Thursday, December 24, 2009

Highlight #268: It's almost Christmas!

A very lucky guy already had his gingerbread waffle in bed.

Some newly baked rugelash are waiting to go to a good home.

All prettied up and ready to hit the road.

Pierre Herme's chocolate nutella tart got a down home makeover as a southern pine nut chocolate nutella and sea salt pie. A few more hours and we'll be ready to eat!

Happy holidays everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Highlight #267: We ate Rome (Part II)

I knew just the thing to break up all the walking in Rome and sweeten the hours between lunch and dinner. We ate lots of gelato.

First, we went to Giolitti. This cheerfully crowded old store not far from the pantheon is brightly lite and hard to miss.

The massive selection is definitely a nightmare for the indecisive. Especially when there is a line of folks starring at the back of your head. Fortunately, we are not the indecisive sort. My standby pistachio and hazelnut were super awesome. Extremely creamy, this style is by far my favorite guilty pleasure in Rome.

That is not to say that I don't want to visit a gelateria of an entirely different style also. Il Gelato di San Crispino near the Trevi fountain is the polar opposite of Giolitti. While Giolitti is warm, messy, and crowded, the well-hidden San Crispino is quite, sterile, and lab-like. All of the gelato are shielded from view under shinning silver covers.

The pistachio here is much cleaner in flavor, but in turn, lacks a bit of oomph. The famous honey flavor, however, is absolutely stellar. All of the floral and nutty notes in the natural honey showed through. Definitely a must try.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Highlight #266: We ate Rome - Restaurant: Dar Poeta

After high brow Paris, Rome seemed even more chaotic and messy than I remembered. How does one organize a city with ruins to trip over in every direction.

It was fascinating to see the originals that inspired the many famous monuments in Paris.

I always have great luck when traveling. Like having spent a whole afternoon eating lunch in Paris and then discovering that we hadn't missed our museum time because it also happened to be the day that the Lourve opened until 10 pm. In Rome, we found ourselves in the festive Trastevere during that inopportune time between lunch and dinner (Italians eat late. No dinner before 8 or 9). Lucky for us, Dar Poeta, the famed pizza joint on a very small side road in the area was open for lunch on that weekend day and the staff kindly waved us in for pizza while the they prepared for dinner. This gave us an opportunity to eat, drink, and linger until the mass showed up. When they did, the place became so jam packed, the waiting patron literally stood over the tables near the door.

To settle any questions about style, the menu announced right up front that Dar Poeta is neither ultra thin Roman style nor chewy Neapolitan style. It is somewhere in between in a camp of its own.

The brick wood burning oven roared in the kitchen throughout the day. For such a rustic place, the ventilation system was impressive.

To ease into our pizza experience, we started with bruschetta topped with fresh tomato, basil and a beyond awesome tuna sauce. What can I tell you about the tuna sauce? It's extraordinarily creamy with a multidimensional umami taste that reminded me of a top quality fish sauce from Asia.

We ordered the signature Dar Poeta pizza topped with housemade spicy sausage and zucchini.

The crust, as you can see here, is resilient but still thin. The underside was nicely charred. Even more importantly, it had no signs of moisture near the center.

As such, each slice can be picked up and folded without problem. No drippage at all! The moisture that plague our Atlantan pies never set in here.

House wine was super cheap at 4 euro for a large carafe. We drank two carafes on our own... And this was all before our official dinner elsewhere... Vacation is good. :)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Highlight #265: We ate Paris (Part III) - Restaurant: L'Arpege

I am SOOO behind on posts. Work really ramped up after Paris and Rome, I barely had time to pack, fly, work, sleep, and eat of course. Only yesterday was I able to take a breather. After a day of rest, I am finally ready to tell you all about the incredible meal we had at Arpege just before Thanksgiving.

For a 3 star, Arpege's dinning room is sparsely decorated, especially when compared to my other favorite, the opulent Le Meurice. But once the lunch crowd filled in, the well-dressed folks made up the scenery nicely.

We ordered a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose to toast the holiday. The sparkly salmon pink bubbly was just perfect for the amazing vegetable fare served. Our first taste was pea and squash puree on top of a crunchy housemade turnip chip. Light, elegant, flavorful, and texturally pleasing, it was a nice introduction to chef Passard's famed vegetable tasting.

A second round contained a creamy potato puree that was like a very rich mashed potato.

Then our meal officially began with the restaurant's signature Arpege egg. Slow boiled orange egg yoke mixed with cream, sherry, vinegar, and maple syrup created a taste explosion in the mouth. The flavors grew richer and deeper as I dug into the very thick yoke at the bottom. This one really showed genius and set the tone for the Passard experience.

Unwillingly parted with the adorable egg, we were comforted with a white onion and parmagiano reggiano gratin. Even though still early in the meal, a tread was already forming. Chef Passard seemed to enjoy pairing sweetness with savory and does it with an expert hand. This shallow dish held unseen depth in both quality and balance.

For the Chinese, dumplings are meant to satisfy in quantity. But here, Passard's delicate creations were a refined study in texture. Each vegetable filling had a different mouth feel ranging from fine and smooth to chunky and crunchy. Our favorite was a walnut filling that surprised with an infusion of nutmeg.

A sugar beet slice baked in Guérande grey salt crust looked striking in its simplicity. We were instructed to eat the unpeeled crust with each bite. We followed the instruction and understood why. The salt crust brought out the plentiful sweetness in the unadulterated beet. It's definitely the sweetest I've ever had.

Squash veloute with smoked bacon cream boasted an extremely smooth texture and plenty of smokiness from the bacon. This would have made a wonderful warm treat on a crappy rainy day like today.

A risotto made from celeriac delivered another intense dose of Parmagiano. The tenderized celeriac mimiced the texture of al dente rice quite successfully.

The couscous with garden vegetables was a colorful sight to behold. The portion was much larger than the previous courses. Even thought it's all vegetables, this combination had a meaty feel. The fine grained couscous was a nice texture contrast to the vegetables. I got very full from this plate.

But then, there were these beautiful looking scallops. Who can say no? A little chewier, these were more meaty and savory than tender and sweet. Personally, I felt this sole non-veggie dish was the only one in the meal that fell off the awesomeness scale.

From the large cheese cart, we each chose three to four cheeses of varying age to try. The hands down winner of our total combination of 12 was a 6 year old comte packed with intensity. If one could be knocked out by a tasty punch, this was it.

We finished the meal with a very pretty apple tart. The pale apple flowers actually tasted quite different, much more tart, than the single red sweet one in the middle. The salted butter caramel sauce was super rich and good enough to lick on its own.

You know how I feel about macroons, so imagine my delight in seeing these rare vegetable ones (green: celery, white: carrot, pink: beet). The white carrot totally surprised me with the most distinct carrot flavor and yet was so delicate.

The entire lunch took four hours. While we were on vacation, most of the other patrons looked like they were dressed for work. Yet they lingered on. I really wonder how they got away with it. :) Thank goodness the Louvre opened until 10pm that night, so we missed nothing.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Highlight #264: We ate Paris (Part II) - Patisserie: Pierre Herme

There is beauty abound in Paris, especially at night. I particularly enjoy going to the Louvre on Wednesday night, when it opens until 10pm. The crowd is much thinner and the lights are amazing.

It's not often one gets to take a photo of the glass pyramid without a line in front of it.

It's also nice to linger in the halls at will.

But beauty does not only exist in the museums. It hides inside discrete doorways too.

While all of this dizzying display at Pierre Herme may throw some off their tracks, I was determined.

I came all the way across the ocean only for these! My beloved macaroons! Look how the chestnut pair flecked with gold shimmer in the back!

Robust yet delicate, the chestnut macaroon hides a little secret, a candied piece of chestnut, one of my favorite French Christmas candies.

Of course, I had to get my beloved pistachio. So sweet, so tender, so adorable! I wait years for these between visits!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Highlight #263: We ate Paris (Part I) - Restaurant: L'Ourcine

On my fourth trip to Paris, I finally managed to wrestle the man into coming along for a little romance! :) Luckily, he was in the mood to enjoy some food and wine after weeks of intense work.

With no contracts to revise or negotiations to prepare for, I liberally indulged in the newly released beaujolais nouveau 2009 like Parisians all over the city. Not too tanic or overly nuanced, this was a simple kind of "happy" grape juice drunken purely for joy.

For our first Parisian lunch after a none so pleasant flight (I sat next to a man the size of laughing Buddha except he didn't make anyone laugh), we dropped in for a cozy lunch at L'Ourcine in the quaint 13th, a short walk from the Latin Quarter and our hotel. The vest pocket size place was exactly what we needed, small, warm, and homey.

As always, I was mistaken for Japanese by our server (this happens about 20 times on each trip ). After apologizing profusely for his mistake, he sent out a couple of compliments from the chef, a mousse twist on coquilles Saint Jacques. The sauteed scallops were blended into the rich mousse and the usual bread crumb topping was presented as croutons. This very interesting twist on a classic foretold the coming neat plays on tradition by chef Daniere, who trained with the fame Yves Camdeborde (La Regalade).

Our set lunch included a choice of a starter, a main, and a dessert for 31 Euro. I chose the salmon confit as starter. Rather than a true confit, the salmon was salt cured, but was not salty (it was just a little stringy). The tangy slaw on top balanced out the quite rich puree (I guessed spinach, but couldn't tell for sure).

Jason asked for the braised beef presse, which came studded with a good sized piece of foie. I stole much of this very flavorful and beefy starter.

I gladed added a supplement of 15 Euro for the main that I just couldn't take my eyes off of, a sauteed pigeon with a fist size piece of pan seared foie gras. Imagine the most tender piece of dark meat near the bone of a duck leg and you get the texture and flavor of this pigeon. For every mouthful, I combined a nice chuck of pigeon with a good slathering of foie. Heavenly! I even painstakingly gnawed away at the itty bitty leg.

Jason's pork roast was much easier to eat. I was too busy to spend much time with his.

To balance out the very rich main, I ordered the fromage blanc with a mango sauce as dessert. I totally ignored the fresh cheese after tasting the amazing tart and sweet sauce as vibrant as the color. I felt truly refreshed afterwards.

Jason settled on the homey pot de creme and seemed very happy with the choice.

After lunch, we took a leisurely walk back to our hotel for a good nap. I've really learned to appreciate Jason's non-rushed approach to sight seeing over the years. Paris will always be there. We were there to relax and enjoy, which meant that we'd take our time. We woke up in time for a nice drive through all the beautifully lit sites of Paris, including the Eiffel as it sparkled on the hour.