Wednesday, April 23, 2014

QUICK BITE: CHEF, the movie

I love being a part of the food world, and I've always been a big film fan as well. Today I found myself at the crossroads of food and film at a screening of the soon-to-be-released movie, "Chef," starring, written and directed by local boy Jon Favreau. The film was screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival last night here in New York, so Mr. Favreau was on hand after the screening today for a discussion and Q&A with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine. The movie itself is a fun, realistic story about a chef in L.A. who's in a creative rut. Although he wants to break this rut with interesting, inspiring dishes, he still has to answer to "the man" -- as in the restaurant owner, played by Dustin Hoffman. New to social media and egged on by his kitchen staffers and his 10 year-old son, the chef joins the Twitterverse, which eventually takes a somewhat tragic turn (technology in the hands of the uninitiated!) as his rant against a hateful food critic goes viral. He eventually quits his job and decides to start a food truck, therefore feeding his soul as a chef, as it were. It's not a complicated conceit, and despite some prominent cast members, it's got an indie feel, harking back to Favreau's fabulous "Swingers" from the '90s. It's pleasant, and lighthearted, and anyone who's ever worked the back of house will recognize a lot of familiar sights, sounds, and situations throughout the film. Casting note: the kid who plays the chef's son in the movie, Emjay Anthony, is adorable, with real acting chops.

A few fun facts from behind the scenes? Roy Choi, LA's food truck king (and who happens to share a similar backstory to that of the chef in the movie), was the "trainer" chef on this film, demostrating to Favreau how to make his chef character physically, actively convincing. He worked in conjunction with the food stylist to make sure both the chefs' screen time, and the food shots, were realistic and enticing. To Favreau's credit, these scenes are gorgeous and really shot well. As a professional, watching the process, I could taste every ingredient and every dish as it was created and plated: truly mouth-watering kitchen visuals. Another fun fact is that actor Oliver Platt played the petulant critic with the make-or-break restaurant blog, a role with which he's somewhat familiar: his brother Adam is the food critic for New York Magazine.

CHEF hits theaters May 9th.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

ESCAPES: Charleston, South Carolina, Part 1

There's something about Charleston. It's a small, charming, typically Southern city on a Peninsula between two rivers that converge and feed into the Atlantic. Its pace is as languid and flowing as the locals' drawl. Even the way they pronounce their hometown echoes this: Chaaahhhlston, emphasis on the "ahhh." 

It's a town full of dichotomies: as charming and European as it is steadfastly American and conservative, firmly rooted in the past, but with a young population and a dynamic culture and arts scene that's moving the city swiftly into the future. It's full of classic Federalist architecture and churches aplenty, though its colorful "Charleston single" homes (one bedroom wide, long, with plenty of balcony and porch space to capitalize on any breeze) are built for the semitropical climate and rampant bourbon-soaked socializing of its residents. Its past is marred by its prominence in the propagation of the slave trade, though it's also historically known for its religious tolerance, particularly to minorities like Jews and Huguenots. It's where the Civil War began, quite literally, at Fort Sumter, though it's as peaceful and civilized a place now as you'll find in this part of the United States.

I love the south, I went to college in the south, and I know a lot of amazing people who hail from the south, including the state of South Carolina. Perhaps all of Charleston's dichotomies are what make this small southern belle of a city so interesting to me. Maybe that's why I've felt its pull for so many years.'s the food. The low country cuisine. Particularly the shrimp and grits. And the ham. Make that all pork products. And the fried chicken. And the fried anything. And the pickled, spicy, savory, sweet, delicious cooking of the Southern tradition. The whole country has been abuzz this past decade about the restaurant scene in Charleston. And I needed to get a taste for myself.

Where did I start? With Sean Brock, of course. One of the city's top toques and a staunch Southern foodways proponent, Brock owns both McCrady's, for many years an upscale staple in downtown Charleston, and Husk, a newer, dressed-down southern restaurant with fun, rustic charm and some seriously good food coming out of its kitchen. Brock believes in keeping things local, procuring from producers whom he knows and trusts, and looking to food history and products and dishes of a past era to inform his cooking. This is evident in the care he takes composing a dish, plating a dish, and in educating his serving staff as well so they can communicate this information to the diners. 
Our first night in Charleston we had a very enthusiastic and informed server (who was also a UVa. alumna with an English degree, much like yours truly!) at McCrady's, who walked us through her favorite dishes and ones about which we'd inquired, steering us towards a very delicious set of appetizers. We had the bay scallops over hominy, with butter peas and red mustard, and the sweetbreads with Appalachian red corn puree, green garlic and a lovage foam. Our fish courses were delicious and light, particularly the trout with brassicas (cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cabbage) and meyer lemon gel. The meat courses were a study in small portions of rich, densely flavorful cuts -- and not about making the protein the center of the dish, both literally and figuratively. Brock plates his food like no other chef I've encountered, often setting the proteins or the "main" of the dish off to the side, and letting what are often considered "sides" take center stage on the plate. 
The Wagyu beef coulotte with smoked potato puree and wild mushrooms was delicious, deeply tasty, and tender as could be. And the duo of Berkshire pork -- braised and seared belly, and tenderloin -- was marbled and crispy and tender in all the right places, with an interesting pumpkin brunoise (tiny dice) cooked various different ways and tossed together. The accompanying balsamic reduction and truffled honey sauces were the high and low notes of acidity and sweetness to both cut the richness and enhance the pork. Dessert was a local affair, too, with the better dessert a "frozen parfait of grits" -- that is, hominy ground so fine as to become a cornmeal powder, cooked like smooth creamy grits and then frozen like a semifreddo. This was served on a wild blueberry sauce and topped with a whisper-thin cornmeal biscuit, pressed into crispy perfection.

Husk is so immensely popular that the only meal for which I could nab a reservation was for lunch on Saturday. The line was out the door, regardless. It's a relatively casual spot, and a wonderful place to while away a few hours for brunch or lunch on a weekend, particularly if the weather is mild with a nice breeze. The outdoor balcony tables upstairs were made for that. But the inside dining rooms are warm and homey, too, a comfortable place to work your way through Brock's tasty menu. Drinks are given their own menu, so beyond the wine list, there are a few craft beers, as well as house-made cocktails featuring southern booze, like the "A Yard Too Far" with vanilla and ginger macerated bourbon, pecan orgeat, and pecan bitters: strong and smooth. Also of interest is the extensive cider menu, a reflection of a drink-making tradition that at one time outpaced beer production and consumption in the U.S. As for food, Husk will only work with ingredients that come from the South. Period. Of course, this leaves the kitchen with a lot to work with. The menu changes pretty much weekly, so you may or may not come across the same dishes we did, depending on the season and the creative whims of the kitchen. 

We started with some tasty smoked chicken wings with a honey mustard glaze, peanuts, and cilantro. Asian-Southern. That was accompanied by a "Southern Panzanella" -- a typically Tuscan bread and vegetable salad here using cornbread croutons and a roasted red pepper puree.We went with some fairly "traditional" dishes as mains, but they were prepared in quite non-traditional ways. 
Husk's version of shrimp and grits was a lot of smoke: there were the shrimp and Geechie Boy (local) grits, but also spring onions, sweet peas, homemade cotechino sausage, all brought together in a smoky tomato broth. Served in an earthenware pot, this was an earthy, soupy one-bowl meal that would work for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner. I also had a perfectly-prepared cornmeal-crusted catfish fillet -- not something I'd usually select from a menu, mind you. But this was light, with a thin but crunchy crust encasing a firm, white flaky fish. This was nestled on a bed of sauteed cabbage, red beans, and a roasted Appalachian tomato sauce. It was so much more flavorful than I could ever make it sound, but just know that this is the essence of simple ingredients coming together and shining in a way that is much greater than the sum of their parts. A side of broccoli in a vadouvan curry sauce (a French-Indian hybrid) with shallots was just the shot of green we needed among the seafood and starch. 

Some suggestions for where to stay and what to see while in Charleston? I highly recommend the lovely Vendue Inn for a cozy, authentic, warm welcome and possibly the most comfortable king size bed I've ever slept in...and the fireplace, exposed brick walls, chandelier over the bed, and the wood beam ceilings didn't hurt. It's a gorgeous place to retire at the end of a long dinner and some post-prandial drinks, perhaps at the super-casual pub next door, The Griffon. Or try The Gin Joint, another small spot around the corner serving handmade Prohibition-style cocktails and "nibbly bits" to line the stomach. There are plenty of bars and local spots with live music, and East Bay Street south of the market is chock full of places to drink, eat, and listen. 

The Gibbes Museum of Art is a nice choice for art enthusiasts, with mostly American pieces, many relating to the South and its history. Try a carriage ride from any one of several companies offering them, many leaving from North Market Street. They'll give you an overview of the city and its layout so you can check out points of interest later, on foot. Speaking of on foot -- which is, by the way, the best way to see much of Charleston's downtown -- the Waterfront Park (Vendue Range at Concord Street) is a lovely stretch along the Cooper River where you can meander on a waterside path, look out over Charleston Harbor, visit the two famous fountains including the iconic pineapple fountain, and take a break in a shaded swing looking out to the water. Head to the southern tip of the peninsula and take a stroll along The Battery, where the gorgeous homes of Charleston's elite overlook the convergence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. It's a great place to jog or walk a dog, or just soak in some southern spring sunshine. 

More delicious dishing on Charleston to come...

Mc Crady's
2 Unity Alley
(843) 577-0025
76 Queen Street
(843) 577-2500

Vendue Inn
19 Vendue Range
(843) 577-7970

The Griffon
18 Vendue Range 
(843) 723-1700

The Gin Joint
182 East Bay Street
(843) 577-6111

Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting Street
(843) 722-2706

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

QUICK BITE: Salmon with Mustard Cream Sauce

It's been a long winter. Yes, the understatement of the year. I'm writing now in New York City, where it's a cool 33 degrees and almost April. This makes everyone in the city a little stir-crazy, itching for the thaw of spring weather and fresh green anything. Personally, I've had it with "restorative" soups and stews, braised meats and root vegetables galore -- much as I love these items in the thick of winter's cold. So, what to make when the mercury says it's still winter but our hearts, minds, and palates are aching for spring? Salmon with mustard cream sauce is the perfect "bridge" dish between the seasons. 

We all know by now that salmon boasts lots of Omega-3 fatty acids and that it's one of the most healthful varieties of fish to consume. A tangy mustard-cream sauce is a classic accompaniment that really brightens the fish and cuts its strong flavor and richness with zing. Adding a bit of freshly chopped dill to the sauce is a classic herbal touch, though not necessary. Pairing the fish with some winter veggies -- we do have to clear out our fridges of beloved winter greens somehow, don't we? -- grounds the meal in the now while we look towards the coming spring with open arms (and full bellies!). Roasted beets, sauteed brocoletti (with plenty of garlic and chili pepper), and a long grain and wild rice combo are the perfect sides to make this a well-rounded dinner. A mix of color is the easiest way for you to create a balanced meal without much effort.
How to make the sauce? Simple. You can use the same pan you use to cook the salmon. First, heat some olive oil in a saute' pan (nonstick is best). Sprinkle the salmon fillet with plenty of salt, and place in the pan. Note: if you have the skin on the fillet, you can place it skin side down in the pan first, to crisp it up. Otherwise, put the top side down. Second, sear for 3-4 minutes on the first side so it releases from the pan easily. Flip, and cook on the other side for another 4 minutes or so. Salmon is best served medium-rare to medium (if you like it cooked through, you can place in a 350-degree oven to finish). Third, remove salmon fillet from pan, and pour about 1/2 cup heavy cream into the pan. Add 1-2 tablespoons of grainy dijon mustard, and gently whisk to mix completely. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Add salt to taste, and if you're adding chopped dill (chives or parsley work well, too), do that at the very end. Mix, taste for seasoning, and then  pour the sauce around the salmon fillet and any sides you like. Come spring, this salmon-and-sauce works extremely well with simple seared asparagus, as in the photo above. 

Enjoy, and here's to a tasty, soon-to-arrive SPRING!

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

First off, I must mention Valpo's impressive fireworks display. Until the last couple of years (when a certain Middle Eastern city decided theirs needed to be the biggest and brightest on the planet), Valpo's fireworks show was the most expansive and explosive in the world. After having seen it, frankly I'm not sure I'd want one larger or longer. At just under a half an hour, and done over the C-shaped bay that runs along the Pacific coast to several towns north, the fireworks display was synchronized so you could see the grand fireworks right in front of you as well as those in the distance, all themed the same with the same colors displaying at the same time: really something to behold. We celebrated at a restaurant/bar/music hall called La Piedra Feliz, right on the water in the Errázuriz neighborhood. 
It was probably the busiest area in the city that night, and knowing public transportation was sketchy for the holiday, forewarned was forearmed: we walked from our lovely apartment across town to the restaurant, and were able to see most of the waterfront area of Valpo in the process. Once we (finally!) arrived, we enjoyed a prix fixe dinner with plenty of champagne and pisco sours. We watched the fireworks out of the window of the restaurant on the second floor, and many locals were gathered on the street below us. Once we toasted to 2014, we wandered around the place -- live music and dancing were everywhere, but of course as a chef, I found my way to hanging out at the bar with the staff: our waiter and the Uruguayan chef, and some locals who were friendly and fun...and made sure we never saw the bottoms of our glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.

We were excited to eat the fresh seafood for which Chile is justly famous, so our dinner hours were spent seeking out great fish spots -- and of course for me, this trip was the "Cevichepalooza" I'd been craving, so I had it at every meal I could manage! At Oda Pacifico, we had the place practically to ourselves, and enjoyed the view out over the hills down to the water (it got windy and chilly the night we went, though it would normally be lovely to sit at a table outside on the back patio). Service here, as in most places we went, was slow but extremely warm, and our waiter advised us on what was fresh that evening. We started with a massive portion of mixed seafood ceviche with passion fruit -- two of my favorite things in the world, together in a big bowl! It was delicious, and perfect with our crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc.
Main courses couldn't live up to the ceviche, but I enjoyed a local specialty: conger eel, here grilled and served over a stew of tomatoes, corn, and peas, topped with peppery watercress. Jess had tilapia cooked in a banana leaf, with a coconut-laced sauce. Again, the portions were huge and we couldn't come close to finishing them, but we did manage to wash it all down with more vino blanco. We were on vacation, after all.

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

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

As for the food scene in
Viña? Again, seafood is king here, but the variety of dining options is greater. Chile has great primary ingredients, great wine, great pisco. But as for a native cuisine, its neighbor Peru is better known. Case in point? All the ceviches. Seviche, as it's usually written here, comes in so many varieties that it makes sense to go for a sampling of types. At Sazon Peruana, we indulged in the trio at left, which included an octopus seviche with aji amarillo, the spicy Peruvian yellow pepper, as the base. We had local white fish with sweet potato and choclo, the ubiquitous oversized corn kernels. And we had salmon and shrimp with leche de tigre (the citrus juice and spice base of most seviches) with red pepper. I could have bathed in the stuff. We enjoyed mixed grilled seafood atop a salad.
Jess had the seafood soup, a slightly spicy stew of local treats from the Pacific made more substantial with yellow potatoes. And I pushed the boat out, as it were, with a light-as-air fried seafood platter (shrimp, squid, Chilean sea bass) with yucca, tartar sauce, and salsa criolla -- a topping of thinly sliced red onion, cilantro, and fresh chile pepper. The meal at the Peruvian restaurant turned out to be one of the best meals of my trip to Chile!
In Valpo, we lived like locals, renting an apartment in a residential area with a gorgeous view of the entire city from our balcony. In Viña del Mar, we went touristy -- but sometimes, you need to splurge. 
The Sheraton Miramar is perched on a rocky curve of the coast, on the way into town, and it jettisons out into the bright blue-green Pacific. All glass-and-steel, with soaring ceilings, this location was clearly built to allow guests the greatest appreciation of the sea. The shot above was taken from our balcony: the seats to the left are outdoor restaurant tables, as scenic for a seaside lunch as they are in the evening for dinner and drinks, to view the sparkling lights of the bay surrounding you. The pool overlooking the sea is a dramatic spot for sunbathing, by water both salty and fresh. Attached, there is a wonderful spa and gym where you can work up a sweat and then relax with a massage or facial. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon in January!

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

La Piedra Feliz
Avenida Err 1054
+56 (32) 225.6788

Oda Pacifico
Condor 35
+56 (32) 223.8836

La Sebastiana
Ferrari 692
+56 (32) 225.6606

Avenida Marina 15
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 238.8600

Sazon Peruana
3 Norte 370 Esquina 3 1/2 Poniente
Viña del Mar
+56 (32) 319.1160

Friday, February 28, 2014

RECIPE: Mid-Winter Grain Salad

This has been one loooong winter for the United States, and it's been a freezing, incredibly snowy one for those of us in the Northeast. I've been cooking lots of soups, and will continue to do so, and to enjoy their warming comfort until I can no longer stand to ladle a spoon of hot broth to my lips (a word to Mother Nature: that day is coming soon!) And I love my seasonal winter foods and comfort meals -- stews, roasted meats, root veggies, a nice afternoon tea with accompanying biscuits. But to brighten up my winter repertoire, a seasonal mid-winter grain salad is just the thing to give my palate a much-needed lift.
To start: pick a grain. I chose bulgur wheat here, as it's inexpensive, nutritionally sound, and one of the many bags of grains I had on hand in my pantry. Bulgur wheat has already been parboiled and dried when we purchase it, so technically it doesn't need to be boiled again to be reconstituted. But one excellent trick I've learned over the years, to add flavor and zing to this grain and eventually the dishes in which it ends up, is to cook the bulgur in a juice that will add flavor and color to the grain when it's cooked. Here I use a beet-carrot-green apple-lemon freshly pressed juice to give the wheat character and a bright color, not to mention added nutritional value as the grain absorbs the juice.

A second element that makes this salad soar is its use of various textures. The grain itself is nutty, chewy. Most grains are. I add crunch with a small dice of celery and green apple. Ditto the pomegranate arils. A softness comes from the roasted cubed butternut squash. The third element is flavor. There's a great interplay between nutty (the grain) and vegetal (celery, parsley), sweet (the squash) and sour (pomegranate, apple). The vinaigrette, which contains rice vinegar as well as lemon juice, brightens everything with an acidic kick. The beauty is that the elements can be substituted and played with, according to what's on hand and what's in season -- and of course, what you like. 
I often add some red onion chopped finely, or shallot. I also sometimes add nuts for additional crunch, like pine nuts or chopped pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. And in spring and summer I add seasonal veggies and fruits, swapping out the butternut squash for zucchini or asparagus or cherry tomatoes, the pomegranate for summer berries or stone fruit. Parsley can be substituted by abundant summer basil, and so on. And the vinaigrette can be played with, so instead of rice vinegar, use white balsamic, or raspberry vinegar, or sherry vinegar. Use avocado oil, or try pumpkin seed oil with pumpkin seeds as the nut in the salad. Use your imagination! And enjoy a healthy grain salad, mid-winter or any time. 


1 cup bulgur wheat
2 1/2 cups beet-carrot-apple-lemon juice
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed into 1/2-inch dice
1 green apple, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup pomegranate arils
1/2 cup celery, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1/8 cup rice vinegar
1 TBSP. dijon mustard
2 TBSP. ponzu
1 TSP. lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

- Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F. Place the diced butternut squash on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil, and toss with hands to coat evenly.
- Roast the butternut squash in the oven, tossing occasionally to cook evenly, until browned and starting to caramelize on the outside, about 30-45 minutes depending on the power of your oven. Set aside to cool.
- In a pot, bring the bulgur wheat and juice to a boil and cook covered until fully absorbed, about 8 minutes.Dump in a bowl and set aside to cool.
- Whisk together rice vinegar, dijon, ponzu, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. In a slow stream, add the oil and whisk to emulsify. This is your vinaigrette.
- Once the bulgur and butternut squash cool, mix together in a bowl with the celery, pomegranate, green apple, and parsley. Toss to mix.
- Drizzle the vinaigrette on top and toss again to mix.

*This salad is delicious right away, but as it sits in its dressing, the flavor improves, making it another example of a dish that gets better with age.


Friday, February 21, 2014

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Il Santo Bevitore, Firenze, ITALY

In many ways, I feel romana (Roman) at heart. Like many Romans, I certainly adore eating out in the Eternal City, always a convivial and interesting social experience. But I cut my Italian denti (teeth) in Firenze (Florence, in English), as a college student studying abroad. And though I'm a huge supporter of all that Rome has to offer, sometimes I just have to go Tuscan. 

In comparing the restaurants on offer in the two cities, the overall dining scene in Firenze seems much more refined to me. I'm not discussing high-end restaurants, which are a category unto themselves. But for me, in the Tuscan capitol, the classic trattoria feels more cozy and inviting. The bars are more pleasant places to sip an espresso or grab a panino. And the mid-level restaurant's menu is more varied and accomplished, the staff more personable than the brusque Roman waiters and proprietors, the lighting a touch dimmer and more atmospheric. So it was no surprise to me that I found Il Santo Bevitore in my beloved Oltrarno section of town (the "other side" of the Arno River -- the slightly alternative side of town that most European cities have...think Left Bank in Paris or Trastevere in Rome). And I found it to be one of those exceptional mid-range spots for which Florence is renowned.

I've been to Il Santo Bevitore in smoldering summer weather, and I've been here in cold, wet winter. And though most Italian cities are preferable when you can soak in the sun by day and linger in the piazzas by night, I'll admit that I love Florence, and Tuscany in general, in the cooler months of the year. The food here is so hearty that being somewhere cozy and indoors, with dark wood furniture and candlelight and a warm hearth going (oftentimes used for searing enormous Tuscan steaks and slow-cooking cannellini beans), just feels right. Which is why I especially loved Il Santo Bevitore when I returned this January.
The place is sprawling, and hopping, and you're immediately greeted by a friendly face -- in fact, the restaurant is run by a young team of men and women who excel at warm service (another thing often missing in Rome). The place is usually packed, though waiting is never an unhappy circumstance as there are seats at the bar here, where you can sip a prosecco and watch the barmen slice prosciutto on the antique meat slicer, or you can nip out for a drink at the owners' enoteca next door. 

Once you're seated, you'll need some time to peruse the expansive menu, as there are lots of antipasti and "specialties" that can be eaten as starters or mains. In fact, cobbling together a meal here is a little different than at your classic trattoria, as the structure of antipasto-primo-secondo is a little more fluid. Basically, just select what tempts your palate, and the servers will help you navigate. The same could be said for the wine list, which offers the classics, plus a lot of lesser-known labels, and variations on a theme (the theme? Tuscan reds). Server suggestions are a great help, and you can find some unusual blends and interesting Super Tuscans along with the classic Chiantis. I always enjoy beginning a meal with a glass of prosecco or spumante, which opens up the palate and the appetite. Then, once I've selected the food I'll be eating, I select a wine that will compliment the courses, and not vice-versa. I've always found it strange when, in the States, servers ask you for your wine order right off the bat, before you've even had a chance to look at the cuisine on offer. Servers in Italy don't even normally take your wine order until you've had a chance to consider the menu. A really interesting food-wine pairing is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and opens you up to wines you may never have tried otherwise.

So, then, what to eat? Like most ristoranti in Italy, the menu here changes according to the season. There are Tuscan specialties aplenty, including a riff on the most ubiquitous antipasto in Tuscany: chicken liver crostini. Here, the chicken livers are whipped until smooth and formed into a luscious terrine, which is served warm in a fortified wine sauce, the aroma of rosemary wafting from the plate. Smear a bit on the accompanying brioche toast points for some of the best cool weather comfort food ever imagined. Here too, the classic Tuscan bread soups are on the menu: pappa al pomodoro in summer, when tomatoes are at their finest, and ribollita in winter, when Tuscan kale and hearty white beans add heft to the bread-thickened minestrone. Both are perfectly, classically delicious, and are improved with a glug of green Tuscan olive oil drizzled on top. 

The kitchen does, however, look to outside the region for inspiration, as well. To wit: a gorgeous plate of fresh riccioli pasta with a tomato-'nduja (spicy soft Calabrese sausage) sauce and shaved aged pecorino cheese. It's incredibly more-ish with its unctuous, stinging bite. Another specialty is the burrata -- a rich, cream-filled mozzarella from the southern Puglia region, here served on sauteed spinach (very Florentine) and drizzled with pesto (classically Ligurian).
And bringing various regions together on the plate is the summer offering of borage (a green vegetal herb) ravioli on a burrata sauce with marinated leeks, topped with shaved Sardinian bottarga (cured mullet roe). This dish is a wonderful balancing act of creamy, verdant, briny, and acidic -- and unlike anything you'd find in your average trattoria. Another interesting specialty is the vegetable tortino -- basically a crustless tart, somewhere between a souffle' and a vegetable frittata, done seasonally to highlight a single ingredient. This January it was a tortino di cardone, or cardoon tortino, which is just as Tuscan as it is Sicilian or Piemontese.The vegetable looks like a big, craggy stalk of celery, but tastes more like an artichoke (they're members of the same vegetable family). The tortino was topped with red wild lettuce and a  piece of frica (Friulian baked parmigiano crisp) to mirror the taste of the cheese fonduta sauce on which it sits, making this a perfect warming winter veggie dish.

Secondi include a "crispy" octopus on a puree' of celeriac and sunchokes, with hazelnuts and turnips. The octopus was not, in fact, crispy, and could have used some sauce to improve a dish that tended toward dry. But the elements themselves were tasty and the flavor combination quite interesting. Better, and certainly more Tuscan in feel, was the roasted duck leg.
Wild fowl and game and wild boar are what leap to mind when I reflect on great cool weather Tuscan food, and this duck dish fits the bill. It's braised and roasted and served with a jus with red wine added, and accompanied by a foie gras mousse and sweet-sour radicchio -- a great foil which cuts the richness of the dish. And of course, when all of these are accompanied by interesting wines paired well, the whole experience is elevated.

I'm always so stuffed after eating here that I can barely think about dessert. My theory, however, is that something rich and chocolate-y is always worth trying. If you have room and it's on the menu, try the chocolate mousse: I had it paired with avocado sauce and bruleed bananas on a recent visit. Often in Florence, however, I'll just go for a vin santo, the classic Tuscan dessert wine, amber in color and musty-sweet with notes of dried fruit and toasted nuts. The tradition in many places around town is to serve it with tozzetti, little almond biscotti, though I like the dessert wine on its own as well. It's the perfect way to cap off a great meal at a warm and inviting restaurant in the Oltrarno, this always-interesting and picturesque quarter of the lovely flower of a Renaissance city that is Firenze.

Via di Santo Spirito 64/66, Firenze, Italy
+39 055 211264
Open daily 12:30 - 2:30 pm, 7:30 - 11:00 pm (no lunch Sunday)