Friday, June 26, 2015


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

Which is why it's so interesting that Yotam Ottolenghi has taken the food world by storm, by creating lush, interesting, abundantly-flavored salads and grain dishes and vegetarian-friendly fare (though not only) London, England, of all places.
It may be, though, because London's got the international audience and has been starved for market-fresh Mediterranean ingredients like Ottolenghi procures, that his eponymous cafes are such huge hits. Their success actually allowed him to open a couple of slightly more formal restaurants serving a more upscale, refined eastern Mediterranean Israeli cuisine, called NOPI. We enjoyed a delicious, multi-course dinner at the Soho location last month. I was, as expected, impressed.

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

We started with some nice homemade bread, and ordered cocktails immediately. My friend Helen had been sipping on a variation of one of the drinks on the list, doctored with vodka instead of tequila, and with plenty of passion fruit with seeds in the mix. (A plus: the bar was very accommodating). Once we placed our orders, the dishes started coming out when they were ready, bit by bit. First out? The courgette and manouri cheese fritters with cardamom yogurt were flavorful bites of Mediterranean vegetal, herb, and tangy flavors in one. It wasn't much of a wait before we were scarfing down rainbow chard with tenderstem broccoli and yuzu, as well. Of course, pretty much every time I see eggplant on a menu -- particularly when Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food is involved -- I need to order it. Here, it was a deliciously charred aubergine over a smear of almond yogurt (which seemed more like a miso, with its rich umami flavor), sprinkled with pickled chilis. It was fabulous. We continued with a plate of chickpeas, butternut squash, feta, and balsamic, a study in texture and sweet-savory-acidic-salty. We also enjoyed the hearty beef short ribs with a beer glaze and horseradish. We had scallops with apple, nettle, and lemon puree', and pork shoulder croquettes with kohlrabi, nashi pear, and basil mayonnaise. The classic simple staple on the menu is the chicken dish: a twice-cooked baby chicken, with lemon myrtle salt and chili sauce, in either a half or whole-chicken portion. We didn't have room for it, but I imagine it's perfectly cooked, seasoned, and balanced in flavor, with enough of a spicy bite to make it a standout. The beauty of the cooking here is the freshness, paired with an excellent, heightened sense of the interplay of texture, flavor, and elements of taste that the chefs employ. This, to me, is one of the most important skills in being a quality chef.

Sadly, we had no room for dessert. And that's a real shame, because pastry and "puddings" are a strong point of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, his partner. Next time, I'd go for something like the roast pineapple, macadamia nuts, lemongrass and coconut cream (Asian style) or stick with the strawberry mess, sumac, and rosewater (Middle Eastern fused with old English). We were able to finish up our cocktails and enjoy a trip or two to the over-the-top bathrooms downstairs: an Alice In Wonderland, hall-of-mirrors affair where they feel compelled to label the exit door handle. Don't leave the restaurant without a trip here!
And more good news: the restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, which are traditionally strong meals for Israelis, with elaborate spreads both savory and sweet. NOPI also features one of my favorite Israeli breakfast/brunch/lunch options: shakshuka, the egg and spicy tomato-pepper-onion dish of north African extraction that you find in every cafe worth its sumac in Tel Aviv. And much like I've done with Tel Aviv, I swear to return to NOPI and Ottolenghi's other restaurants. You should join me!


21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584

Friday, June 19, 2015

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.

Friday, June 12, 2015

RECIPE: Saltimbocca alla Romana

It's a classic Roman dish that never goes out of style, though there are many renditions of this cucina romana staple: saltimbocca alla romana. The name saltimbocca literally means "jumps in the mouth," which is what a great version of this dish should do, in terms of flavor. The elements are simple: great quality, super thinly-sliced veal scaloppine (though the dish works surprisingly well with chicken or turkey scaloppine as well -- just don't tell any Romans I said so!). Top-quality prosciutto. Fresh sage leaf. Local white wine. Good quality olive oil and butter, and a spritz of lemon and/or white wine vinegar. And that's it. No cheese, please. And for even cooking and simplicity's sake, I don't roll the scaloppine up. Flour is negotiable: coat the scaloppine in a light dusting of flour if you'd like a more pronounced crust to the meat and a slightly thicker sauce. But really, the beauty of the preparation is also its simplicity, like most great Italian dishes.


(4 servings)

4 large slices prosciutto, thinly sliced
4 large veal scallopes, about 3/4 lb. total weight
4 fresh sage leaves
AP flour for dusting (optional)
salt & pepper to taste
6 TBS. butter
2 TBS. olive oil
6 TBS. dry white wine
Juice of one lemon or 2 TBSP. white wine vinegar

-Place a slice of prosciutto over each veal slice, so it’s just slightly smaller than the piece of veal.

-Place a sage leaf in the middle of the prosciutto and secure with a wooden toothpick.

-Dredge in flour mixed with a bit of salt and pepper, if desired

-Heat 2 TBS. butter and 2 TBS. oil in a large skillet.

-When foam subsides, add the meat, prosciutto side down.

-Brown on both sides until golden.

 -Remove meat from pan and transfer to serving dish.

-Add wine to skillet, and stir to mix up the browned bits in the pan. Add lemon juice/vinegar here if desired.

-Turn up heat and let the sauce bubble for 1-3 minutes, to reduce to about 1/3 cup of liquid.

- Add the remaining 4 TBS. butter to the pan, a bit at a time, swirling to melt as you go.

-Taste and adjust seasoning, then place veal back in pan to heat through and glaze with sauce. Remove veal and place on a serving platter, pour sauce over meat, and serve.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

ESCAPES: Charleston, South Carolina, Part 2

And we're back in Charleston...back in the South, where the summer days are languid in this semi-tropical clime, and the only way to cool off is on a side porch or inside under a ceiling fan with a cool drink.

Hominy Grill is just about the best place in town to relax with a laid-back lunch, either on their cute outdoor patio, or inside under their white painted pressed-tin ceilings and aforementioned spinning ceiling fans, pictured at left. The blackboard specials are sure to entice, but of course one comes here to enjoy the southern staples of low-country cooking. Their version of shrimp and grits is a beautiful, simple thing: a bed of stone-ground creamy-white hominy, with plump gulf shrimp, crispy bacon, sauteed mushrooms, and scallions on top of the grits. Served with a lemon wedge to squeeze over top, this is the ultimate in southern comfort food. It's filling, but it doesn't overwhelm. Which is a good thing, since you can't order just one dish at Hominy Grill.
The boiled peanuts we got to munch on while waiting for our appetizers (yes, that's right) were so flavorful they practically defied culinary explanation. They were meaty, in the best sense of the word, and I'm guessing they were cooked in ham liquor -- the brothy goodness made with ham hocks in which collard greens are boiled in the southern kitchen.  They were unbelievable.
The picnic plate appetizer consisted of delicious southern ham, pimento cheese (another southern staple), pickled okra, and beet-pickled hard-boiled eggs, served with garlic toasts. It's a fun and eclectic selection of the various flavors of the region. Of course, the she-crab soup needed to be sampled, in all its sherry-laced glory. And one of the specials of the day happened to be cheese-stuffed jalapeno poppers -- here done one better than standard bar fare style, as the peppers were served with whipped sorghum butter, a rich, sweet counterpart to the spice and sharpness of the peppers and cheese stuffing.Delish. All of this was washed down with iced tea, of course, but I did feel it necessary to try one of the house cocktails, since so many of the ingredients used were local and terribly enticing. I selected the Blackberry Collins, which was refreshing and tart with a nice vodka kick. I had to reel myself in so I didn't start day drinking with multiples of this cocktail! But the indulgence continued, of course, with a special dessert of the day: a coconut pie with dark chocolate ganache, sort of a Mounds bar (love) in pie form. The ganache was super dark and rich, the coconut textured and just sweet enough, with an expertly-made pie crust that was thin, flaky, and fell on the savory side, which I love as a nice counterbalance to a sweet pie. It was topped with fresh, unsweetened whipped cream on top. I mean...come on! I left Hominy Grill a very happy camper. And full doesn't even begin to cover it.
Once you've had a filling lunch like that, you may want to find a hammock somewhere and nap (I wanted that desperately). But instead, your time might be better spent on a lovely carriage ride around town to see the sites around historic Charleston, from King Street on down to the Battery. You could also take a River Boat Cruise on the water down to Ft. Sumter, which is a relaxing and informative way to spend a few hours (some tours allow you to get off at the Fort, some just swing by the island on the water). You can go to the old slave market and museum, where America's slave trade was essentially headquartered. I know -- all of this is pretty hard to swallow, no pun intended. But as much as it all leaves a bad taste in your mouth (ahem), it's all part of America's history, and important to witness and to study. Even the beautiful houses that participate in the Charleston House Tours -- historically registered and restored, explained by well-versed tour guides, and lovingly kept up inside and out by gardeners and caretakers...sometimes I felt like paying money to see these things was contributing to the upholding of something sinister. But really, it's much better that these places remain, not just for their historical significance, but also for their aesthetic beauty and the current Charleston community that survives based heavily on its tourism appeal. Much as its history is checkered, there's no denying Charleston's present day charm. There are a few weeks a year when houses that are not usually open to the public, open their doors. The city tends to get crowded during these weeks, and hotel rooms can be hard to come by, so book ahead if you can. One house that is open to the public year round is the Nathaniel Russell House. Built in 1808, It's possibly the town's finest example of Federal-style architecture, with a free-flying staircase and beautiful garden.

And speaking of palatial digs, we spent the second half of our stay in Charleston at the gorgeous Charleston Place, in the middle of much of the city's center, with one side on King Street, the city's shopping epicenter and a hub of restaurants and bars. This grande dame was recently refurbished, and it shows. The huge lobby chandelier and sweeping staircases make for a dramatic entrance, and the rooftop indoor pool, gym, and outdoor lounge area give you a bird's-eye view of Charleston. One of the top restaurants in the city, Charleston Grill, is contained within the hotel, and many shops, if not in the hotel proper, are very nearby, as are so many restaurants and bars of note. The renovated rooms are spacious and beautiful, tranquil, with large marble bathrooms and a gigantic shower: a real treat.

We had one of our best meals the evening we moved to Charleston Place, at the nearby FIG, which had come highly recommended to me by colleagues in the food business and various culinary publications as well. I have a weakness for places with "fig" in their name, but in this case it's an acronym for "Food Is Good." Direct and to the point, you can't argue that. But it's deceptively simple for a menu seemingly straightforward, but executed with a sophisticated flair and a spot-on chef's palate. Our server was incredibly thorough in his explanations and well-versed in the preparation of the dishes, their ingredients, and the wine list as well. I started with a vegetable salad, a cornucopia of various fresh veggies of all colors, shapes, and sizes, bright and springy and left to taste the way they're supposed to taste -- everything from cauliflower and beans to French finger radishes and crisp peas. Refreshing. The hands-down best dish of the evening was one that The Big Guy ordered, and it was a rare occasion that I suffered order envy. The pork schnitzel over farro with spring peas was exactly what the English dub as "moreish": you want more and more of it. The delicate lettuce leaves on top and the peas kept their snap, as did the crunchy crust of the schnitzel itself, but the meat inside was juicy, the farro was nutty-toothsome, and the sauce was one the most flavorful kinds of savory, enriched jus I've ever tasted. I would like this dish right now, actually. All this is not to say that I didn't enjoy my dish, because I most definitely did: triggerfish (a local fish we saw all over the menus of Charleston, which is delicious) over broken rice grits -- that is, broken bits of rice grains cooked in the manner of grits, another thing you see on menus in these parts -- with a vibrant green sauce and broccoli. It was a delicious, light, springy dish, local. Tasty. But it was no schnitzel! The sides were delicious as well, and included a silky potato puree and earthy roasted beets with a vinegar kick. The portions don't look terribly huge, nor are they miniscule -- but they're actually much more filling and hearty than they look. By the time we leisurely made our way to dessert, we were absolutely stuffed. And yet. A chocolate almond cake with mint chocolate chip ice cream beckoned to the 9-year-old inside of me. The port tasting, to accompany the dessert, beckoned to the adult, real-time me. It was almost -- almost -- too much. But the richness of the chocolate cake was cut by the minty freshness of my favorite ice cream flavor. It was an excellent way to cap off a meal that exceeded expectations, even if those expectations were pretty high to begin with. 

Did I mention we were in town during March Madness? My alma mater's team was doing quite well in the tournament, something UVA had not experienced since I was in college (!) in the early-to-mid-nineties. So we were all very excited to be able to root for the Cavaliers once again. The ACC is quite a competitive group of schools, many of which are in the South, so we had our competition just to watch the UVA games in Charleston. But there were establishments that showed the game, and we found them. They were often the more casual joints around the city, serving burgers and beer, or fish and chips -- pubby, but still really focused on good quality food. The first place we viewed a game was a pub next door to our first hotel, The Vendue Inn, called The Griffon. It was a small place that felt authentically English, with a great beer selection and a big screen (literally. Not a TV. A big screen) showing the Virginia game, with lots of UVA fans mixed with local Carolinians rooting for their team. We were winning, but we got there late, so they'd stopped serving dinner fare. We hopped over to the Pearlz Oyster Bar around the corner off Meeting Street, as the kitchen is open late. They also indulged us and let us change the channel on the bar TV to the UVA game. We were happy with a great beer selection and some very legitimate fish and chips, as well, served in newspaper with homemade tartar sauce and all. The only drawback was that the 'chips' were American chips, potato chips. They were homemade though, so they get some points back.

The next memorable meal we enjoyed was a brunch at The Grocery, in a converted loft-like space off of Upper King Street. Again, this place features local ingredients, and since Southern style breakfasts are a strong suit in the low country repertoire, brunch offers numerous possibilities for this revamped local cuisine to shine. Examples? Take, for instance, the playful "Green Eggs and Ham": poached eggs rolled in parsley bread crumbs (hence the green), over smoked ham, on cornmeal-cheddar griddle cakes, drizzled with a mustard vinaigrette. Or, their upscale update of chicken and waffles: fried quail and french toast (made with thick country bread), with an orange-sorghum syrup. I wished there was more of it, as quail lacks the meaty quality of good fried chicken, but it was flavorful, with a nice batter, and of course the interplay of super-savory and sweet was there in all its glory. It's one of those places with a menu that begs you to try everything on it. Next trip, I'm eager to try their Hangtown Fry (fried oysters and green tomatoes with a  farm egg and bacon frittata, with remoulade) and the Duck Confit Hash with potatoes, apple, fennel, a soft egg and dijonnaise. I'd also like to return for dinner, especially at this time of year, when their Soft Shell Crab 3 Ways has my name written all over it. After brunch, one might head out to see a nearby plantation. Middleton Place is highly recommended for its gorgeous grounds and architecture, a short drive outside of Charleston proper.
There are several great cocktail spots in Charleston for aperitivi, or pre-dinner drinks. One of the best is the rooftop at the Market Pavilion Hotel. It's decidedly less formal than their old world, beautiful dining room downstairs. You take the elevator to the rooftop and get some gorgeous views at sunset, with an expansive cocktail list to boot. The rooftop at the Vendue Inn was, sadly, under renovation while we were in town and staying there ourselves, which was a real shame. But I hear it's fabulous, and our experience at the inn was great in general, so I'm sure the rooftop is an excellent spot.

Another game night, another sports-viewing-friendly establishment...but again, with some good food. We headed to the oddly-named Closed for Business, which was open for business and showed the UVA game. Their craft beer selection met the approval of The Big Guy, and we selected our beers according to our divergent tastes in brews...and with glass sizes to match our actual sizes! After this mellow game night on Upper King Street, we headed for a change of pace to Bin 152, on lower King Street near our hotel. Their wine list is long and varied, and the atmosphere is mellow and rustic. We could have shared a lovely cheese plate, but were too full to have been able to enjoy it, so we sipped our wine and reflected on our time in Charleston. I was happy to have finally made my first trip to this charming southern city, and swore it would not be our last. With a flight under 2 hours and a temperate semi-tropical climate, popping down to the palmetto state is a very enticing option. The food and drink? That's the icing on the cake.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Ave. (Canonboro)
(843) 937-0930

Mike Lata
232 Meeting Street
(843) 805-5900

The Griffon
18 Vendue Range
(843) 723-1700

Pearlz Oyster Bar
153 East Bay Street
(843) 577-5755

The Grocery
4 Cannon Street
(843) 302-8825

Rooftop at the Market Pavilion Hotel
225 E. Bay Street

Closed for Business
453 King Street
(843) 853-8466

Bin 152
152 King Street
(843) 577-7359 

Charleston Place
205 Meeting Street
(843) 722-4900

Nathaniel Russell House
51 Meeting Street (South of Broad)
(843) 724-8481