enough to eat at his restaurant Lupa during my visit to NYC a few weekends ago. Lupa is located in SoHo, and Lauren and I went for lunch on my first full day in New York. (Apparently, doing lunch at Lupa is super-hip, just like us!)

Before I get to the glorious details of this meal, I must offer a warning: this was an incredible meal, so incredible that I am sometimes at a loss for words for how to describe it ("YOU are at a loss for words?!", I hear you cry, and yes, it's a rare occasion but in this case it's true.) You've been warned!

It was a beautiful sunny day in the City, and Lupa is a bright, warm space. When we arrived, the hostess (named Erin, natch) gave us a choice between sitting in the more formal back room, or in the sunny, bustling front room (note: it's good to compliment the hostess on her fabulous eyeglasses - she'll treat you well and give you choices!). We chose the front room.

We were seated at a small but comfortable table for two right in the middle of the action. Then we ordered cocktails. We both ordered Bellinis (Prosecco with fresh peach puree), and then our adorable waitress (named Vicky - why does everyone in this restaurant have one of my names?) brought out some rosemary focaccia and olive oil.

The foccacia was awesome - very intense rosemary flavor and even before I dipped it in olive oil, it was leaking olive oil onto my fingers - now that's good bread. The olive oil, as you can probably guess, was also amazingly delicious and fruity.

After reviewing the extensive menu, complete with a glossary of terms on the back (since almost the entire menu is in Italian), Lauren and I came up with a game-plan. We decided to order three antipasti, one primi, and one secondi and share everything (of course). Here's what we ordered:

  • Antipasti
    • Baccala with potatoes and lovage
    • Proscuitto di parma and salumi
    • Crostino with bone marrow and roasted apple (a special that day)
  • Primi
    • Ricotta Gnocchi with sausage and fennel
  • Secondi
    • Saltimbocca

As I mentioned before, everything we had was spectacular. The Baccala, which is a dish composed of salt cod, potatoes, olive oil, and herbs, was very flavorful and rich, but still light (which I attribute to its being served cold). Over the past few months I have been getting over my fear of things that taste fishy (as evidenced by my newfound love of white anchovies), and I'm so glad I have, since this dish had a bit of fishiness, but once you get over that, you can really enjoy all of the wonderful fresh flavors of the dish.

Next, we tried the proscuitto di parma and the salumi. If you look at the menu, it looks like you can only order one of their Carne, but then Vicky told us we could try two, and of course that's exactly what we did. The proscuitto di parma was delicious (and we saw the lady slicing it on the slicer almost right in front of us!) and melted in your mouth. The salumi was intensely flavored (reminded me of sopresatta a bit) and was nice and greasy.

The last dish we had in our first course, the Crostino with Roasted Apple and Marrow, was probably one of the best things I ate all weekend. No, scratch that - one of the best things I've eaten EVER. Holy crap, you guys. This is where I cannot express in words how good it was. But, I will try.

The crostino was a large slice of bread (probably 1.5 inches thick) which had been grilled and then bone marrow smothered on top. Now, this may gross some of you out, but bone marrow is actually quite delicious. It's like animal fat but with a bit different flavor. I have only had marrow a few other times, such as when I've eaten Osso Bucco, and when I used to make Pitcha (calf's foot jelly) with my Grandma Irma back in the day. (Pitcha is, in my opinion, super-gross, and the marrow was the only good part about having to make it for my Dad, Grandpa, and Uncles!).

Anyway, alongside the crostino was a grilled apple (golden delicious?). When the delicious bread and the sweet and tart apple were eaten together, it was absolutely heavenly. This dish was also served with a salad of flat-leaf parsley, which was also very good. I am not always a fan of straight up parsley (thanks to years of Passover seders), but this was delicious.

Okay, moving on. Next course was the Gnocchi. Lauren says this is a staple for her to order since it is a recipe her grandmother makes. For me, however, gnocchi remind me of a terrible pre-Homecoming Dance meal (sophomore year of HS I think?) where the gnocchi were like little lead bullets. Ever since I have been turned off by them since they are always too dense and gummy. Thank you, Lupa, for changing my mind about gnocchi! These gnocchi were like little pillows of heaven, little light clouds of ricotta and goat cheese.

They were perfect. They were also not made with eggs, just flour and cheese. They were tossed in a bit of tomato sauce which had little bits of sausage in it. These were also a big favorite of the day.

For our secondi, we ordered the Saltimbocca (literally, "to jump in the mouth" - this provided endless joke material as we were eating it). This was also quite delicious. Saltimbocca is veal with proscuitto and sage, and this was cooked so you could really taste all of those elements. Also, hiding underneath the veal was a delicious sautee of escarole, with garlic and oil - yummmmm.

After these courses (we're up to 3 by now), we decided we wanted some dessert. But, we also wanted cheese. What to do?! Get both, that's what. We ordered an aged goat cheese called Caprino Stagionato, which was firm but still had the granular-ness of a fresh goat cheese. It was served with a few slices of crusty bread and some sort of fruit mash (maybe cherry?). Our waitress guided us on this one and it was awesome.

For our next dessert, we got the lemon sorbetto (sorry, no good pics of this). This was just what we wanted at the end of our lovely meal - it was sweet, tart, bright, and clean. Lauren had a cappuccino, and when I asked for coffee, our waitress said they only do espresso-based drinks, but she could make me an Americano (espresso and water), so that's what I did. It was delicious - very strong and robust, and nice against the sorbetto.

One last thing I have to say about Lupa was that our service was impeccable. Everyone who we interacted with was friendly and efficient, and our waitress was an expert on everything, and guided us in all the right directions.

Three hours after we went into Lupa, we emerged into the sunshine again. What a meal. That's all I can say.

Happy eating,

EP

Work... in Paradise? Yes, Please!

by Xani

Two great work locations in a row? Unheard of! Absurd! But true... Right on the heels of my trip to San Francisco I headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico for another business trip. I had been looking forward to this one for a while, having never been to the Caribbean before (save for an ill-fated spring break trip to Cancun in college... lets never speak of that again), and looking forward to brilliant blue waters and swaying palm trees.

After a relatively short flight from Baltimore, I arrived at the El San Juan Hotel and Casino and was surprised to find... rain. Boo! Luckily that only lasted for one day, and bright and early the next morning I was sipping a frozen mojito poolside, with beautiful settings all around.

That evening a group of us headed to Old San Juan for dinner at a highly recommended restaurant, Dragonfly. Alas, there was some confusion about our reservation, and there was going to be a 2 hour wait for a table. Since it was already after 9pm, we decided instead to head next door to Aquaviva, which happens to have the same owners as Dragonfly-- go figure! Aquaviva was another highly recommended place, and a little more up my alley, cuisine-wise (Aquaviva is Latin-inspired seafood, while Dragonfly is supposedly a fusion-y place with hibachi (?) grills at the tables...yeah. Not my thing. If I want dinner and a show, I'll see Cirque de Soleil AFTER the meal, thank you.) We were seated promptly at Aquaviva and ordered wine and some delicious and refreshing watermelon sangria as we perused the menu.

Custom Hand-blown Glass Jellyfish Lamps

Watermelon Sangria

The place pretty clearly catered to tourists (all the menu items were in English...well, more like Spanglish, but still) but there seemed to be lots of authentic dishes on the menu alongside the strangely out-of-place cheesy bread and crab gorditas--ick. Right away the variety of ceviches caught my eye, there were six kinds listed on the menu as well as a daily special, and diners could choose just one or, or samplings of 2, 3 or all 6 ceviches. I chose two, the shrimp and clam green ceviche as well as one with a local, mild fish and coconut milk. They showed up beautifully plated with some just-made tostones (flattened fried plantains) on the side.

Both ceviches were incredibly FRESH. The fish and shellfish tasted like they might have been swimming earlier that day (maybe they were?) and I loved every bite. The "green" ceviche had lots of scallions and avocado, and the coconut milk one had a great balance of acidity, heat, and sweetness. Delicious!

For the main course I ordered paella. Aquaviva had an interesting spin on theirs as they used Israeli couscous instead of regular rice, which I really enjoyed. It also had mussels, big chunks of chorizo, and scallops.

Other than the fact that I don't particularly like scallops (these were very good actually, but one scallop is pretty much my limit) the paella was awesome. If I could have changed one thing, it would have been a big lobster tail on top instead of all those scallops!

No dessert for me... in fact I didn't eat dessert all week! The dessert options in PR were usually limited to flan and other flan-like dishes, which are really not my thing.

I didn't take pictures of any other meals in PR, although we did have some good ones. We visited Metropol (which was mentioned several times on Chowhound, and had been recommended by a friend) twice, once for dinner and again for lunch, and it was excellent and affordable. We splurged on a steak dinner at The Palm, which had a location in the hotel, and enjoyed great steaks and a delicious red wine. All in all, a successful and relaxing trip to Puerto Rico. I hope to go back sometime soon!

X

Monday, October 8, 2007

Before I Forget...

by Xani

I know its been a while since I posted about my trip to San Francisco, where I promised you a recap of my last fabulous meal there. Forgive me! I had hoped to get the additional post done right away, but alas, travel and life in general got in the way. Before I move on to a recap of my meals in Puerto Rico and some recent home-cooking, let us remember back to a few weeks ago, on the final morning of my trip to SF...

A few hours before we were scheduled to depart, we walked back to the Ferry Market Building to have breakfast at Boulette's Larder. This place is ADORABLE. A tiny little shop were San Franciscans can pick up pantry staples, gourmet and specialty items, homemade sweets, or a delicious breakfast or lunch. If I lived anywhere near this place I would buy all kinds of stuff from this place... and store it all in the cardboard box in which I would be living.

On the drizzly morning in question, we stepped into Boulette's and I was instantly tempted to sit at the communal table in the store, next to the fireplace and open kitchen where we could watch the cooks whip up delicious dishes for the day. However, there were a few diners already seated there, quietly having breakfast and reading the paper; knowing myself and my dining companions, we needed someplace where we could make a little more noise! We chose a table just outside with a view of the Bay Bridge (through the fog) and ordered coffee (served in a french press, my favorite) and fresh squeezed OJ from our friendly waiter.

Not wanting to fill up on heavy food before a long plane ride, we skipped the delicious sounding egg dishes and ordered two baskets of assorted toasted artisan breads, and a bowl of fresh berries with rose petal gelee.

I was totally smitten with this breakfast-- the breads were interesting (one had cranberries, one was chock-full of sunflower seeds, another had walnuts, etc) and perfectly toasted, just right with a smear of rich butter and some of the marmalade that came with the baskets. Ripe, tart berries would have been great on their own, but the rose petal gelee on top was out of this world. I have never tasted anything like it! It had a soft, melting texture, and the strong (but not overpowering) scent and flavor of roses. Absolutely amazing... I thought of it again at my recent weekend trip to Wegmans when I saw the little bottles of rose water in the Middle Eastern foods section (of course I bought one, how could I resist?!).

We talked, sipped coffee and nibbled breads for as long as possible... I know we were in California but to me it felt very European-- a leisurely breakfast with friends on a weekday. When we finally had to leave, we said goodbye to the Ferry Market Building and San Francisco, our bellies full of great food and our minds full of fond memories. I hope to return soon!

X

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