Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Chicago's Ēma and Girl and the Goat

I'm looking back with nostalgia on just a few weeks ago, before the U.S. Presidential elections and the current "politapocalypse" -- to a time when everyone was rooting for the underdog...in sports. The first week in November was a big week for Chicagoans. The Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought for the world champions and fans alike, and the city was on edge in the lead-up to the win. For the celebratory Cubs' parade, record crowds were reported, and they even dyed the Chicago River bright blue in the team's honor. I'm not a baseball fan, but I love a good underdog tale, and the feeling in the city all week was pretty electric (fitting, as I was there doing work with General Electric). I was in the right place at the right time.

Ema dining room 2.jpg

By happenstance, my flight from New York on Halloween evening arrived late, so I missed dinner in my hotel's restaurant and was directed to dine at a new place next door to my hotel, called EMA. I didn't realize until I got there that it's spelled Ēma with a long "e" -- as in the Hebrew word for mother. I asked my server about it and was told that the chef, who is Californian, had traveled around Europe and Israel for volleyball tournaments, and spent time in Israel. 

When I started reading the menu and the wine list, I was surprised and delighted to find some really interesting items, including a Greek cheese from a tiny island I'd just visited in September -- one which I'd never seen on a menu anywhere in the States. Color me impressed! There were also interesting wines from Israel, Sicily, and Greece that I really love but that you don't find too frequently on lists in the U.S., even in top Mediterranean restaurants in Manhattan.

I started off with a glass of Calabrian sparkling rose' (Garruba "Incanto Rosa") and decided to go with my version of comfort food, my culinary happy place: eggplant. They featured a smoky grilled eggplant puree served with warm homemade pita bread, and I could have made a meal out of these two items alone. Or I could have bathed in the eggplant dip! It struck the perfect balance of flavors, with the sweet and smoky eggplant flesh whipped with garlic, plenty of lemon juice, a little yogurt and a generous dusting of sumac for tang and a tart finish. And the warm bread! Suffice it to say I daydream about snacking on this pretty much every day. The next dish I ordered was a tuna crudo with crispy lentils (perhaps my favorite way to enjoy lentils), heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and turmeric. Every restaurant of a certain level seems to have a raw tuna dish on its menu, and many are simply mediocre, which is a shame because it should be illegal to waste good quality fresh tuna on middling preparation. Here, the tuna is lush and rich, and it's got a nice assortment of accompanying textures and flavors so that each bite awakens the palate.

The menu is structured in a way that encourages grazing -- mezze and small plates and portions that allow for ordering multiple dishes -- and so I moved on to a salmon dish and a vegetable dish. The salmon was a beautifully seared 3-ounce piece served in a shallow pasta bowl in green tomato water, with pickled green tomatoes, Michigan peaches, and herbs. It was light, bright, and happened to be perfectly matched to the balmy weather outside -- upper 60s in Chicago on Halloween! Now, what would be relegated to side dish status in most other dining establishments was elevated to a "hot mezze" here.

It's dubbed as "Pan-Roasted Romanesque Cauliflower", which isn't exactly right. It may paint a clearer picture for American audiences of the taste they'll be getting in the dish, but in Rome (hence the "Romanesque"), this is simply BROCCOLI. It is not called "romano" anything, nor is it called "romanesco" which is what so many other restaurant menus dub this veggie. "Romanesco" refers to anything that is Roman or Roman-style, and is not exclusive to cruciferous vegetables. Nomenclature aside, the dish was absolutely delicious. The broccolo romano was tender and seared crispy at its tips. It was served on a shmear of labneh/Greek yogurt, delicious olive oil, and plenty of that delicious tart powdered sumac, which for me is a personal favorite spice. It all came together as more than the sum of its parts, and a dish that is both filling and could double as a main course for a vegetarian. I accompanied my later courses with a hard-to-find Nerello Mascalese in WHITE (it's a red grape), from Terrazze dell'Etna grown in the rich volcanic soil of Sicily's Mt. Etna, a volcano I've visited while it was erupting. Very cool, and a very unusual wine.

My only disappointment was in later finding out that the chef is actually CJ Jacobson, from an early season of Top Chef (when I still watched the show religiously) -- he was always a favorite of mine, both for his cooking chops and his funny, warm personality and capacity to call things as they were. I had chatted with my server there and she'd mentioned that the chef would be happy to meet a fellow chef who'd lived in Italy as I did, and who'd traveled around the Mediterranean as much as I had. I mentioned I was staying next door for work for a few days, and she told me to "swing by some time and have a chat with the Chef"! But I got bogged down with work and I never made the time to stop by again. My mistake.

Speaking of Top Chefs, Season 4 winner (and the first female to snag the top spot) Stephanie Izard has been running a fantastic restaurant since 2010 in the West Loop section of Chicago. The Girl and the Goat, as it's called, offers a truly eclectic menu set up with a grazing-style format (see a trend here?). She hops from southern Europe to Southeast Asia and all over the world map for influences, to (mostly) excellent effect. You can start with items as simple as warm marinated olives, or an umami bomb like pan fried shishito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. My culinary school friend and I went for the green beans, with the encouragement of our server, because it seemed an interesting, slightly Thai treatment of a green veggie we both enjoy. What we got was basically "green bean crack".

This dish was addictive! It's described as being served with a fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews, but to say it tasted of so much more would be a huge understatement. I would have split 3 orders of that dish alone and happily called it a night. But, there was so much more to try.

We moved on to the blue cheese sweet potato peirogies, in honor of the large Polish population in Chicago. This turned out to be the only disappointment of the evening. The peirogies were somehow breaded and fried, so they ate more like a Jamaican beef patty than a Polish dumpling. They were served with a mushroom ragout, mushroom creama (sic?), and fried capers. Frankly, I'm not sure all of the flavors worked as well together as I might have imagined. Not so great. So, we were very happy to move on to our next dish: wood-fired shrimp with a pork and peanut ragout and a cucumber salad.

This was delicious -- and again, echoes of Southeast Asian preparations. I must admit, as a chef and a non-kosher Jew, I am a sucker for the double-traif pairings like a pork-peanut ragout with shrimp. I think the flavors work really well together (and it's somehow more delicious in being somewhat forbidden -- mostly-kosher Jews who go out for Chinese and order the occasional shrimp with lobster sauce know of what I speak). And lots of sour lime and fresh coriander help anything along, in my view. Next up, and to finish our shared world culinary journey, was the extremely rich escargot ravioli.

Yes, each raviolino was filled with a whole escargot, sauced with a tamarind-bacon number, and accented with escarole, celery, and crispy onions. It was over-the-top decadent, French-Italian with an Asian accent, as if some Torinese chef with a sense of humor and a stint in a Hanoi kitchen had dreamt up the dish. It was the perfect ending to tip us over the edge, so that desserts were no longer a possibility. If they HAD been in the picture, however, I might have ordered the "All the Leches" cake, or the caramel corn and malt balls, as the caramel popcorn and "chocolate magic shell" are almost too much to resist. I'd also go for some more daring dishes like anything from the goat menu, or the pastrami-spiced beef heart. But we stuck to slightly safer bets (and the escargot), and left very happy. The service was really friendly and the atmosphere was fun, and 6 years in, still electric. Or maybe it was just that a future Cubs win was in the air...

Ēma
74 West Illinois Street
Chicago, IL60654
(312) 527.5586
www.emachicago.com

Girl and The Goat
809 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL60607
(312) 492.6262
www.girlandthegoat.com

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

QUICK BITE: Greek Salad

Greek salad: the term conjures up many things to many people. For some, it's a mainstay at U.S. Greek diners, usually pretty drab, or maybe huge with mediocre produce and too much over-salted supermarket feta cheese. But to others, it's a revelation, a composed salad, often lettuce-free, comprised of juicy, ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, slivers of crisp green pepper, and fresh cucumber slices, doused in delicious Greek olive oil and a splash of vinegar, topped with authentic sheep's milk feta cheese and dusted with fresh oregano. The really good ones include briny capers. These are the Greek salads of which I rhapsodize today.

In Greece, and particularly the islands of the Cyclades from which I write now, I often order these salads (or some version thereof) twice a day. When the tomatoes are grown in the rocky soil of Naxos or the volcanic soil of Santorini, their flavor is concentrated and they're unbelievably sweet, their thick skins pushed to bursting under the pressure of their turgid flesh.

The cucumbers are firm and heavy with water, their aromatic melon-musty goodness pairing with the bite of the red onion. And there is crisp vegetal tang of the green pepper, the salty feta from the milk of locally-roaming sheep and the capers that taste of the sea itself...

There's not much about a Greek salad that's complicated, but like most simple Mediterranean food, the dish is only as good as the quality of its components. Luckily for the Greeks (and all who eat there), farming still accounts for a nice chunk of the country's economy, and they're still growing things they've grown in this rich soil for millennia. The tomatoes we enjoyed in Koufonissi (at right), in the small Cyclades, came from the island of Naxos nearby, where a lot of farming for the surrounding smaller islands is done.

They were some of the best tomatoes I've had in recent memory -- which is saying a lot, coming from a Jersey girl who lived in Italy for nearly a decade! The local cheese in Koufonissi, which was often used in place of feta, is called mithizra, and it's fluffy and fresh, what you'd get if a tangy Greek feta and a creamy ricotta had a cheese baby! This was also used on a variation of a Greek salad with Cretan roots -- chopped tomatoes and red onions with the cheese and lots of capers served over hardened pieces of Cretan dark grain bread, moistened with a liberal dousing of local olive oil. It's topped off with plenty of dried oregano. And it's delicious. Again, simple with top-quality primary ingredients. It's the way that people in this corner of the world have been living long, healthy lives for thousands of years. And the gorgeous view doesn't hurt, either.

RECIPE: Ethereal Mushroom Soup

It is winter in New York. And while this year has been a much milder winter season than in recent years, it's still February. It's still cold in spells and we're all still starved for sun, birds chirping, and the sun setting after 6 pm. Personally, I was really looking forward to a fantastic 2016...and then promptly got sick on January 1st. And again on January 31st. So, I've had a lot of "down time," as it were, to ponder life, and what to eat. I've had plenty of cozy hours indoors, as a sick couch potato and a binge-watcher and a reader and a daydreamer, and in all of this time, I've been making a lot of soups. This is nothing new for me for the early part of the year, and soups are a very healthy way to warm the bones and fill up with a great bowl of healthy tasty stuff. I've made some of the usuals in my repertoire: Tuscan white bean and kale soup, butternut squash puree, Asian beef broth with noodles and veggies, and of course Jewish penicillin a.k.a. matzo ball soup. But while I was between cold and flu, in mid-January, I had a partial Roman posse over for a dinner party -- they were my ladies who were in from Rome and Boston and Rhode Island and some from the NY metro area, and I of course wanted to feed them well. 

After appetizers and stuzzichini and prosecco in the living room, we started in on the meal with a creamy pureed mushroom soup. This was inspired by an amazing version my friend Jessica ordered in Santiago, Chile, at a very spiffy restaurant called Puerto Fuy (see http://bluaubergine.blogspot.com/2015/01/escapes-santiago-chile.html). It was the essence of mushroom earthiness, but it was also somehow light as air. I wanted to recreate that, not only because it was so delicious, but also because my friend Jessica was in attendance at my dinner party, and it had been pretty much exactly two years since we'd eaten that sublime soup. Also, Jessica declares that she is "over chewing" -- and as a result, she tends to puree everything she possibly can. She appreciated my efforts on behalf of her jaw! But really, I was incorporating two of the healthiest, anti-carcinogenic foods (mushrooms and onions) together in one dish. The recipe is simple because I wanted the soup to be a distilled essence. I wanted to taste the variety of mushrooms that went into the soup, and little else. So that's how I made it. I topped it off with fresh thyme and a gastrique of blackberries and balsamic, inspired by the Italian idea of "frutti del bosco" -- literally translated, it's "fruits of the forest," and that's what blackberries and mushrooms are. In Rome, the old lady in my local market square where I sourced porcini and funghi of all kinds sold only two things: mushrooms and berries, in theory, two items that could have been gathered in one trip to the forest. Frutti del bosco. Here they are, and here is my recipe. This is for you, Jess, and for our trip to Chile, and for the old mushroom lady in Campo de Fiori who is no more. Enjoy it on one of these cold winter nights.

ETHEREAL MUSHROOM SOUP
Serves 6-8

4 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 white onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 pints white mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 pints mixed Asian mushrooms (shitake, maitake, etc.)
2 pints hen of the woods or oyster mushrooms
4 large portobello mushroom caps
10 cups mushroom stock/vegetable broth (including the water from soaking the dried porcini)  
3/4 cup organic heavy cream  
sprigs of thyme and rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste


- Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, and pour over dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl to soak for at least 10 minutes.
- Wipe mushrooms clean with a damp cloth, cut off stems with dirt attached, and give them all a rough chop so they're all roughly the same size (1/4 - 1/2 inch pieces)
- In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Toss in the onion and garlic and saute for 60 seconds to soften. Lower the heat slightly and sweat the onion and garlic for another 3 minutes.
- Add the mushrooms, bit by bit, just so there are enough to cover the bottom of the pan. When they cook down a bit, add another bunch to the pot. Continue this way until all of the mushrooms are cooking (and losing water) in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Remove the soaking porcini from the water with your hands, and ring out the mushrooms so they have as little water content as possible (keep the water!). Chop these and add them to the cooking mushrooms in the pot.
- Strain the mushroom soaking liquid through a mesh strainer lined with a paper towel, to catch any sediment, into a bowl.
- Add the mushroom soaking liquid and mushroom or vegetable stock to the mushrooms in the pot. Allow this to come to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, so the flavors meld. You can add a touch of thyme and/or rosemary at this point (but sparingly -- otherwise the herbs tend to taste medicinal).
- Using an immersion blender, puree the mushrooms and stock until smooth. At this point, add the heavy cream and adjust for salt and pepper. Blend again. The soup can be thinned with additional stock if necessary.

Soup can be served with a fresh herb garnish and a blackberry gastrique: simply cook a pint or two of blackberries in a small saucepan with a pinch of salt, a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar. Puree in a blender or food processor when done, and strain through a mesh sieve into a squirt bottle. Simply squeeze a swirl of blackberry gastrique onto the top of the mushroom soup just before serving.

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!

IMG_1059.JPG

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

www.innatloretto.com


La Posada de Santa Fe Resort + Spa

330 East Palace Avenue

(505) 986.0000

www.laposadadesantafe.com


Coyote Cafe

132 West Water Street

(505) 983.1615

 www.coyotecafe.com

 

Cafe Pasqual's

121 Don Gaspar Avenue

(505) 983.9340
www.pasquals.com

 

Santacafe

231 Washington Avenue 

(505) 984.1788

Chocolate Smith
851A Cerrillos Road
(505) 473-2111
www.chocolatesmith.com
 

Anasazi Restaurant at Rosewood's The Inn at Anasazi

113 Washington Avenue
(505) 988.3030
www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/inn-of-the-anasazi-santa-fe/dining/anasazi-restaurant

Geronimo
724 Canyon Road
(505) 982.1500
www.geronimorestaurant.com

La Casa Sena
125 East Palace Avenue
(505) 988.9232
www.lacasasena.com

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

Plaza Cafe
54 Lincoln Avenue
(505) 982.1664
www.plazacafesouth.com

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
www.thunderbirdsantafe.com

RECIPE: Vive la France! Vive la crêpe!

It's taken me several days to process what happened in the Paris attacks. And while, unfortunately, these attacks in the French capital are not the only horrible terrorist events to have happened recently, they are getting a lot of attention because they were foisted on an innocent public used to freedom, liberty, and a very sophisticated standard of living, and because, well, Paris is Paris. This does not diminish the gravity of the attacks in Lebanon, or over Sinai, or in Africa or Syria or anywhere else around the world. My heart goes out to all victims of terrorist attacks, of any nationality, and these attacks are all too frequent. But today, here on the blog, in honor of the French and particularly the food culture they've given the rest of the world, I am dedicating this blog post to French cuisine. And in particular, the crepe.

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I was schooled in classic French cuisine as the gold standard in culinary school. Still, I am an Italophile myself, admittedly preferring the Italian way of doing most things over the French way -- when you're able to tell the difference, that is (in reality, that's only about half of the time). But I'll readily admit that the French have contributed many amazing things to the world, not the least of which is French food. They've given us a number of dishes that no one else, in my opinion, has been able to equal or improve upon, items like: cassoulet, choucroute garnie, beef tartar...escargot with butter and parsley, pissaladiere, salade nicoise...chocolate mousse, the croissant, the baguette, and bread and patisserie in general. If you're not familiar with any of the dishes I mentioned, look them up, and then go eat them. The sooner the better.

Now, back to the crepes. These are light, thin little pancakes that differ from your fluffy breakfast variety with the addition of melted butter. Crepes can be prepared to be either savory or sweet. They can be filled with bananas and drizzled with dark chocolate sauce. They can be covered in a mixed berry sauce. They can be topped with a sugary butter, and doused in orange juice and Grand Marnier and set aflame for Crepes Suzette.

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In New York, we have a bakery called Lady M that makes crepe cakes: multi-layered affairs with chocolate icing in between the layers, or made with the addition of green tea in the crepes themselves and in the filling between the layers. This is not a bad way to go for a special occasion dessert, and it's not difficult to do yourself at home. Then there are the delicious Nutella-filled crepes (they go really well with raspberries or strawberries): the Italian-ification of a sweet crepe dessert.
 

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As for savory crepes? Well, there's the famous beggar's purse: a small crepe filled with creme fraiche and caviar, tied with a chive, made famous by the Quilted Giraffe restaurant in Manhattan. I made a version of those crepes at a recent pop-up dinner (Chanel 'beggar's purses'). Of course savory crepes are great as breakfast or brunch dishes. They're great "containers" for eggs and ham and cheese, a very French trio indeed.

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And the Italians eat savory crepes in place of pasta, sauced in a casserole in favorite comfort food dishes like crespelle alla fiorentina (crepes filled with a ricotta and spinach mixture, rolled, and sauced with some besciamella and/or tomato sauce, and baked in the oven like lasagna). They can be stuffed with anything, really -- sauces, pasta fillings, meats and cheeses, vegetables and more vegetables. The crepe is like a blank canvas, and on this basic, gorgeously light and thin pancake, we can create whatever we decide we'd like to eat, or to celebrate. It's all up to you, to us. Vive la France! Vive la crêpe!

 

 

Crepes

crepes.jpg

(Makes 12-16 crepes, for 4 8 people)

1 cup AP flour

Pinch of salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk
2 eggs
2 TBSP. melted cooled butter, plus few tablespoons unmelted

-Combine the flour, salt, and milk and beat with a whisk until smooth.

-Beat in the eggs and stir in the melted butter until blended.

-If time allows, set in the fridge for an hour or so to allow the batter to rest.

-Place a small non-stick skillet with shallow sides over medium heat. When a drop of water skitters over the surface before evaporating, add a pat of butter.

- Ladle about a tablespoon of batter into the pan and swirl it around quickly and evenly so that it forms a thin layer on the bottom of the pan. (Pour excess batter back into the bowl if there is any).

-The batter will dry pretty quickly. When the batter is no longer a liquid on top, in a minute or less, turn the crepe and cook it on the other side for 15-30 seconds. The crepe should brown only slightly and not become crispy. Repeat with the rest of the batter.

  • To serve savory crepes, fill with any combination of vegetables, cheese, ham, etc. Fold and roll. They can be eaten as is, or arranged side-by-side in a baking dish and covered with brown butter, or besciamella sauce, or tomato sauce, or any sauce you’d like.
  • To serve sweet crepes, fill with jam, honey, ricotta cheese or mascarpone cheese, Nutella, chocolate, fruit, whipped cream – in any combination. Or simply sprinkle with sugar and a bit of fresh lemon juice.
  • Alternatively, one way Italians serve crepes is to roll them up and slice them (like a basil chiffonade), then open them up and have a kind of crepe pasta – which can then be tossed with any kind of sauce.

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

www.lebistrotduportdenice.fr

L'Âne Rouge

7 Quai des Deux Emmanuel

04 93 89 49 63

www.anerougenice.com 

Les Petits Farcis

http://petitsfarcis.com/

ESCAPES: Puglia, ITALY, Part 2: The Southern Salento

The southern part of the Salento region in Puglia boasts some of the most dramatic and stunning landscape in southern Italy. Here, you can head to an eastern, rocky Adriatic coast beach in the morning, then head west to the mostly sandy Ionian coast for sunset and aperitivi. And this can all be done in an hour's time. The water is the gorgeous turquoise green of the Caribbean, and then gradually deepens to a royal blue found in the most pristine waters of the North Atlantic. From the eastern tip of Puglia, you can look across the Mediterranean on a clear day and see Albania. I know from experience that you can pick up their radio stations as you drive along the coast heading south.

And it's here that you hit the most easterly town in Italy, the beautiful coastal mini-city of Otranto(pronounced OH-tran-to), which abuts the water and boasts a charming harbor, the city having served as Italy's main port to the East for 1,000 years.

The beautiful seaside port belies a brutal history in the sack of Otranto in 1480, when the Turks and Venetians rushed the city with 18,000 troops and basically massacred everyone there, including the 800 survivors who were marched up a hill and beheaded for refusal to renounce their Christian faith. Some of these martyrs' remains are contained in a chapel in the nearby Cathedral. The Aragonese Castle (attributed to the 16th century Spanish) is another landmark in town that towers over the landscape. It's open for touring. Beyond this checkered history, Otranto and the Salento are lovely locales, packed with (mostly Italian) tourists and former residents-come-home in the summertime. 

The beaches in this area are gorgeous and bustling, and the coastline is a dramatic and stunning scape. You can see how this was originally a Greek outpost, just from the visuals: the Cerulean waters and arid land covered with ancient, craggy olive trees as far as the eye can see. The drives along the coast to the north and south of Otranto offer some of the best beaches in Puglia -- and arguably in all of Italy. To the north, there is the Baia dei Turchi (Bay of Turks), where translucent turquoise waters from tourist posters comes to life. Heading south, towns like Santa Cesarea Terme (home of a renowned Moorish resort) and Castro, with a small marina much like Otranto's, are worthy of stops down to the very tip of the Pugliese peninsula.

And, they're not on the typical tourist radar. There are also grottoes to be visited -- including Grotta Zinzulusa, most famously -- offering a subterranean glimpse into the rich cave formations of the region and, where there's water, an otherworldly emerald glow. The very southern tip of Puglia is capped by Capo Santa Maria di Leuca, with its lighthouse at the very end of southeastern Italian land -- and where you're only 44 miles from Albania. 

As for lodging around Otranto, like in most of Puglia, the masserie reign supreme. These former working farmhouses for communal living that dot the Puglian landscape have been transformed into the area's signature B&B/hotel, most of which have a central courtyard with a pool, and a functioning restaurant on the property, which usually uses local ingredients often procured on the masseria's land, from its garden, etc.

One such lovely spot is Masseria Montelauro, originally constructed in 1878. Since then it has been a monastery, an herbal pharmacy, a restaurant -- even a discotheque. It now houses 32 rooms and suites refurbished in whitewashed Mediterranean minimalist chic, with wrought-iron beds, arched stone ceilings, flowing white curtains, and bathrooms in stone and marble.

The on-site restaurant serves three meals a day (including poolside and room service), and uses Montelauro's own olive oil, herbs, and vegetables in the cooking. The pool in the middle of it all is the perfect place to while away the morning or afternoon, and then you can take a short drive to one of the coasts for a few hours at the beach, after breakfast or post-lunch. Part of the charm of Puglia is that, though it's an ancient part of the Italian peninsula, it's not jam-packed with must-see tourist sites. There are those, of course, but it's also about getting into the Italian rhythm of life, and vacation, which is decidedly slow. You may very well finish that novel you pack.

Across the region, on the western (Ionian) coast, there is the area around Punta della Suina ("Pig's Point"), a beach in an area of nature reserve where you walk through a small pine forest to get to the waterline itself. (That's a view of Gallipoli in the distance, by the way -- we'll get there in a minute). Here at Punta della Suina, there are stabilimenti (beachside establishments that include bathrooms, bars, and often restaurants or sandwich and pizza bars, from completely informal shacks to sprawling, mod-design aperitivo magnets with full-on DJs). Here, you can rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, indulge in a salad or a panino and a glass of vino or a cocktail, if you like. It's one of the charms of the area.

There are also plenty of seaside trattorie where they serve local seafood dished up in various preparations. And this being Puglia, there is always a wealth of vegetable sides alongside the seafood stars. In short: you will not go hungry at the beach if you don't bring a picnic lunch.

Drive just north up the Ionian coast and you hit the famed town on the Golf of Taranto, Gallipoli -- which, fittingly, means "beautiful town" in Greek. The ancient city center ia an island joined by a bridge from the more modern (and much less interesting) part of town. The historic quarter is relentlessly charming, extremely photogenic, and definitely a must-see on any trip to the southern Salento.

The perimeter of the old city is lined with sea walls, on top of which are perched pastel and whitewashed stucco houses, hotels, restaurants, and shops. The cobblestones streets of the old city offer much of the same: charming vicoli and back alleys from which echo the patter of sandal-clad feet, reminiscent of those historic towns of the Greek islands of Mykonos or Paros. You can linger for a serious gelato or granita, particularly at the entrance to the old city, by the port, or at

Caffe' Duomo

.

There are some very lovely and stylish retail stores, including a personal favorite, Blanc, which sells everything from furniture and home design to women's accessories -- basically what you'd want your ideal Puglian trullo to look like, with you in it. The large space also contains a super-chic cafe' and lounge within its fabulous stone walls, perfect for a coffee or cocktail post-beach. Another amazing shop is Salamastra, a store specializing in fun shoes, leather and suede wraps and skirts trimmed in what's made to look like Pugliese eyelet lace, and jewelry made from lizards skins and leather. They also feature home goods made out of local shells, nautical rope and the like, inspired by the Salentino beachy style. The three co-owners also have a store in South Beach Florida. They divide their time between the two places, which is certainly a best-of-all-worlds scenario!

As for the food, Gallipoli's port is its pride, and it's all about fresh seafood here. Fresh catches arrive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, and opposite the port on the other side of the bridge, a fish market is set up twice a day until they sell out of goods. As to be expected in these parts, there are booths set up for the sole purpose of selling ricci di mare, or sea urchin. Some are meant to be scooped out and eaten on the spot, but many sellers clean the ricci at their booth and plop the little orange sacks into seawater-filled jars to preserve them.

These are sold cheaply for about 8-10 euros per small jar. We bought a jar and I added the sea urchin at the last minute to that evening's pasta, spaghetti con le vongele (with clams) -- it was a particularly rich and delicious Pugliese version! But the fish market in general is a gorgeous spot. You can bargain for great prices on the famous local red shrimp, beautiful scampi, swordfish...on all kinds of whole fish like branzino, and for octopus, calamari, and every kind of sweet shellfish you could hope for. So much of this delicious seafood is edible without cooking -- and here in Puglia, it's often best simply sprinkled with a little sea salt and some buttery-green unfiltered Pugliese olive oil, possibly a spritz of lemon. And that's it. Simple enough to do without lighting a stove, casually sitting there on your patio or terrazza or poolside at the masseria (or ask the chef where you're staying to prep it for you!). Add a little local rose' wine, and you're set. Southern Salento style.

photo credit: M. Sweeney

For more information on locations, lodging, and activities around the region, check out:

http://www.charmingpuglia.com/en

Masseria Montelauro

Uggiano Localita Montelauro

Strada Provinciale 358, 73028 Otranto

+39 0836 806 203

Blanc

Via XXIV Maggio, 19

Gallipoli LE, Italy

+39 0833 26349

Salamastra

Via Antonietta De Pace 90

73014 Gallipoli (LE)

+39 0833 261577

info@salamastra.com

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

RESTAURANT REVIEW: NOPI, London

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)...in 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!

NOPI 

21-22 Warwick Street

London W1B 5NE

Tel: 020 7494 9584

contact@nopi-restaurant.com

MARKETS: Ortygia Island in Siracusa, Sicily

The island of Ortygia, the centro storico (historic center) within the city of Siracusa, Sicily, is a gorgeous spit of land connected to the mainland coastal town by a narrow channel and 3 small bridges. It's a typically Southern Italian ornate, mostly-baroque confection of narrow streets and wrought iron balconies, fortresses and cathedrals, and plenty of ruins and underground tunnels. It's as Greek in feel as it is Italian, and of course Siracusa actually defeated Athens in 413 A.D., so perhaps what we think of as Greek is actually just, well, Sicilian. Regardless, the name Ortygia (also Ortigia, same pronunciation in Italian) means "quail" and comes from the Greek ortyx

"Quail Island" has an old Jewish quarter that's probably the most charming section of a tiny island filled with charm. The Jewish community here in Siracusa was the second most populous in Sicily after Palermo, and was an integral part of the population before they were expelled by the Spanish kings in 1492. Here in the Giudecca (Jewish section), the beautiful architecture that lines the narrow vicoli is a blend of Medieval and Renassiance, Hebrew-Israelite and Sicilian Baroque. You can even visit the miqvah, the Jewish baths restored and open, on a limited basis, to the public. Water is such an integral part of life here on the Sicilian coast, where you're surrounded by it, you're on top of it, and you sustain human life with aquatic life.

Speaking of, we're focusing on the relatively small-but-beautiful food market of Ortygia today, teeming with life and Sicilian salesmen calling out their wares. The local aquatic life is, of course, something of which to be proud: branzini so fresh they're still in rigor mortis, ruby-red tuna famous in these parts. There's Sicilian swordfish as well as abundant sardines, calamari and scampi and shrimp and octopus...all beautifully displayed for purchase and cooking for lunch or dinner (though admittedly, I'd had an amazing seafood couscous the previous evening that was so filling that I could barely fathom eating anything more than a juicy peach the next day!).

The market itself is surrounded by inexpensive clothing and souvenir stalls, but the good part of the food market is mostly on Via de Benedictis, opening up onto the Piazza C. Battisti, abutting the shoreline, where there is also a famous specialty store owned by the Fratelli Burgio called Il Gusto dei Sapori Smarriti ("The Taste of Lost Flavors"). Here you can find countless local Sicilian cheeses, salumi,and specialty food items local to the island of Sicily. You can even ask them to make you sandwiches and put together a great picnic basket to take to the water or to the 4,600 year-old Greek ampitheater in town.

The market stalls offer spices sold from baskets, remnants of Sicily as a cultural crossroads. And in the general fruit and vegetable market, there are countless beautiful iterations of southern Italian produce, from numerous variations of eggplant and peppers and onions (including the torpedo-shaped red Tropea onions from Calabria, pictured here), to garlic and herbs. There are countless fruits available by the piece -- though they're so enticing, you'll want them by the bushel or the bag full, so yo can serve them by the bowlful (and they'd look even more delicious served in some of the stunning decorated ceramic pottery for which Sicily is famous. But I digress). Of course, each season in Sicily is reflected in the market, and I had the good fortune of being in Sicily in early August, when so many stone fruits and melons and berries and figs and fichi d'india ("Indian figs," what we call cactus pears) are abundant.

But of these fruits, possibly the most abundant and mind-boggling in its variety is the tomato. The market in Ortygia offered an impossibly vermilion collection of the most gorgeous tomatoes, in all shapes and sizes, I've ever seen. And the scent of them! They've never seen a refrigerator (nor should they), and the smell of ripe tomatoes, warm to the touch, sitting in the shade but in the Sicilian heat, vine-ripened....well, you get the idea. The photo at right is not enhanced in any way -- the red glow is as it was in 'real life'. You can see why I might wax poetic about this display.

And speaking of tomatoes, another wonderful aspect of Ortygia's market is the variety of Sicilian-specific products featured in its stalls. We're talking about local oregano, hung to dry and sold like bouquets of dried flowers. We're talking about those peerless Sicilian tomatoes, sun-dried to concentrate their flavor, and sold alongside other salt-cured, -brined, or otherwise salt-forward products, including Sicilian capers and caper berries, olives, and frutta secca (dried fruit) which includes sultanas, almonds, figs, and the world-renowned pistachios from Bronte. Everything is lovingly displayed, and the sellers of these items call to passers-by (often in Sicilian dialect, mind you), highlighting the extraordinary quality of all the foods this proud island has to offer. My recommendation? Get it all, everything you may have room for, in your kitchen, your fridge, your bags. Regret is for suckers, not Sicilians.

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

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

Valparaiso

+56 (32) 225.6788

www.lapiedrafeliz.cl

 

Oda Pacifico

Condor 35

Valparaiso

+56 (32) 223.8836

www.odapacifico.cl

 

La Sebastiana

Ferrari 692

Valparaiso

www.neruda.cl

+56 (32) 225.6606

SHERATON MIRAMAR

Avenida Marina 15

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 238.8600

www.sheraton.cl

 

Sazon Peruana

3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente

Viña del Mar

+56 (32) 319.1160

www.sazonperuana.cl

Cheese from the Goat Farm & "Toscumbrian" Feasts

It took her a while to discover it, but since she has, my friend Laurie has been a regular at Val di Mezzo, the goat farm in Anghiari, Tuscany owned by a Michigan native named Brent. It's close to the Umbrian border and its small town of Lippiano, where Laurie has a country house. This is a gorgeous and less-discovered area of 2 famous neighboring Italian regions. And though Chianti in Tuscany, and Orvieto and Perugia in Umbria, are amazing places...well, there's something really nice about being somewhere that feels distinctly more local

I hadn't been to Laurie's in several years, as we seemed to have just missed each other in Italy the past few seasons. Late September and early October this year, however, we finally got our timing right. I headed up to what I call "Toscumbria" (the Tuscany/Umbria border area where one fades into the other almost seamlessly, then back again), with some friends from Rome. It was still very much late summer in central Italy, with warm sunny days and nights that were just cool enough to warrant a sweater or jacket. Laurie's fig tree on the sloping hill alongside her house was still heavy with ripe fruit, and the wild lavender alongside it still perfumed the air. She'd wanted me to visit Brent's goat farm and I really wanted to see what this American was stirring up in the Italian countryside. So we went.

As it turned out, Brent had just departed for the U.S. for a few weeks, but his helpful dairy farm hand led us around and gave us a tour of the place. Most of the goats are female, of course, and many had given birth in the spring. Others were pregnant (a handful of studly male goats were loudly 'bahhh'-ing in a nearby pen). All were happy to see us and really took to Laurie's visit inside their pen just before feeding time.

We met a nice family that runs a farm west of Charlottesville, Virginia (town of my alma mater, UVa. -- the husband was actually a graduate of their masters program in poetry. Small world!). They were there learning the ropes: Italian cheesemaking combined with innovative American touches, to produce some traditional local cheeses as well as some interesting twists of Brent's own invention.

A tasting allowed us to try different versions and ages of goat milk cheeses. They were all delicious, and we bought lots of it: the Italian caciotta, a feta-like caprino (goat cheese) best for grating, a goat cheese aged in ashes made of local herbs like rosemary and lavender, and one wrapped in chestnut leaves.

When we got back to Laurie's house, We picked a handful of fresh figs from her tree, their insides a deep, brilliant crimson, and I made a fig-peperoncino jam to accompany the caciotta. It was a delicious end to a "Tuscumbrian" meal that we made in her kitchen: a meal for which we spent the day gathering local ingredients. 

Dinner -- particularly that local caciotta  and homemade fig-peperoncino jam -- truly tasted like Umbria, like Tuscany, like our home away from home.

ESCAPES: Isola di Ponza, Italy -- Part I

Shhhhh. Don't let the word get out. Ponza, an island escape off the Mediterranean coast between Rome and Naples is a hidden gem -- at least as far as foreign tourists go. And we who've enjoyed the island for years for its unique natural beauty, its bountiful fresh seafood and local vegetables, its impossibly clean aqua waters, its open-air bars and restaurants with jawdropping views, its cute shops open until late...well, we'd like to keep it somewhat hidden.

Here, wandering the steep and winding streets, one hears almost exclusively Italian, with its various dialects, Neapolitan and Roman being the most pronounced. And this is refreshing in Italy, a country with so many gorgeous and enchanting spots that seem to have been discovered and sometimes overtaken by foreign tourists.

And what an enchanting and gorgeous spot it is. Ponza is one of the group of isole pontine, and along with its nearby sister island, Palmarola, offers some of the most beautiful landscape off the coast of the Italian peninsula.

Palmarola isn't really an inhabited island, but you can take giri (tours) around the island by day, stopping for swims along the way. There are plenty of places to drop your anchor, countless gorgeous coves and charming spots to share with other visitors, or in which to find oneself alone, in pace. Those arriving in sailboats can even stay the night in one of these beautiful coves, and wake up in the morning to an invigorating swim in crystalline waters teeming with tiny fish. On Palmarola, there are also a couple of lunch spots that serve up the fresh catch of the day, and do excellent pastas and specialty items. We indulged in a local zucchine in scapece (sauteed and cured in vinegar, garlic, and a bit of peperoncino), and an insalata di polpo, fresh-caught octopus salad, a classic antipasto from Italy's central coast on down to Sicily.

The Chiaia di Luna beach is a stunning stop-off, with various grottoes and a vista from the water where you can take in the vertiginous limestone cliffs that drop down into the sandy beach below. The sapphire water that meets the white cliffs offers a truly stunning juxtaposition of color and light.

When returning from an island boat trip, the thing to do is to share aperitivi with friends in the main piazza overlooking Ponza's harbor. Italian pre-dinner drinks, like the classic spritz, or any variation on alcohol or soda with a bitter like Campari or Aperol, are a must. The scene at our favorite, Bar Tripoli, is always lively -- and you're sure to make new friends with vacationing neighbors, sailors, and various ponzese (Ponza locals) as colorful as their island houses. Plus, the view at dusk is hard to beat.

QUICK BITE + ESCAPES: Mangiare al Mare!

There's nothing that captures the essence of the estate romana (Roman summer) like eating a seafood meal at the beach. Rome is only 22 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it an easy day trip in a car or even on a scooter. If you're free, it's great to go midweek for lunch, when it's less crowded, or on the weekend mid-afternoon to stay for aperitivi, sunset, and a seafood dinner. Dining alfresco while looking at the water really heightens the enjoyment of a great meal of antipasto, pasta, frutti di mare, and pesce.

Along the coast near Rome, the beaches of Ostia, Torvaianica, and Fregene are filled with locals coming to enjoy the sun, the sea, the sand, and the foods of summer. Popular dishes include antipasti like alici marinati (marinated fresh anchovies), and polpo con patate (octopus and potato salad), dressed in extra virgin olive oil with a spritz of lemon. These dishes are perfect with a crisp white wine or even a glass of prosecco, as is customary as an aperitivo in Italy. 

After the antipasto, moving on to a primo piatto featuring local ingredients is a must. The classics? Either spaghetti con le vongole veraci (spaghetti with tiny clams in a garlic, olive oil, and white wine sauce), or pasta allo scoglio (a mix of shellfish, shrimp, calamari -- whatever is local and fresh -- with tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and a splash of white wine). 

In Lazio and south, oversized paccheri are often featured with shellfish -- we enjoyed this one particular version with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. No matter which pasta you choose, these dishes are made to then"fare una scarpetta," using some crusty bread to sop up all the delicious sauce. The go-to main dish along the coastline, the dish by which you can judge a restaurant's seafood chops, is the fritto misto, or mixed fish fry.

Here, pieces of calamari, baby fish fried whole, and shrimp so tender and delicate you eat the shell and the legs along with everything else -- are dusted lightly with flour, tossed in the fryer (olive oil gives the seafood great flavor and crispness), and gently sprinkled with sea salt. A squeeze of lemon at your discretion. When it's not done properly, it's very average, but when it's prepared well, it's the essence of the mare mediterraneo: the perfect Italian summer meal.

Allora, tutti al mare!

EAT, PLAY, LOVE, Part 2: Cake & Compleanni

The first thing I ever cooked for Patrick was a birthday cake. We'd only met a few weeks earlier, in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. My friend Elizabeth came to me one day in May '99 and said, "I met your future boyfriend today" (which still makes me chuckle) -- he owned the Lavarapido, where she'd gone to do her laundry because it was one of few places in the city with dryers. Patrick was the owner: an American, she'd said, my age, cute, and very nice. And then one lazy Sunday afternoon at Stardust, the bar that would become our second home in Rome, I showed up for brunch and there he was outside the bar, sitting on a bench against an ivy-covered stone wall. He was wearing a blue t-shirt: I remember because it matched his eyes. (Blue still makes me think of Patrick). He was cute, yes -- but more importantly, he was incredibly sweet, with an infectious, full-body laugh. We instantly hit it off over our capacity for snark and jokey, sarcastic comments made at the expense of our new mutual friend Martin, the American bartender at Stardust who served us our drinks and lots of conversation to go with them. It was all in good fun, and it didn't take us long to assemble the beginnings of what would become our group of expats and colorful Italians that eventually formed our famiglia romana -- our Roman family

And so I found myself baking Patrick a birthday cake on June 10th,1999. I'd found a shop down the street from my apartment off the Campo de' Fiori that sold some specialty items from the U.S., including Betty Crocker cake mix and Philadelphia cream cheese. I wanted to make a retro, all-American cake of the kind my mother made for my birthdays in grade school: chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. Martin was having a gathering at his place in honor of Patrick's 27th birthday. But sadly, by the time 9:00 rolled around and I arrived proudly with cake in hand, Patrick had gone home. Seems he'd had a little too much to drink and had to call it a night before the sun went down. I remember being disappointed -- but it was just like Patrick to pull out all the stops, as early as possible, and occasionally burn out before the party got started!

A few weeks later, I hosted my first real dinner party in Rome (shades of many future nights to come). I'd invited Martin and Elizabeth, my English friend Monica and my Italian friend Federico, and Patrick. This was the summer before I started culinary school, and so while I enjoyed cooking, I was by no means yet a professional. (I hadn't even figured out how to work the oven in my apartment. It gave off a terrible odor every time I turned it on, and I found out the night of my dinner party that I needed to manually light the pilot light...so I'd basically been gassing everything I'd baked!) Anyway, that evening, I served a salad and a pasta, and had made a flourless chocolate cake, from scratch, for dessert. I served it with fresh local strawberries from the nearby hill town of Nemi, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Or so I thought. I'd been running low on powdered sugar, so had picked up another pouch of it-- same brand, almost same packaging. After sprinkling a few slices of cake with the sugar I had on hand, I started on the new pouch. 

I served all the cake slices at one time, with a sweep of the wrist and a "buon appetito!" to all of my guests. We tasted the cake -- always a crowd-pleaser -- and everyone noted how delicious it was. But some guests said, "you know, this is interesting, it's really coming alive in my mouth." I thought it was a slightly strange descriptive for the dessert, but shrugged it off. And after a few more bites, Patrick said, "it's kind of like Pop Rocks. Don't get me wrong, it's tasty, but this cake is...frizzante," a word used to describe fizzy water, meaning sparkling or carbonated. At which point a light bulb went on in Martin's head, and he pulled me into the kitchen. "Show me the sugar you sprinkled on this cake," he said, and when I did, his eyebrows raised: "this is bicarbonato: it's baking soda!" We immediately broke out into hysterics, Martin falling against the kitchen door, hand covering his mouth, cackling. I was doubled over, holding my stomach in happy pain. "Why don't you sprinkle some baking soda on it?" became a running joke at my expense in Rome. And, I was 0 for 2 on cakes.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2003. It was the hottest summer anyone could remember, when people were literally dropping from the heat all over southern Europe. I was the executive chef of a place called Ristorante Cibus, in the same Trastevere neighborhood where we passed so many of our days and nights in Rome. Patrick and I had become pretty inseparable, and now I was working full-time in our "hood." He used to come visit me at the restaurant, passing through the air conditioned dining room back into the kitchen, where it was always 10 degrees hotter than anywhere else, with 8 burners, 2 ovens, and one huge hot water boiler for pasta -- all of which were constantly going during the 9-10 hours of our prep and dinner service. "Oh wow, it's hot in here!" is what he (and everyone) said upon entering the kitchen, as if it was some revelation to me, standing there melting! Sometimes Patrick would bring me an icy granita to help me cool off. Sometimes he'd show up when we were wrapping things up, after a night where I'd been sweating my butt off and he'd been cooling his off in a chair sipping Jack-and-Cokes next door. For his birthday that year, we decided that our group of friends would celebrate with a dinner at Cibus, and I would prepare a special menu for the group, as well as a very special gourmet birthday cake.

Patrick shared a birthday with our friend Caroline, and both were present to celebrate that summer. The meal itself consisted of what was surely a pasta dish and probably a beef fillet for the main course. I don't remember the details. But I definitely remember that I made a baked chocolate mousse cake with chocolate buttercream and ganache. And that cake? A winner! It was rich and chocolaty and light as air. It seemed the third time was a charm indeed.

This year on June 10th, I did not bake Patrick a birthday cake. I went out and bought the cream cheese and powdered sugar, got the hand mixer from a friend here in Rome, and tried to find chocolate cake mix -- just for old time's sake, and for our friend Caroline, who was back in Rome this year and spent her birthday with us, with our extended famiglia romana. But I couldn't bring myself to actually make the cake. Patrick would have been 39 years old on June 10th this year. Instead, he is forever 38 and 1/2. Patrick was born 3 months and 24 days before I was born, but now I'm older than he is, and I can't get my head around that concept.

This year on June 10th, instead of baking Patrick a birthday cake, we gathered our "Roman family" from near and far, to celebrate Patrick's life. Roman style.

We returned to Trastevere, our neighborhood full of wonderful memories. Stardust no longer exists, and though Patrick's laundromat is still there, sign and all, he sold it when he left Rome in '05 and it's now shuttered. But still, this will always be our neighborhood. So, we found a beautiful apartment around the corner from those spots. And we came together, from Rome, from all over Italy and Europe, from Malta, from the United States. We drank to Patrick's full life, we exchanged stories and memories, we saw videos and photos of those golden years in Rome that Patrick felt were some of the best of his life. We ate at one of our favorite neighborhood trattorias, we toasted to his life, we sang, we cried, but most of all we laughed, remembering Patrick's full-body guffaw and his capacity to laugh about everything, even in the face of tragedy. He was able to see the good in everyone and everything, which is what made Patrick so sweet, so refreshingly optimistic, and so beloved by so many.

In the whirlwind and haze of that Roman evening, which for me was surreal, I did notice something. Many people wore white, the complete opposite of the traditional black that signifies mourning, and a color that celebrates light and life. But more interesting still: even more people wore blue -- unwittingly, I think, but it was Patrick's color, and it was so fitting. He was the one thing so obviously missing from a birthday party he would have LOVED. But there we were, friends and family, gathered together to eat, drink, and celebrate the life of our lovely Patrick, dressed in colors of light and summer and Patrick's pool-blue eyes. He had, once again, pulled out all the stops and left the party early, way too early. But we celebrated on into the night, and to sunrise, in his honor.

Above, Patrick on his 30th Birthday in Rome (with a cake his Mom made and is presenting to him).

We love you, Patrick, and miss you terribly.

Auguri, auguri, auguri, from your Famiglia Romana...