Blu Aubergine Blog



There's nothing I like better than a warm-weather escape when it's absolutely frigid back home. And the past few years, my timing was perfect, as I fled from snow and ice and sub-zero temperatures. My latest escape? Puerto Rico, an island so proximate to New York that I'm truly surprised it took me so long to finally make it there!

And what an island it is. Or, at least, the north coast and San Juan, where we spent a fabulous five days. The city of San Juan is like an even-more-Latin Miami, and then Old San Juan takes you back to colonial Spain, even parts of Southern Sicily can be found in the wrought iron balconies on the candy-colored buildings, and the cobblestone streets. And after the holidays, it's still got a very festive vibe. So, we did the beach retreat, the city room on the shore, and ventured into various parts near and far for some amazingly good meals.

The highlight of our dining experiences, however, was clear: Santaella, a creation of local chef José Santaella. With stints a Le Bernardin in New York and Gary Danko in San Francisco -- two of America's best restaurants, hands-down -- the chef's top-notch pedigree is undisputed. Santaella's reverence for seafood certainly stems from his time living on a tropical island, and his urban chef stints surely cemented his love for fresh fish in all its forms. At Santaella restaurant, located in an offbeat neighborhood near the central market in San Juan, the modern dining room is an urban tropical escape. The well-informed staff are warm and helpful, never imposing.

The vibe of the place makes you love it even before your first sip of a delicious libation, like a Sandia mojito (with fresh watermelon), or a tamarind margarita. Moving on, the menu is divided into Nibbles, Specials, Salads, "Barely Touched" (this is crudo and ceviche), and Main Courses, then Desserts. This food is fun, vivacious, expertly prepared, and really delicious, AND, the portions are quite generous.

We started with the Hawaiian Waho Ono ceviche, with tropical juices, radishes, sweet potato, and cucumber with tortilla crisp strips. This was everything a tuna ceviche should be -- bright, happy, crispiness of varying degrees, and a gorgeous meaty tuna barely "cooked" by tart-sweet tropical fruit juices. Seriously yum, and very light. This was good because we ordered a lot of food. 

We had the house specialty empanadas that evening, a mix of meat and vegetables like mushrooms and peas. These were expertly prepared and delicious, and not at all bland like some empanadas can be. All in, a nice counterpart to the light tuna ceviche.

Moving on, we ordered another delicious seafood "crudo"-type dish, the "Japanese Crazy Salad," as it was dubbed. This was a spicy crabmeat salad (cold) layered with seaweed salad and avocado, on top of a plantain fritter as large and round as a personal pan pizza. It was a vibrant mish-mash of tastes and textures, reminiscent of sushi restaurant flavors but more interesting...and a lot of fun.

After a delicious salad and a few croquettes of the day, we finished up the savory part of our meal with a casserole of baby octopus, chorizo and chickpeas with sherry. The servers had warned us that this portion was not for the faint of heart, but since we were going through our meal grazing and sharing everything, tapas-style (and since I was with The Big Guy, who was never daunted by a plate of food), we laughed at the suggestion that something might be, well, too much. But this was a healthy portion. Very healthy. And the dish itself, with a huge nod to the Spanish ancestry of Puerto Rico, was rich and meaty and delicious. We were eating an early dinner before heading to the airport to catch our late flight back to New York City, so we definitely wanted to be satisfied, but not uncomfortably overstuffed. This was our last meal in Puerto Rico, however, so we decided to split a dessert because: vacation!

The coconut everything on this tropical island made me a very happy camper. So we decided on a signature Santaella dessert, the coconut and almond custard with a delicious coconut ice cream. The custard tart was very hot, its caramelized crispy almond cover shattering as we dug our spoons into the warm creamy sweetness underneath. The ice cream was the cool counterpoint to the creme brulee -- essentially this was baked and frozen versions of the same intensely flavored coconut custard, sharing a plate. After the meal, I inquired about purchasing the cookbook I'd seen on display at the hostess stand when we came in, as I was a chef and first-timer to Puerto Rico. With the same courteous manners and smiling service we'd enjoyed all evening, our waiter offered to get chef to personalize the cookbook, signed and dedicated to me. It was thoughtful and sweet, and really, what more could I ask for? It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip, our first but certainly not our last jaunt to this island nation just a hop, skip, and a brief plane ride away from my home back in the cold of a New York winter. 


219 Calle Canals

La Placita de Santurce

San Juan, PR 00907

Tel: +1 (787) 725-1611


Posted by Dana Klitzberg at Monday, February 01, 2016

ESCAPES: Santa Fe Eats

ESCAPES: Santa Fe Eats

Santa Fe mountains.jpeg

I wanted somewhere different -- at least from what I'm used to. I wanted to get away before my birthday, a brief respite so I could relax, get a little bit of my zen on, and of course, eat well. After a few weeks of internet searches and flight pricing, I realized I'd never been to New Mexico, that I'd always heard how amazing Santa Fe was as a small city, and that I have a dear friend in nearby Albuquerque. Why not?

Loretto inn.jpg

Upon arrival, I quickly realized that I was not in New York City anymore. This landscape was so different, vast, its colors a pastel wash of sky, and earthen umber shades of mountain and desert. On the hour-long drive from the airport to Santa Fe, my friend Michelle and I started to catch up on each other's lives of late, and she briefed me on what to expect of Santa Fe. We arrived at our hotel, The Inn and Spa at Loretto, just before dusk on a Friday. We unpacked in our room and showered and changed for dinner: our first dilemma was where to eat during a busy weekend (there was a sold-out food festival in town, and things were hopping in Santa Fe at this time of year).

We chose a classic, Coyote Cafe, just down the street from our hotel. Chef Mark Miller was the original chef-owner who opened the restaurant back in 1987, and who made a name for gourmet Southwestern cuisine over the course of more than 30 years. He sold the place to his manager and a new chef in 2008 and the kitchen is turning out food as delicious as ever. Once we arrived, a snafu in the reservation system meant our drinks at the bar waiting for our table turned into dinner at the bar -- which we really didn't mind after all. We had lots to talk about over some delicious red wine (Michelle) and a spicy cocktail or two (me), and we enjoyed the bold, delicious flavor combinations like my grilled fiery hot and sweet tiger prawns, served on soft sesame polenta with baby bok choy and Maui pineapple salsa.

The next day we woke up and headed straight for brunch at the famous Cafe Pasqual's. There's usually a wait for a table here, and most definitely on weekends, but we were seated fairly quickly at the large central communal table. It's a social spot and the waiters and waitresses seem to know a majority of the clientele. Upon recommendation, we got egg dishes, including my delicious poached eggs on red chile with fresh corn.

I had been eyeing a lunch special on the menu that sounded so enticing, I'd eventually return during the week to get it: a half sandwich of turkey with thick cut bacon, lettuce, and tomato with a cup of avocado soup and a shredded kale salad. Perfect. After filling up on a great southwestern brunch, we were energized for exploring the town, shopping, and hitting the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, which, as a fan of her art, I've been wanting to visit for many years. It's small but full of some of her most famous pieces, and the short film on her life, narrated by Santa Fe resident Gene Hackman, is informative and beautiful.

And the gift shop is fab! We did some window shopping and some actual shopping around town afterwards, and I struggled to not purchase every gorgeous piece of turquoise jewelry we saw. I knew I'd treat myself to something, but I wanted to "do the rounds" first and see everything I could. I was here for another few days, after all, so I could take my time and scan the stores for the best offerings.

We did, however, make a happy impulse purchase at Chocolate Smith. At this small outpost inside one of the malls lining the main plaza in town, glorious iterations of chocolate with a southwestern kick are on display, and it's really pointless to avoid the temptation. I bought plenty of chocolates and truffles and the usual dark chocolate suspects...but I also purchased plenty of the unique assortment of chocolate barks they create. This includes a very New Mexican dark chocolate-green chile-pistachio bark, and "Mountain Bark" -- a mixed bag of chocolate bark with marinated cherries, coconut, homemade English toffee, white chocolate bits and toasted almonds. They managed to combine everything good in one bark!

We returned to the hotel late afternoon, in time for me to book a relaxing facial at the spa downstairs, which was luxurious and complete with aromatherapeutic oils. We'd booked dinner at the charming Santacafe, a petite dining spot that's a favorite among locals for continental fare using regional ingredients with a Santa Fe twist (which seems to go without saying here). 

A delicious seasonal salad, of arugula, grilled peaches, candied spiced pecans, and crispy fried goat cheese was a great opener, alongside a spicy jalapeno-lime vodka cocktail. A main course of a perfectly-cooked beef fillet with a red wine sauce, haricot vert, and shoestring fries, was a great high-low balance on one plate -- and hit the spot. Drinks after dinner were in order, though places in Santa Fe close much earlier than expected (and certainly wayyy earlier than we were used to in our days hanging out in Manhattan until the wee hours!) -- midnight seemed to be the cut-off point for a majority of spots. But the drinks were delicious, the setting beautiful, and the crowd fun and just rowdy enough at Secreto Lounge at the Hotel St. Francis. It was better that we hit the hay early, anyway.

Sunday morning in Santa Fe was sunny and mild, and we made a beeline to an old breakfast favorite on the plaza, Plaza Cafe. I'd categorize this as a diner-plus, with a large menu that includes all of the diner staples, but really focuses on -- what else? -- Southwestern favorites like breakfast burritos and enchiladas. I decided to go for "Christmas," as it's called in these parts: both green and red chile sauces with my breakfast enchiladas. This also included a warm container of homemade flour tortillas, guac and sour cream, beans, and a side of bacon. I ordered a homemade cactus pear lemonade, a first for me, and out came a gorgeous tall glass of fuchsia-colored citrus deliciousness! What a great way to start our day.

We wandered along the plaza again, and things started to get a little strange. We'd spotted a few random celebrities in restaurants and outside over the weekend, TV actors and the like. But as we were strolling along the plaza looking at local Native American-made jewelry, my friend and I, both tall women, almost literally ran over...Dr. Ruth Westheimer. She was so small, and just as we were trying not to crush her, one of the jewelry makers asked for a photo with her. As this was happening, a thin woman with short salt-and-pepper hair ran up to Dr. Ruth, who was beside us at this point, and screamed "Dr. Ruth!" It was Jamie Lee Curtis. They embraced and my friend and I, wondering what was going on this weekend with the celebrities, asked Dr Ruth, who said there was a health conference in town, and lots of celebrities were in attendance. So there was that. We continued on our way, and I was making mental notes of all of the gorgeous turquoise jewelry I wanted to buy before leaving town.

Sadly, my friend Michelle had to head back to Albuquerque for the start of the work week. And I switched hotels and checked into the swank La Posada Resort and Spa. I had my own little adobe-hut on the property, with a wood burning fireplace and other cozy essentials. What I no longer had was a dining partner, but I was determined to make my solo dining experience an adventure. All I needed was my palate, my camera, and a good book -- I was prepared!


The first night, I decided to head to The Inn at Anasazi's Restaurant, on the ground floor of a cozy Rosewood Resort with a Native American, log cabin-in-the-woods feel (albeit a luxurious log cabin). The staff, to a person, was accommodating and kind, the best sort of place for a solo dining experience. I enjoyed a delicious tamale appetizer with a mole sauce to start off.

The main event was a roasted salmon fillet, done in true southwestern style with a spicy, smoky glaze and served with asparagus, artichokes, and mushrooms. This was accompanied by some delicious pinot noir, and of course my book. But the servers also chatted me up, and upon discovering I was a chef, decided to treat "their own" to a little extra special service, as restaurant industry people are known to do. They sent the chef out to say hello to me, gave me some excellent food and tourist recos for Santa Fe, and just generally made me feel special and welcome.

Dessert was, for me, an obligatory chocolate experience: mousse, ice cream, dark chocolate cookie crumbles and white chocolate and caramel sauces. I left feeling pleasantly full, happy, and taken care of -- exactly what anyone really looks for in a restaurant experience.

The next afternoon, I enjoyed a light lunch at La Casa Sena, a gorgeous outdoor spot in an interior courtyard plaza off the main square. Delicious blue corn muffins with sweet butter and a southwestern grilled chicken salad hit the spot, and it was perfect weather to lounge al fresco and read in the shade. Later that day, I enjoyed some spa treatments back at La Posada's spa. I was even able to sneak in some lounging at the pool in the afternoon sun.  And of course I circled back and checked out some more jewelry shops for some of that gorgeous turquoise sold all over town.

For dinner that night? Geronimo, a well-regarded fine dining establishment on the gallery-lined Canyon Road. This time, I got a few looks from couples out on romantic dinner dates, but I didn't care. I was there to enjoy beautifully-presented dishes like the sushi grade tuna appetizer, served seared and tartare with little buckwheat blini, wasabi, teriyaki, and spicy pepper sauces.

My main course was a house specialty, and falls under the "when in Rome" menu choice category: peppery elk tenderloin with applewood smoked bacon, fork-smashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, and a brandied mushroom sauce. The dish was, I admit, decadent and damned delicious.

I splurged and went for dessert, but kept it to a minimal plate of "mignardises": fruit squares, toffee, truffles, macarons, and brittle. It was a delicate and perfect finish to a rich, languid meal in posh surroundings. It really put me in the mood to go back to the hotel, make a fire in my fireplace, and write. And then, to crawl under the covers with a good book, as the embers of the fire smoldered.  Southwestern solitude: perfection.

The next day was my last in Santa Fe before heading back to Albuquerque, so I was intent on enjoying it. I woke up at La Posada and decided to indulge in breakfast in bed -- or at least in my adobe.  New Mexicans do not mess around with breakfast: I ordered a breakfast burrito with red chile sauce, and it came with beans and potatoes on the side, topped with cheese and lettuce and sour cream for the full burrito experience.

Of course, this was a full on meal that provided me energy for the entire day, so I was good to go tooling around town. It also took a while to digest, so I was *forced* to sit by the pool and catch up on reading some of my favorite magazines in the sun. No complaints.

And I finally decided on the store that had the best selection of turquoise jewelry for me to choose from and purchase (it was a birthday gift to myself). I was sad to learn about so many different varieties of American turquoise that are no longer found in these parts -- many of the pieces used stones that had last been mined in the '60s and '70s. But they were gorgeous, and I went home happy with turquoise of various colors and personalities. I did indulge in a late afternoon snack -- the breakfast burrito effect had started to wear off! -- so I tried a bowl of local New Mexico chili, made with pork and served with a little shredded cheese and some tortilla chips (okay, and a side of queso fundido I may have ordered).

I sat on the upstairs balcony of Thunderbird Bar and Grill on the Plaza, and just people-watched as locals and visitors strolled through the square, and tourists sipped oversized margaritas in the bar around me. It was a little cheesy, but I didn't want to leave Santa Fe without having had the chili experience. It was tasty and hit the spot as the sun set and the high-altitude air cooled, easing into evening. I walked the gorgeous streets of Santa Fe one last time, until I made my way back to La Posada.

The resort's grounds are so beautiful that a leisurely walk around them is a simple pleasure. And, since the next day would be a very early morning, heading back to ABQ, drinks at the hotel bar and a light dinner was just the ticket. It was my first adventure in Santa Fe, but I vowed it would not be my last. And with this thought, I toasted my trip to New Mexico with a glass of its finest sparkling wine. Yes, you read that correctly. And the bubbly? It's delicious.

The Inn and Spa at Loretto

211 Old Santa Fe Trail

(800) 727.5531

La Posada de Santa Fe Resort + Spa

330 East Palace Avenue

(505) 986.0000

Coyote Cafe

132 West Water Street

(505) 983.1615


Cafe Pasqual's

121 Don Gaspar Avenue

(505) 983.9340



231 Washington Avenue 

(505) 984.1788

Chocolate Smith
851A Cerrillos Road
(505) 473-2111

Anasazi Restaurant at Rosewood's The Inn at Anasazi

113 Washington Avenue
(505) 988.3030

724 Canyon Road
(505) 982.1500

La Casa Sena
125 East Palace Avenue
(505) 988.9232

Luminaria Restaurant + Patio
The Inn at Loretto
211 Old Santa Fe Trail
(505) 984.7915

Plaza Cafe
54 Lincoln Avenue
(505) 982.1664

Secreto Lounge in the Hotel St. Francis
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
(505) 983.5700

Thunderbird Bar and Grill on the Plaza
50 Lincoln Avenue
(505) 490.6550

ESCAPES: Nice, Cuisine Nicoise, and the Cote d'Azur

I love late September in the south of France. The dwindling days of summer here mean languid, sun-dappled afternoons napping on the pebbly beaches along Nice's corniche, strolling the cobblestone streets of the Old Town (Vieux Nice) or the Cours Saleya, shopping for lavender soap, gorgeous fruit candies, or golden-green Provencal olive oil. You can still get some late-season sun in the afternoon, break for lunch seaside or in town, and return for a swim in the electric blue waters (surprisingly brisk) as beach umbrella shadows grow long. And the food -- ahh, the food of Provence is arguably at its peak at this time.

Some background: Nice was a part of the (Italian) kingdom of Savoy, then briefly a part of France, from 1792-1815, then returned to Piedmont-Sardinia (Italian, again) until it was re-annexed by France in 1860, just a decade before Italy became an independent and organized nation in 1870.

Before that, the Cote d'Azur down to San Remo and on to Genova and the Ligurian Riviera -- it was all an Italian-speaking, pasta-eating stronghold. Going back much further, Nice is one of the oldest human settlements in the world, home to nearby terra-amata, one of the first spots where humans were known to have used fire, dating from the Lower Paleolithic age (about 400,000 years ago!).

It was an ancient Greek city (probably named for the Greek god Nike, after the Greek victory here, versus the Ligurians). But, like many places that eventually became strategic ports for the Roman empire, Nice skewed Italian. And after all of its history and numerous occupations, Nice still self-identifies as a formerly Italian city that embraces the Italian way of life as much as the French: controversial to the people of France, perhaps, but an obvious preference to the Italians.

As far as cuisine is concerned, Nicoise and Provencal food echoes more of the Ligurian and Piemontese cooking than that of any French region. It's big on fresh, local ingredients (olive oil, anchovies, produce, etc.), but also the classic salt cod from Northern Europe, as Nice was a port along the trade route. Local dishes include the famous Salade NicoisePissaladière (a savory tart with caramelized onions, anchovies, and olives), Socca(chickpea flour pancakes), Stuffed Nicoise vegetables, Ratatouille (vegetable stew), and Daube (a Provencal beef stew made with red wine). 

Many variations on the classic Bouillabaisse (saffron-infused seafood soup) exist all along the Cote d'Azur, and you're sure to find some delicious versions in Nice, too -- though the original hails from Marseilles. The version in the photo here had exactly the rich, slow-cooked seafood broth I was craving, laced with saffron and a hint of cognac, and served with rouille, the traditional Provencal accompaniment to fish stews -- sort of an aioli made with saffron, fish stock, a little tomato, and often some monkfish liver.

We enjoyed this along the port in Nice, where we had a great lunch on a gorgeous day, under the protection of Le Bistrot du Port's sunflower yellow awning. This is a bustling spot overlooking the docked boats bobbing in the port, which is tucked away a bit down from the main thoroughfare and the Promenade des Anglais.

We also nibbled on a light lobster salad with fresh peas, mushrooms and greens, and a grilled calamari entree, with the calamari "fillet" quickly grilled and topped with a warm salad of calamari, tomato concasse, onions, and herbs -- with lots of delicious Provencal olive oil, of course. A light slaw on the side complemented the dish perfectly. When in Nice, I try to eat outside whenever possible, and it's almost always possible in September, which is part of the beauty of visiting at this time of year.

Also near the port is the elegant L'Ane Rouge, a sophisticated jewel with outdoor seating and a refined menu, specializing in seafood. Starters like the chicken and mushroom mousse-stuffed zucchini blossom on zucchini, mushrooms, and citrus, was a completely original way to start the meal.

We sat portside, on a crisp clear night, and enjoyed warm and professional service from everyone who passed by our table. Moving forward, we enjoyed main courses like the codfish on ratatouille, a classic and perfectly-executed example of the southern French vegetable ragout, served with a traditional fish in these parts.

We also enjoyed the obrine on chorizo-accented white beans with chanterelle mushrooms. The portions are, one might say, discreet.

But the food is flavorful enough to keep you sated, and to make you want to try several different courses. Everything is presented beautifully, as well. And though we really didn't have room for a full-on dessert course, the restaurant did provide a sweet ending and an alternative to the usual petits-four format. We each received a small glass filled with a red fruit puree and mascarpone cream, served with an almond tuile and an apricot gelee (very Provence). 

There are lots of lively spots where you can enjoy a nice meal along the Cours Saleya, which is a street running parallel to the waterfront, set back a block from the Promenade des Anglais. By day, this is a bustling food market where vendors also sell famous locally milled scented soaps, colorfully patterned Provencal tablecloth and napkin sets, and various antiques and furniture.

There are some cute bistros that line the street for lunch, but by night, it is a full-throttle central area for alfresco dining. The idea is to avoid places that are begging for your business, with tourist menus printed in four languages featuring photos of the dishes. Go for a place that's a little low-key -- and they do exist if you look for them -- and you can happen on a great meal. I enjoyed a delicious goat cheese and fresh fig tart on puff pastry, with candied pine nuts, tomato, and mesclun greens. Also perfectly Provencal? Seared scallops on eggplant caviar (roasted eggplant and garlic chopped to look similar to caviar) with a white wine sauce.

If you want to learn to cook Provencal specialties, the local cooking school Les Petits Farcis, run by English-mother-tongue Canadian (and friend of Blu Aubergine) Rosa Jackson, is a great option. Rosa offers both food and wine and market tours as well as cooking classes in the heart of Nice, and is a local expert in all things gastronomical.

Outside of Nice, there are many charming Provencal towns on the coast and more inland, definitely worth a visit. Of course Cannes is famous for its film festival every spring, but it's worth a visit even without the Hollywood draw. Its port and the convention center where the film festival are held are side-by-side, and the corniche is peppered with cafes and restaurants.

Antibes, further along the coast, is a gorgeous little town with a charming cobblestoned historic center where a daily market is held, and is also home to a lovely, intimate Picasso museum worth a visit.

Saint Paul-de-Vance, a breathtaking medieval village perched on a hilltop, is famous for its former artists-in-residence (Marc Chagall, for one), as well as its tradition of perfume making, centered in nearby Grasse. Its art galleries and jewelbox shops are lovely and worth a detour from the coast. 

Le Bistrot du Port de Nice

28 Quai Lunel, 06300 Nice

04 93 55 21 70

L'Âne Rouge

7 Quai des Deux Emmanuel

04 93 89 49 63 

Les Petits Farcis

POP-UP DINNER: Blu Aubergine and Filigree Suppers Celebrate Female Icons

It started out as an idea for a collaboration. I saw what the ladies at Filigree Suppers were doing, and that their dinners often propped up women, using female chefs, artisans (potters et al), designers, get the picture. And then I saw their Moroccan-themed dinner just as I was planning a long vacation overseas which included my first trip to a bucket list locale for me: yes, Morocco. It seemed like fate.

So I got in touch about wanting to do a collaborative dinner with them, and Brita and Elise were lovely and receptive. We discussed several possible themes, and they mentioned they'd wanted to do a female icons-themed dinner for a while. I immediately loved it! It was a great way to pay homage to the women who paved the way for us -- entrepreneurs, all, doing our own thing and able to do what we love, without risk or protest, without inhibition or second-guessing. And while we have many political figures and brave women in technology and medicine and business and human rights activism to thank for our enjoyed (mostly) equal status in today's modern age, we decided that for this dinner, for this fun theme, we'd honor female icons of style and the arts from the 20th century. And then I was able to turn on my creativity.

First thing was the menu. That was my job: to come up with a multi-course meal that reflected the season (full-on summer in mid-July), and my cooking style, while interpreting what these female muses of modern style contributed to us -- and it all had to taste delicious, of course. I thought about the categories I'd wanted represented. As a long-time ballerina, I had to have dance in there. Pavlova was a legendary ballerina, and already had a dessert named after her, which was the perfect light end to a summer meal. Dessert done. As a budding chef and a very young girl, I'd watched Julia Child cooking on television, like...well, like it would some day be my job. I had to honor her and the culinary arts in some way. I'd worked in fashion early in my professional career, and knew what a tough business it was, and how I admired those who were truly talented at the art of design, who had enormous personal style.

Who better encapsulates that than Coco Chanel, a woman before her time? I have always loved the Jazz Age, the roaring '20s (and on to the '30s and '40s), particularly New York and France in that period...though it felt like a time dominated by men in the arts (Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al).

The female figures representing that time? The fabulous Josephine Baker, of course, as well as personal favorite Dorothy Parker. A recent visit to Santa Fe and the museum celebrating the work of a favorite artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, had her top-of-mind for me. Jackie Kennedy Onassis is a no-brainer for any roundup of women of style. And finally, since we were having the dinner in the Hotel des Artistes, it made sense to pay tribute to one of its former inhabitants, modern dancer Isadora Duncan. The cast of icons was complete. Now, how to honor them and use their work as inspiration for my culinary creations?

While I took care of the menu development, a whole cast of women contributed to the success of the evening. Filigree Suppers ( rounded everyone up, including lovely flowers by Peartree (, paper goods by Fourteen-Fort (, liquor for our cocktail donated by Brooklyn Gin (, and a wonderful photographer with City Love Photography(www.citylovephotography), contributing many of the photos you see here today. We had gorgeous ceramics on sale all evening from Red Raven Studios (, and I contacted another fabulous female graphic designer, who'd created the lovely labels for our wine for the evening, Festival and Feast (

Our dinner event took place in the gorgeous, colorful, and super-cool apartment of equally gorgeous (colorful, super-cool), chic Beatrix Ost, who is herself a fashion and art icon and pretty much the definition of a Renaissance woman. Her duplex apartment in the Hotel des Artistes on the Upper West Side was the perfect location for our celebration of female style, creativity, and power.

The evening began with a cocktail hour. And which female icon is better suited to a New York gin-based cocktail than Dorothy Parker herself? The drink, called the Ascerbic Mrs. Parker, was created in Brooklyn at a bar called the Shanty. It features gin, orange liqueur, hibiscus syrup, lemon juice, and soda, and goes down as smoothly as Parker's witty lines.

To balance the rapier wit and cynicism of the cocktail's muse, we decided to pair it with some cocktail fare inspired by lovely, sophisticated Jackie O. I created two hors d'oeuvres in the former first lady's honor. One celebrates the Kennedy part of her: East Coast clam crostini were a nod to summer days spent with the Kennedy clan in Hyannis Port. Greek salad skewers represented the Onassis part of Jackie O, and were a perfect accompaniment to the cocktail and a refreshing light bite on a sweltering summer evening (the mercury rose well above 90 degrees that Sunday night!).

And so, after plenty of mingling and sipping and nibbling, the dinner part of the evening began. The ladies from Filigree made their introductions, and presented the hostess of the evening, and then I came out to introduce the actual food part of the event. I would explain each course before it was served, plated but buffet style on Ost's lapis-blue, oversized dining room table.


We began with the amuse bouche, inspired by Coco Chanel. Since the designer is known as much as anything for her iconic bags, I created a "Cocoa" Chanel beggar's purse as a riff on a beggar's purse (classically, a crepe filled with creme fraiche and caviar, tied with a chive). 

I made a crepe with cabernet flour and cocoa, filled it with sour cream and smoked trout caviar, wrapped it in a bundle tied with a chive, and plated it with a spoonful of caviar and a fuchsia beet aioli double-C. The guests were treated to some wonderful lyrical opera music from singer Eva Glasmacher, singing from a balcony overhead, in truly dramatic fashion. Her performances were peppered throughout the evening, whenever inspiration struck her. I am always amazed at the powerful voice that can come out of such a petite frame.


After the amuse bouche, we continued on to the salad. I created this course to celebrate the work of Georgia O'Keeffe, one of my favorite painters, and an artist who celebrated women and the female form throughout much of her work. Of course, she's known for her flower paintings, and her adopted home of Santa Fe, New Mexico is known for its gorgeous desert sunsets in colors ranging from ochre to burnt sienna -- something I tried to reflect in my Georgia O'Keeffe Southwestern Salad.This included mixed field greens and herbs, roasted corn off the cob, chile-candied bacon, micro cucumbers, and edible flowers in sunset colors, all tossed in a piquant chili pepper-lime vinaigrette with cumin. Again, as it turned out, a nice refreshing course in the midst of a hot summer night.

Next up? A tribute to the sultry American triple-threat (singer, dancer, actress), beloved in her adopted France, and a performer ahead of her time: Josephine Baker. Her fans comprised most everyone in the entertainment industry, as she played to rapt audiences around the globe.

In an era of black and white (photos, film, and how many people viewed the world), she was a groundbreaking artist who refused to perform for segregated audiences in the U.S, and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Hemingway dubbed her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw." I needed to translate her into a dish, and so, I created a Seared Coquille St. Jacque on squid ink couscous with pickled cauliflower and Moroccan spiced citrus oil. The dish is a nod to her becoming a French citizen, the couscous a culinary translation of her nickname, "The Black Pearl," and along with the spiced oil, is a reference to her time spent in French Morocco.I think (hope!) the dish was an honorable tribute to a true talent.

The final main course was a fairly obvious choice for me, since I most definitely wanted to include a culinary legend in the mix of female icons, and one who actually had a great impact on me from a very young age. Little did I know, when I was a young girl, the interesting life Julia Child had led well before she turned her focus on food. Some have said she was a spy. She definitely worked for the OSS during World War II in its Secret Intelligence Division in Washington, then in postings in Sri Lanka, and after marrying her husband Paul, moved to Paris where he was posted in the foreign service.

She didn't arrive at culinary school until she was 37, nor the idea of a profession in food until she was basically 40 years old. She is inspiring across the board! And what was one of her most well-known dishes? The classic Boeuf Bourguinon -- and my version was deconstructed. I used short ribs for the beef, slow-cooked them in a red wine sauce, and cooked the vegetables separately, each a little differently, from sauteeing the mushrooms in olive oil and rosemary and garlic, to glazing the carrots with butter and sherry vinegar, to making sweet-and-sour cippolini onions with balsamic. This was served on a bed of celeriac-potato puree, and finished with sea beans for a little pop of salinity and green in the dish. Served with some of the reduced red wine demi-glace, and topped with some purple opal basil, this lighter version of the classic was about as heavy as we could handle in the summer heat. As Julia would say, Bon Appetit!

Dessert was simple (an ode to ballerina Anna Pavlova), but challenging in the execution. I knew immediately that serving mini Pavlovas would be the perfect option from a diner's perspective: light, summery, fruity, refreshing. But from a chef's point of view...well, meringue can be tricky. Still, I managed to keep the meringue nests cool. Until the scorching, humid day of the event, that is.

We tried to rescue the meringues from melting, and although we salvaged them to some degree, they would never be their formerly crisp, crunchy selves.

Good thing we had lots of delicious organic whipped cream, berries, pineapple, and fresh mint to plop on top of the meringues, so all was not lost! We also put out a platter of goodies for our guests to take home, the final nod to our female icons theme: in black filigree-patterned cellophane bags, in honor of Isadora Duncan, we tucked in some almond-hazelnut biscotti for "duncan" in your coffee the next morning, wink-wink. 

The crowd seemed to enjoy it all, and as the evening wrapped up and we enjoyed our final vocal performance, a lot of connections, conversations, and friendships had been sparked among the guests.

In coming together to honor iconic women in the arts and creative fields, we celebrate and appreciate the beautiful side of our existence, the little things that make everyday life a pleasure.

Wonderful hostess in a wonderful home...great supper club hostesses...creators and thinkers and makers joining together for a fun midsummer night's meal.

And that's really what these supper club evenings are all about, right? 

Special thanks to all of those who attended, and to Beatrix Ost and her lovely family, all of the other creative ladies who helped with each facet of the event. And to my fabulous Blu Aubergine team of gals: grazie mille! I couldn't have pulled it off without you!

LIBATIONS: Borgoña, Chilean "Sangria"

I'm always looking for a new refreshing summer cocktail. And the search, of course, is half of the fun! In honor of Chile winning the Copa America this past weekend, I thought I'd introduce my readers to a delicious Chilean summer drink staple.

While on a city tour in Santiago, Chile, my friend Jess and I were pointed in the direction of a very famous, time-worn dive of a bar/restaurante favored by old men playing cards, eating overstuffed sandwiches and sipping on local wine cocktails. We knew once the the tour ended, we'd do a B-line for the place. It's called Bar Restaurant de la Union, and it seemed fortuitous that it was located on a street named for my home city: Nueva York.

Once inside, we admired the dark wood paneling and the old-school waiters who looked like they'd been there since before Pinochet. We decided a snack was in order, so we enjoyed some delicious bocadillos (sandwiches)...and of course the drink that our guide had described to us as the thing to order here: Borgoña. This is a sort of Chilean sangria, refreshingly simple and using two star ingredients from Chile's rich earth: delicious red wine, preferably of the Carménère varietal, and frutillas, which is Chilean Spanish for strawberries. 

These strawberries, it needs to be stated, were some of the most gorgeous specimens I've ever seen in my life (and living in Rome for the better part of a decade, I know from gorgeous strawberries)! They most likely don't need any help in Chile, or in Rome for that matter, but if you can't find ripe, ruby-red strawberries where you are, you might want to add a touch of sugar to the mix. Now, like most things, this drink gets better the longer it sits with the fruit macerating in the wine. But you can also mix in the berries (sugar optional) just before you make a batch. Yes, "batch" is more realistic than "glass" -- this is not the kind of drink of which you make just one, if you know what I mean.

And yes, there are variations on it. You can make it with white wine and strawberries, or white wine with peaches (great with a sauvignon blanc from Chile's Central Valley -- the peaches pick up the hints of stone fruit in the wine itself). This is called Clery or Ponche. You could add various kinds of berries, as well --- raspberries and red currants to tilt it towards tart, blackberries and blueberries to bring out the inky ripe berry flavors in the wine. 

The basic recipe is simple. Slice one cup of delicious, ripe strawberries, one bottle of Chilean red wine, and a tablespoon of sugar (optional). Mix with ice, or simply chill in the fridge, either for several hours or just 30 minutes, if you can't wait. And sip! That's it -- it's so simple, but so refreshing on a hot summer day. And it's the perfect drink to toast to the Chilean team, Copa America winners...and, while you're at it, toast the American Women's Soccer Team for a fabulous World Cup victory yesterday, as well! (Hmm...I may need to come up with a cocktail just for the women's soccer team....)

Bar Restaurant de la Union

Nueva York 11

Santiago Centro, Santiago, Chile

+56 2 269 61 821


It makes me quite happy that there is a trend in the western dining world in which Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Cuisine has experienced a surge in popularity -- or, as the real case may be, this cuisine is being discovered, for many, for the first time. Leading the way in this popularity is Israeli food, championed in America by the likes of Israel-born/America-raised Michael Solomonov, in Philadelphia, and in London, Jerusalem and internationally by foodie favorite Yotam Ottolenghi. It seems obvious that Israel, as a now-fertile part of the world, would have more to offer than just falafel and hummus (even if it is the most delicious falafel and hummus out there!). The Israelis have turned desert into functioning agricultural oasis, and the produce coming out of the Holy Land can seem, at times, like it's been touched by You-Know-Who.

Which is why it's so interesting that Yotam Ottolenghi has taken the food world by storm, by creating lush, interesting, abundantly-flavored salads and grain dishes and vegetarian-friendly fare (though not only) London, England, of all places.

It may be, though, because London's got the international audience and has been starved for market-fresh Mediterranean ingredients like Ottolenghi procures, that his eponymous cafes are such huge hits. Their success actually allowed him to open a couple of slightly more formal restaurants serving a more upscale, refined eastern Mediterranean Israeli cuisine, called NOPI. We enjoyed a delicious, multi-course dinner at the Soho location last month. I was, as expected, impressed.

The setting is a mod, spare white dining room upstairs. The subterranean level consists of an open kitchen and 2 large communal tables perfect for large groups or socializing your way through dinner. The sharing-plates thing adds to the communal nature of the dining experience here -- something at which I often roll my eyes these days (shared plates, again? Oh yes, server please explain to me how that works. 6-7 plates each, you suggest? Grrr). But here, since I really was tempted by practically everything on the menu, ordering lots of smaller-portioned plates "for the table" really did work well. 

We started with some nice homemade bread, and ordered cocktails immediately. My friend Helen had been sipping on a variation of one of the drinks on the list, doctored with vodka instead of tequila, and with plenty of passion fruit with seeds in the mix. (A plus: the bar was very accommodating).

Once we placed our orders, the dishes started coming out when they were ready, bit by bit. First out? The courgette and manouri cheese fritters with cardamom yogurt were flavorful bites of Mediterranean vegetal, herb, and tangy flavors in one. It wasn't much of a wait before we were scarfing down rainbow chard with tenderstem broccoli and yuzu, as well.

Of course, pretty much every time I see eggplant on a menu -- particularly when Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food is involved -- I need to order it. Here, it was a deliciously charred aubergine over a smear of almond yogurt (which seemed more like a miso, with its rich umami flavor), sprinkled with pickled chilis. It was fabulous.

We continued with a plate of chickpeas, butternut squash, feta, and balsamic, a study in texture and sweet-savory-acidic-salty. We also enjoyed the hearty beef short ribs with a beer glaze and horseradish. We had scallops with apple, nettle, and lemon puree', and pork shoulder croquettes with kohlrabi, nashi pear, and basil mayonnaise. The classic simple staple on the menu is the chicken dish: a twice-cooked baby chicken, with lemon myrtle salt and chili sauce, in either a half or whole-chicken portion. We didn't have room for it, but I imagine it's perfectly cooked, seasoned, and balanced in flavor, with enough of a spicy bite to make it a standout. The beauty of the cooking here is the freshness, paired with an excellent, heightened sense of the interplay of texture, flavor, and elements of taste that the chefs employ. This, to me, is one of the most important skills in being a quality chef.

Sadly, we had no room for dessert. And that's a real shame, because pastry and "puddings" are a strong point of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, his partner. Next time, I'd go for something like the roast pineapple, macadamia nuts, lemongrass and coconut cream (Asian style) or stick with the strawberry mess, sumac, and rosewater (Middle Eastern fused with old English). We were able to finish up our cocktails and enjoy a trip or two to the over-the-top bathrooms downstairs: an Alice In Wonderland, hall-of-mirrors affair where they feel compelled to label the exit door handle. Don't leave the restaurant without a trip here!

And more good news: the restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, which are traditionally strong meals for Israelis, with elaborate spreads both savory and sweet. NOPI also features one of my favorite Israeli breakfast/brunch/lunch options: shakshuka, the egg and spicy tomato-pepper-onion dish of north African extraction that you find in every cafe worth its sumac in Tel Aviv. And much like I've done with Tel Aviv, I swear to return to NOPI and Ottolenghi's other restaurants. You should join me!


21-22 Warwick Street

London W1B 5NE

Tel: 020 7494 9584

ESCAPES: Chile's Central Coast: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

At this point in the winter season, when we've all had our fill of snow and frigid temperatures, our sights turn to warmer climates and waterside escapes. One appealing antidote? Chile. And specifically, Chile's Central Coast featuring the towns of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.

After a long holiday season filled with seemingly endless work hours for both myself and my friend Jessica (a dear friend of mine from my time in Rome who returned to her childhood hometown of Providence, Rhode Island when she left Italy), we were looking for an escape. She's a jewelry designer in constant search of quirky keepsakes from her travels, which she then "translates" into original pieces of wearable art. I'm a chef in constant search of new flavors and cultures from which to draw inspiration in the kitchen. We travel well together. And we decided Chile would be the perfect spot: it offered warm weather in December and January (southern hemisphere summer), good food (ceviche!), good wine (more on that in another post), and interesting and eclectic culture and history (always a good thing for market trips, sightseeing, and interesting travel). An added bonus for me? The beach! With the help of suggestions from a dear high school friend who'd moved to Chile a few years ago, we were able to cobble together a nice 10 day vacation with work benefits built in. We began and ended our journey in the Chilean capital of Santiago (look for my Santiago dining post to come soon), but spent New Year's Eve, and several relaxing days afterwards, kicking off the new year in sunny, 85 degree weather on the Pacific. And though these two sister towns are right next to each other, they offer visitors a yin and yang of Chile's central coast.


Valparaiso ("Paradise Valley") is historically a port town -- until the Panama Canal opened, it was South America's busiest -- a working class city-on-a-hill. Actually, it's built on more than 45 hills, or cerros, which are covered with colorfully-painted houses, often constructed out of the corrugated metal torn from shipping containers, that look like candy confections tossed on undulating hills tumbling towards an azure sea. "Valpo" as it's called, is Chile's second-largest metropolitan area, and though it's on the sea, it's not a beach town. It's a somewhat chaotic jumble of South American culture and topography, Caribbean color, Germanic and Slavic immigrant influences in architecture and food, and a summertime climate that mirrors L.A. in the daytime and San Francisco at night. Confusing, yes. Eclectic, of course. And it's a lovely place to pass a few languid days recovering from New Year's Eve.

First off, I must mention Valpo's impressive fireworks display. Until the last couple of years (when a certain Middle Eastern city decided theirs needed to be the biggest and brightest on the planet), Valpo's fireworks show was the most expansive and explosive in the world. After having seen it, frankly I'm not sure I'd want one larger or longer. At just under a half an hour, and done over the C-shaped bay that runs along the Pacific coast to several towns north, the fireworks display was synchronized so you could see the grand fireworks right in front of you as well as those in the distance, all themed the same with the same colors displaying at the same time: really something to behold. We celebrated at a restaurant/bar/music hall called La Piedra Feliz, right on the water in the Errázurizneighborhood. 

It was probably the busiest area in the city that night, and knowing public transportation was sketchy for the holiday, forewarned was forearmed: we walked from our lovely apartment across town to the restaurant, and were able to see most of the waterfront area of Valpo in the process. Once we (finally!) arrived, we enjoyed a prix fixe dinner with plenty of champagne and pisco sours. We watched the fireworks out of the window of the restaurant on the second floor, and many locals were gathered on the street below us. Once we toasted to 2014, we wandered around the place -- live music and dancing were everywhere, but of course as a chef, I found my way to hanging out at the bar with the staff: our waiter and the Uruguayan chef, and some locals who were friendly and fun...and made sure we never saw the bottoms of our glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.

We were excited to eat the fresh seafood for which Chile is justly famous, so our dinner hours were spent seeking out great fish spots -- and of course for me, this trip was the "Cevichepalooza" I'd been craving, so I had it at every meal I could manage! At Oda Pacifico, we had the place practically to ourselves, and enjoyed the view out over the hills down to the water (it got windy and chilly the night we went, though it would normally be lovely to sit at a table outside on the back patio). Service here, as in most places we went, was slow but extremely warm, and our waiter advised us on what was fresh that evening. We started with a massive portion of mixed seafood ceviche with passion fruit -- two of my favorite things in the world, together in a big bowl! It was delicious, and perfect with our crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc.

Main courses couldn't live up to the ceviche, but I enjoyed a local specialty: conger eel, here grilled and served over a stew of tomatoes, corn, and peas, topped with peppery watercress. Jess had tilapia cooked in a banana leaf, with a coconut-laced sauce. Again, the portions were huge and we couldn't come close to finishing them, but we did manage to wash it all down with more vino blanco. We were on vacation, after all.

Valpo has countless great vistas from which to view the port and the water below, but one destination on a hill, and viewpoint not to be missed, is poet Pablo Neruda's local home, La Sebastiana. The cozy multi-level house resembles part of a ship and fits in perfectly among the pastel houses surrounding it. The decor is often nautically themed, and is quirky and built to entertain, much like the man himself. It's filled with glasses and plates and artwork and bric-a-brac from Neruda's world travels, and like all of his homes, there is a dedicated bar area where he would mix libations for his guests after a day of writing. The view from his home is undoubtedly inspiring.

Viña del Mar

Just next door is Valparaiso's louder, more social sibling,Viña del Mar. It is the Miami Beach of Chile, to put it in U.S. terms, and it's bustling and full of life while Valpo is relaxed and laid back. The shoreline is both rocky and sandy at turns, and the lawns and flower beds are as manicured as the high-rise hotels and condos lining the beach. There is a downtown as well, and boulevards lined with shops and malls and churches and outdoor arcades. This is no sleepy beach town, and it's been the place where locals and the wealthy and famous from Santiago come to play, where they have second homes. It lacks the character and vistas that Valparaiso has, but it makes up for that with the beauty of the coast and the lively, infectious atmosphere in its streets.

As for the food scene in Viña? Again, seafood is king here, but the variety of dining options is greater. Chile has great primary ingredients, great wine, great pisco. But as for a native cuisine, its neighbor Peru is better known. Case in point? All the ceviches. Seviche, as it's usually written here, comes in so many varieties that it makes sense to go for a sampling of types. At Sazon Peruana, we indulged in the trio at left, which included an octopus seviche with aji amarillo, the spicy Peruvian yellow pepper, as the base. We had local white fish with sweet potato and choclo, the ubiquitous oversized corn kernels. And we had salmon and shrimp with leche de tigre (the citrus juice and spice base of most seviches) with red pepper. I could have bathed in the stuff. We enjoyed mixed grilled seafood atop a salad.

Jess had the seafood soup, a slightly spicy stew of local treats from the Pacific made more substantial with yellow potatoes. And I pushed the boat out, as it were, with a light-as-air fried seafood platter (shrimp, squid, Chilean sea bass) with yucca, tartar sauce, and salsa criolla -- a topping of thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and fresh chile pepper. The meal at the Peruvian restaurant turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip to Chile!

In Valpo, we lived like locals, renting an apartment in a residential area with a gorgeous view of the entire city from our balcony. In Viña del Mar, we went touristy -- but sometimes, you need to splurge. 

The Sheraton Miramar is perched on a rocky curve of the coast, on the way into town, and it jettisons out into the bright blue-green Pacific. All glass-and-steel, with soaring ceilings, this location was clearly built to allow guests the greatest appreciation of the sea. The shot above was taken from our balcony: the seats to the left are outdoor restaurant tables, as scenic for a seaside lunch as they are in the evening for dinner and drinks, to view the sparkling lights of the bay surrounding you. The pool overlooking the sea is a dramatic spot for sunbathing, by water both salty and fresh. Attached, there is a wonderful spa and gym where you can work up a sweat and then relax with a massage or facial. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon in January!

All in, we had a wonderful time on Chile's central coast -- not enough time, in fact. There were so many small beach towns lining the coasts both north and south of the Valpo area and we weren't staying long enough to explore them. Places like nearby Reñaca, surfer's paradise Concón, former whaling town Quintay, and the beautiful and aristocratic town of Zapallar: each offer a different taste of this stretch of the Chilean coast. We did make it to Quintero for an afternoon of lazing on the beach and eating empanadas, though it took a mini-hike to discover some less-trodden beach paths. Most of the beaches are rocky, and it's hard to get out of sight of the huge tankers that seem to be permanently parked in this part of the Pacific. But the water is beautiful and the trees and topography are stunning. Another positive? We were the only gringas in sight, always a good sign.

La Piedra Feliz

Avenida Err 1054


+56 (32) 225.6788


Oda Pacifico

Condor 35


+56 (32) 223.8836


La Sebastiana

Ferrari 692


+56 (32) 225.6606


Avenida Marina 15

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 238.8600


Sazon Peruana

3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 319.1160

DINING OUT: Grano -- Rome, Italy

Fresh from the process of updating and rewriting the Where to Eat section of the Fodor's Rome Guide 2012, I thought I'd post an expanded and modified (and personalized) review of one of the restaurants I added to the section this year.

GRANO is a contemporary trattoria in a charming piazza around the corner from the Pantheon. Aesthetically, the white walls covered, in parts, with colorful children's drawings, give the main dining room the look of a postmodern architectural schoolhouse. 

The smaller, second dining room with the addition of bookshelves, seems the school's library. And the outdoor deck with large white umbrellas and numerous tables would, in this metaphor, be the playground. On the whole, Grano is a light and lively restaurant, serving tasty food, at not-too-steep prices, to a mostly local crowd. All good things.

The kitchen is not quite chemistry lab, but it does turn out re-invented versions of Italian dishes, both Roman and from other regions up and down the Italian peninsula. For starters, the polpette di brasato con salsa verde are smallish meatballs of the famous piemontese wine-braised beef, here pulled, breaded, and deep fried, served on a slick of bracing green sauce. It's unusual and delicious. And for traditionalists, there are portions of pristine mozzarella di bufala and marinated anchovies served simply on a few leaves of arugula with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. 

A delicious tweak of a Sicilian classic is the octopus antipasto (which could also be a primo): instead of pairing it with chickpeas or canellini beans as is the practice, a grilled baby octopus is placed atop a mound of orzo perlato, a grain -- not the pasta version of orzo -- with a bite that matches the chew of Sicilian polpo (octopus), here rendered tender by a braise before being grilled. The primi here are often standouts, including, when available, a pasta with tiny baby clams paired with asparagi di mare, know in English as sea beans. This is a delicious, fresh-tasting combination that encapsulates the brininess of the sea in every bite. 

Also looking southward -- this time Campania -- is the simple pasta dish of tiny ditalini with a vegetarian "ragu" of sundried tomatoes, Gaeta olives, mozzarella, and basil. As for secondi, they're often less interesting. Porchetta (roasted suckling pig) with rosemary potatoes should be called 'porchetta...che peccato' (what a shame) because serving a so-so version of what can be one of The Greatest Things To Eat On This Planet is a sin.

Ditto the tuna with caponatina: Sicily has some of the most prized fresh tuna on the planet, and caponata is one of the world's great traditional vegetable dishes (trumps ratatouille ANY day). Italians now need to learn how to cook said tuna, and Roman chefs could use some schooling in the ways of making sweet-and-sour eggplant-veggie-heaven the way it's meant to be made. Still, the breaded calamari is perfectly good, and with a side of broccoli or sauteed chicory, it makes a tasty main course.

Desserts here are relatively delicious, even though they don't stray far from Italian standards like tiramisu'. But the atmosphere is so pleasant, it's worth poring over the wine list to find a dessert wine or digestivo you can enjoy with your dining mates. A limoncello, or an amaro, perhaps? I liked the setting so much that I chose to have a recent birthday dinner here, surrounded by a dozen or so dear friends. We lounged and lingered, we ate, drank, and were merry.

And my lovely friends showered me with wine and prosecco and limoncello (my holy trinity?), and lots of gorgeous gifts, like the handmade earrings of breathtaking bronze freshwater pearls and jet I'm modeling in the photo below. And when all was said and done, they managed to find a tasty chocolate dessert into which they lodged a candle. I made my birthday wish -- and although it's bad luck to divulge that wish, I can say that it involves a lot more good food, great friends, and delicious fun in the future.


Piazza Rondanini 53

Roma 00186

+39 (06) 681 92 096

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Riverpark, New York City

Celebrity toque and Top Chef King of Snark Tom Colicchio quietly opened RIVERPARK, a restaurant situated on an underused stretch of the East River in Murray Hill, this past autumn. And over the course of these recent cool-into-cold months of Manhattan's fall and winter seasons, Riverpark has gained a foothold in the city's dining scene. 

Admittedly, I've always found office buildings and corporate structures to be strange settings for restaurants (which probably accounts for my propensity to head downtown to eat). The Alexandria Center is no different, except its sterile, shiny newness is in stark contrast to the surrounding old buildings and to the warmth of Riverpark once you...get past the security guards at the Center's front desk, walk down the corridor, and step inside the actual restaurant. It's decorated in handsome tones of copper, limestone, and dark blue, and its position overlooking the East River makes the interior feel modern nautical, and not necessarily very New York-y: the day these photos were shot was a damp, gray afternoon that reminded me of eating on the Thames rather than dining in Manhattan. 

Regardless, the bar is a nice place to have elegant drinks and nibbles or raw bar selections (or a full dinner) after work -- something the nabe has long been lacking. And as for the dining room itself (divided into 2 areas: one cozy interior, and one by the floor-to-ceiling glass windows), these are lovely spots for lunch or dinner, where one can enjoy a reliably good meal, professionally executed, with little fanfare and warm service. Put succinctly: Riverpark is the perfect place to come with someone you like, someone with whom you'd like to enjoy a conversation. Nothing about the place overwhelms or takes the focus off of your company, and you don't have to worry about the food disappointing. Many a spot has become an institution in this town for accomplishing less.

Now, to the food: not overly pricey (particularly for a Colicchio joint), not terribly exciting, but reliably delicious. Chef de Cuisine Sisha Ortuzar exhibits his skill honed in Colicchio's kitchens, along with his facility with market-fresh ingredients and Euro-American food with influence from The Americas (Ortuzar is Chilean). So, we can kick off our meal with a decadent starter of duck liver pate' with grilled toast and a cherry compote, or go the lighter route with a salad of field greens and lightly pickled vegetables -- or find the middle ground with a beef carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmigiano.

For seconds, try the Arctic char (replaced by branzino in the photo) with fingerling potatoes, pickled red onion, capers, and a salsa verde. The pork scaloppine with farro and wilted spinach was also delicious -- though no longer on the menu -- and the lunch item of the fried chicken sandwich with homemade potato chips (available as a bar snack) was a tasty plate of food. The pastas, like the squid ink chitarra, are well-balanced, and other meatier second dishes are accomplished as well.

Desserts tend towards updated classics-with-a-twist, as in the cinnamon panna cotta with rosemary ice cream and caramelized pumpkin seeds. The molten chocolate cake is there (with espresso gelato and burnt sesame brittle), and so is the apple crumb with cool cream to pour onto it. Classics, yes -- but with good reason.

Here's the thing: the experimentation, research, and reinvention of the wheel may be happening in this building, but in the pharmaceutical and venture capitalist offices and biotech labs upstairs -- not in the kitchen. On the ground floor at Riverpark, highly-skilled, professional execution of American and European flavors, using top-quality primary ingredients is the name of the game. That it's happening in a fairly underdeveloped slice of Manhattan overlooking a lovely spot on the East River (this should be a great locale come late spring and into summer) is all the more incentive to check out this neighborhood anomaly.

Diner: please pack your wallet and go.


450 E 29th St. New York, NY 10016




The lovely, sleepy town of Rockport, Maine is a thriving summertime destination -- despite the fact that it's not a terribly easy spot to get to, nor is it terribly inexpensive. But it is picturesque, temperate (3 months a year, anyway), and manages to strike a balance between 'Unspoiled Nature' and 'Manicured Lawn.' Rockport's sister village is Camden, which perhaps grabs a bit of the spotlight from Rockport itself, with its perfectly-preserved New England Main Street and Harbor, pretty inns and a handful of sophisticated dining spots. The owners of one of these spots, Francine's, realized that Rockport could use a locale that serves what the locals (and visitors) crave. And so, Shepherd's Pie opened last year in an old warehouse building next to an art gallery, on the main street above Rockport's harbor. And what a welcome addition to the dining scene it's proved to be.

The 'theme' of Shepherd's Pie could be labeled Sophisticated American Gastropub Fare with eclectic international touches -- though it's best to leave the idea of labels behind and just stick to the notion that Shepherd's Pie serves good food and tasty drinks in a great atmosphere. Period. The bartenders get creative with their cocktails, and they feature a few interesting concoctions each night. This included a peach-raspberry "shrub" one warm August evening -- a southern drink with rum and a fruit syrup and vinegar base that takes the edge off of a potentially too-sweet libation.

Appetizers run the gamut from fried calamari with hot peppers and herbs that's all traditional crunchy deep-fried squid with the tang and heat of Italian marinated antipasti thrown together. Also on offer is a crab ceviche (tasty, though could have used more kick from chiles), and shrimp tacos. 

Second courses include bar food like burgers, duck hot dogs (great idea!), and a pork belly sandwich that will convert any "Skinny Bitch" to Atkins devotee with the first unctuous, memorable bite. Also savory and delicious are the spice-rubbed ribs, packed with loads of concentrated flavor. 

We enjoyed the grilled pork with caramel sauce, too -- a take on Vietnamese pork ribs cooked down to sweet, sticky goodness -- but the scoops of canteloupe were a bit too one-note with the sauce. Better to amp up the contrasting flavors and add more cilantro, cucumber, and other crunchy, cool elements. But overall, the menu that globe-hops is a success in its comforting flavors and generous portions. We're sure the desserts are tasty as well, but we only had room for liquid left: a dessert of Dark and Stormies? Yes, we can. Perfectly sweet enough to send us off along the harbor, to bed.

Restaurant Review: LOCANDA VERDE (New York, NY)


Tribeca isn’t lacking in great eateries, but this Italian straddling the rustic/refined line is a welcome addition to the nabe. It’s many things to many people: a great lunch spot for the eclectic local work crowd, and a relaxed crowd-pleaser in the evening – the kind of place where expense accounters, local celebrities, and Manhattanites from further afield come for a reliably delicious Italian-esque meal. Renowned pastry chef Karen DeMasco (formerly of Gramercy Tavern) even turns out pastries and savory-sweet goodies for breakfast. The style is a mix of authentic, accomplished Italian food – traditional dishes tweaked ever-so-slightly for the local palate, or the chef’s amusement, or both – with Italian-American comfort food staples like Chef Andrew Carmellini’s  “ grandmother’s ravioli.”

The dining room is a series of different spaces, cavernous yet warm, with ultra-high ceilings more reminiscent of farmhouses in Umbria or the Maremma than a converted industrial space in downtown Manhattan. I headed to the ladies room at one point, and as I descended the stairs I was immediately swept away to an upscale dining experience (or a combination of experiences) I'd had in Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche, both by the aesthetics of the space and the smell of a wood-burning fireplace I'd not smelled anywhere outside of Italy. (I'm still puzzled as to where that exact smell was emanating from, and how...)

To begin to sate your appetite, start with a crostino appetizer like the simple sheep’s milk ricotta with herbs, or go for the Sardines in saor (a classic Venetian dish) – wonderfully paired with homemade focaccia that’s lifted with the addition of lemon. A classic fritto misto is made all’Americano with Ipswich clams and rock shrimp, species native to these shores of the Atlantic. Then, pull yourself away from the appetizers, since the pasta is well worth saving room for. Those aforementioned ravioli are delicious (and, we suspect, much lighter than Carmellini’s grandmother’s original version). So are the orechiette with broccoli rabe and duck sausage, a sauce more pesto-light than anything, lacking both the kick and bitterness of the signature pasta preparation of Puglia, but tasty anyway. Sides include a delicious sauteed spinach with chickpeas and ricotta salata (see photo).

The stuffed mountain trout (photo at right) main course with lentils and pancetta is in homage to landlocked Umbria, and beautifully presented. The garlic chicken is a simple, wonderful joy, meriting the inclusion on the menu of a fowl usually limited to staff meals in Italian restaurants. And when the porchetta sandwich is available…well, just make sure you order it. Period.

At left, savory thin-sliced porchetta  with caramelized onions and vinegar-cured peppers, spices...fantastico.

Desserts are well-executed if a little staid, but desserts were never a strong point of Italian cuisine. With DeMasco’s talents (and they’re evident in the savory breads and the like coming out of the kitchen), I’d like to see her apply some of that Midwestern sensibility that Carmellini wields so successfully, tothe desserts. If there’s one thing the American tradition has perfected – well beyond the Italian tradition – it’s sweets.




377 Greenwich St (corner of N. Moore and Greenwich).


The Breakfast Club, Part 2

Continuing with my trip down memory lane (brought on by the "death" of my laptop and the subsequent retrieval of old files, including our brunch menus)...the Pasquino American Sunday Brunch in Rome...

Since the Pasquino restaurant, the spot we'd secured for our brunch venture, was a part of the landmark Pasquino English-language Cinema complex, we decided to play with the whole movie/Hollywood theme -- hence "The Breakfast Club" moniker (after the 1985 John Hughes flick).

Full disclosure: In a recent conversation with my friend Patrick, he reminded me of our original working title for our brunch spot, before we'd even secured a location: Daney's. That's right, like Denny's, but combined with Dana. The Americans in the group found it hilarious, and Patrick even printed out a terrible prototype of the logo, having doctored the bright yellow Denny's sign. I wanted nothing to do with "Daney's."

Grazie a dio I was able to talk them out of it and we moved on to a location with an already built-in theme with which to work. Can you imagine me, slinging hash in a hairnet at Daney's?! Holy crap.

Team Breakfast Club

We enlisted the help of my American roommate Leah, for kitchen help. Our friend Elizabeth pulled out her long-dormant waitress skills from her post-grad days. We brought in a couple of other Italian friends to help serve, and we put Peppe behind the bar, our "Calabrese Connection" whom we taught to mix a mean Bloody Mary. Martin helped in the kitchen, but felt his "talents" were best utilized in the front-of-house (he ended up doing a little of both). Gareth and Patrick were our friendly English-speaking male servers, helpfully flirting with our young female clientele. We realized we were still short-staffed in the kitchen though, so we turned to a young American college student named Paul, per Patrick's recommendation. (Us: "Does he have experience in the kitchen?" Patrick: "He sure looks like he could cook up some pancakes!") We arranged for an "interview" with young Paul to make sure he was rigorously vetted. We met at one of our favorite spots at the time, Ombre Rosse, next door to the restaurant (where we had something close to a group 'corporate account' bar tab). After being subjected to torturous questions from us ("How much bacon do you think you could handle cooking at one time?", "Quick! What are the components of a cobb salad?" and "How awesome are cats!?" [Gareth]), we hired the poor guy -- who, incidentally, ended up making a fine short order cook.

We got to work on our menu, knowing we wanted to include brunch staples that weren't available anywhere else: pancakes and bacon, eggs served a variety of ways with classic sides, bagels and lox (for me), sausage biscuits (for Martin), and that elusive Eggs Benedict, for us all. Bagels were nowhere to be found in Rome, so I had to make a few dozen of them at home every Saturday night (quite a task, as it turned out). In addition, I had a full baking roster to round out our menu: New York cheesecake, brownies, and a variety of other sweets and savories. We had several booze and broccoli Romano-fueled dinners over which we discussed menu items and their respective names. We decided to name each dish after a film or a movie reference. Some favorites? "O Bagel, Where Art Though" was fitting as a riff on the Coen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? but also because of the difficulty of finding a damned bagel in The Eternal City. And I still chuckle thinking about our name for a vegetarian sandwich: "Honey, I Left Out the Meat!" (Also hilarious were the various Italian pronunciations of these dish names by our Italian servers who had no clue about what they were ordering from the kitchen: "Cosa sono i pan-cake??" ) Even our drinks had some great names, including a "Fellini" instead of a bellini, and a "Something About Bloody Mary." Genius, no?

We secured our food orders through our various restaurant and green market connections. One of our biggest dilemmas was finding passable "American style" smoked bacon. We located a purveyor, but the bacon came packaged in whole slabs of pork belly, so we convinced Patrick to sweet-talk the owner of a nearby alimentari (food shop) into letting us use his meat slicer for the bacon. We had a built-in laundry service, as Patrick owned the Wash 'n Dry laundromat in the neighborhood. Gareth created CDs to provide our brunch soundtrack. We revved our publicity engines by plastering the city center with our brunch posters, and of course, utilized the ever-effective Italian method of raccomandazione: word-of-mouth.

And so, with all of these elements in place, we began the first real American Brunch in Rome, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, on April 1 (no joke), 2001. We did approximately 90 covers -- restaurant parlance for one customer's entire order, however many courses that may entail -- that first Sunday. We were a hit! We turned tables 2 to 3 times in those 4 hours. We were buzzing along. It wasn't perfect, but it was clear we had a great concept on our hands, and there was definitely an audience hungry for good, authentic brunch food prepared with love and served with a smile.

We celebrated afterward at our old haunt next door, Ombre Rosse -- a bunch of chairs gathered around a couple of small tables outside under the umbrellas in Piazza Sant'Egidio. If memory serves me correctly, we spent all of our week's profits on rounds of drinks for the remainder of the evening. We were exhausted. But it was gratifying, for sure. And fun. Really, really fun.

Stay tuned for part 3...

The Breakfast Club, Part 1

I'm one of many people who firmly believe that Sundays were made for brunch. It's a distinctly American concept (and one facet of food culture New York can be credited with perfecting), though brunch's popularity has spread around the globe. To wit: in places like Italy, where Sundays have traditionally been days of rest centered around a large family lunch, brunch is catching on. Kind of.

As an expat living in Rome, I spent a lot of Sundays with friends lounging at trattorias for some curative pasta and hair-of-the-dog vino. But every so often, we'd long for a good old American brunch: the savory-sweet combos of pancakes and bacon, the perfection of Eggs Benedict. And a bagel, for the love of the Lord, a bagel. Since Italians are so enamored of many American concepts -- Mickey Mouse, McDonald's, Hollywood -- it's easy to see why brunch, in all its yummy goodness, would also become an appealing "trend." What we witnessed all over Rome, however, was failed attempts at "American brunch" (quotation marks intentional). Versions of Italian Sunday lunch got slapped with the brunch label all over town. Those places that actually tried for traditional brunch menu items got lost in the execution of the dishes. Hell, even The Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood failed miserably. But time and again, my friends and I would hope against hope, dragging our hungover bodies into any place with a "Vero Brunch Americano" sign outside. 

This scramble for scrambled eggs took a pivotal turn for the worse one afternoon when we sat down at a pretty restaurant not far from Campo de' Fiori that boasted "Eggs Benedict" on its sign in the window.  After waiting for an hour and a half for what we'd decided must be the most perfectly-cooked eggs benny ever, we were served a piece of toast cut in half, topped with a hard-boiled egg and a slice of tomato. And fries. Upon further inquiry, our server admitted that the chef didn't really know what Eggs Benedict was, and that they were new to this whole brunch thing.

You don't say. Well, we put in a good effort trying to explain, in Italian, the finer points of eggs benny and well-cooked bacon and hash browns. Then we looked around the table. Wait a minute, we thought. We're sitting here with an American chef (me), an American who'd bartended for years (Marty), a guy who'd had some history in the service industry (Patrick), and one Brit who loooved bacon and would do anything for a proper Sunday brunch after a night slurping suds at Sloppy Sam's (more on that some other time: Gareth). Why not do our own American brunch in Rome?!

Through a connection of ours, we set up a meeting with one of the owners of the newly-opened Pasquino restaurant, a subterranean risto-lounge next door to the much-loved Pasquino English-language cinema. It had all the qualities we were looking for in a space: it was new, fun and modern, in a great location in the center of Trastevere (a great nabe in Rome, a mishmash of old-school Romans, international expats, and American students), and most importantly, it was closed on Sundays. We cut a deal to give a percentage of our brunch profits to the owners in exchange for the keys to the place on Sundays. And so, The Breakfast Club was born...

Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me...Hungry

It's one of the most amazing structures on the planet, in my opinion: the Pantheon. It's regal, majestic. It's still the largest dome in Rome, because even the greatest architectural minds of the Renaissance couldn't figure out how to create a dome for St. Peter's that bested the Pantheon's -- a milennium and a half later. And don't even get me started on the gorgeous marble surrounding you upon entering. The strange thing about the dome here? The oculus, or "eye" in the center. That's right, to put it simply: there's a hole in the roof! This helped the dome remain structurally sound for so many centuries, but that means that when it rains, it indeed pours -- right inside the Pantheon itself. There are drains built into the floors for this, of course, but the Pantheon caretakers put up velvet ropes around the perimeter of the slippery marble area that gets wet below the 8-meter-wide oculus.

I lived down the street from the Pantheon for 7 years. So when I hear the sound of rain hitting pavement, my thoughts veer towards the piazza del Pantheon, the public echo chamber of cobblestones and scurrying tourists with umbrellas under the cover of darkness. Rome is magically lit at night, and the Pantheon becomes a towering structure of columns and dome that seems to glow from within, especially when viewed through waterlogged-weary eyes. And the sound of water pouring through that oculus. 

It makes me think of one cozy place at the corner of one edge of the piazza, away from the hustle of McDonald's (sadly, yes, this piazza had one at the time) and the overpriced formality of La Rosetta. Armando al Pantheon, a restaurant that's been around for eons, has the lived-in warmth of the best kind of old-school Italian trattoria. I've ducked in here many times, closing and shaking my umbrella, breathing in the heady scent of truffles in-season, or the Italian 'trifecta' aroma of garlic and tomatoes cooking in olive oil.

The menu doesn't disappoint, featuring all kinds of Roman staples (artichokes, puntarelle, bruschette, and soups) to start, as well as traditional primi -- tomato-based (amatriciana, arrabbiata) and cheese-spiked (carbonara, cacio e pepe, alla gricia). The main courses are Roman comfort food: veal roast and baked chicken and roasted lamb, stewed oxtail and Roman tripe and sauteed lamb "bits and bops" (as my Brit friends would say) with artichokes -- classic coratella. An older signore who owns a nearby antiques shop told my friend he's been going to Armando several days a week for lunch for the last 25 years. Local Romans have been coming here since it opened in 1961.

And I remember a wonderful lunch I shared here with my parents and older brother one rainy early October afternoon. There was an older gentleman seated at a table near us, smartly dressed in a 3-piece tailored wool suit, the kind that strikes a balance between classic Italian tailored and tweedy professorial. He couldn't have been taller than my 5'6" mother, and just as slight. He ate by himself, and every server knew him by name. My father was transfixed by this Italian gentleman quietly consuming plate after plate of homestyle Roman wonderfulness. He went through various salumi with bread, a plate of Roman artichokes, a main course of baby lamb with vegetables and potatoes. Red wine, ovviamente. Every time another course came out, my Dad kept exclaiming, "Wow! Where does he put it all?!?" Then a mixed salad. Then the server made the mistake of bringing him an espresso. "Ma non mi ha portato il dolce!" the gentleman said -- but you haven't brought me my dessert! The server was all apologies and swiftly served him a plate of profiteroles, cream-filled choux pastry bathed in chocolate sauce. Now that's what you call a lunch, alla romana. At the foot of a structure built in 27 BC. Rain be damned.

Side note: In life, there are few coincidences. I lived down the street from the original Pantheon for 7 years, and for 4 years, I lived down the street from Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda, at The University of Virginia. Long an admirer of classical architecture and Palladian design, Jefferson built the Rotunda to honor the Pantheon and the Palladian design principles that were based on this classic structure. They're separated by more than 1800 years, but both boast their own classical beauty. I love them both.