"Autumn Harvest, 2005" Photo by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
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One by John Mariani
CORNER: On the Lower East Side--Falai and Thor by John Mariani
London Now Part One
by John Mariani
To use the British vernacular, London is bloody expensive. Not as expensive as Paris--not by a long shot!--but still very expensive, owing as much to the pitiful weakness of the US dollar as to the simple fact that London is now a very, very wealthy city, with restaurants jammed every night of the week. Hotels are not quite so jammed, given that they depend more on tourists than locals, and there's no question that Americans have cut way back on visitations since 9/11 and the rise of the pound sterling.
Nevertheless, many London restaurateurs seem cognizant of the facts of life in 2005 and have tried hard to keep prices in line with what Americans are wont to pay for a good meal. Indeed, the most expensive restaurants in London--Le Gavroche and Gordon Ramsay--are more expensive than the most expensive in New York. But dinner at The Square, which I think is the finest restaurant in the city, will run you ₤25 ($45) at lunch and ₤60 ($109) and dinner, with a tasting menu at ₤75 ($136), Dinner at the very posh Greenhouse will run ₤28 ($50) and dinner ₤60 ($109) with tasting menus at ₤75 ($136) and ₤85 ($154). And at the always-packed Tom Aikens, lunch is priced at ₤29 ($53) with dinner at ₤60 ($109), with a tasting menu at ₤75 ($136). Note that al three charge the same competitive price for dinner--not by accident.
Two recent visits to London have shown me both the high and the not-quite-so-high of it all. But I was easily able to eat at very decent prices and had wonderful food. Lodgings, at least at the top places, will be expensive, for service and amenities go downhill fast (as everywhere in Europe) when you go below the top rung of hotels.
The Carlton Tower (One Cadogan Place; 011-44-(0)20-7235-1234; www.carltontower.com ) in Knightsbridge has a very good location in one of the most fashionable sections of London, right around the corner from Sloane Street, which is lined with haute upscale boutiques, and just steps from Harvey Nichols, Harrod's, and the V&A Museum. Across from the hotel's entrance is the lovely Gardens of Cadogan Place, where simply sitting in the autumn sun is a great pleasure.
There are 220 rooms here, with 59 suites (right), 10 with balconies, all modern in decor and well equipped, after a $17 million renovation, with a superb spa and pool on the ninth floor, with a grand view of London, and which has apparently seen the likes of Jude Law, Anna Kournikova, and Mary J, Blige come through.
One very decent amenity is the current option of paying your bill in pounds Sterling or US dollars, guaranteed until Dec. 31, at £234 (plus VAT), at $1.70 to the pound ($398). By the way, the Jumeirah Group that owns the Carlton also owns the smaller, more conservative Lowndes (21 Lowndes Street; 011-44-(0)20-7823-1234; www.lowndeshotel.com ) around the corner, favored by many Americans for its coziness and for its lower prices.
The one big demerit at the Carlton Tower is what it costs to use the hotel's internet connections--a distressing £18.50 ($32.50) for 24 hours, and whopping connection fees even to use your wireless laptop in the lobby.
There are two, disparate restaurants here, one, the traditional, very beautiful Rib Room & Oyster Bar (left), itself refurbished six years ago to a glittering polish and sheen, with an open kitchen, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. I drooped (nearly dropped) in for lunch after a red-eye flight from New York, so nothing could have made me happier than a menu of classic British cooking that included a roast rib of wonderful Aberdeen Angus beef ("from the Scottish Estate of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury"), served with Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, and horseradish. The blood rushed from the beef to my brain, then through the rest of my physiognomy. I highly recommend it as a restorative. There is also steak tartare on the menu, pan-fried scallops wrapped in ham with a tomato confit (Chef Simon Young's new signature dish), and calf's liver with crisp bacon, and red onion-- just the thing to restore a flagging Yank's spirit and demeanor.
Prices at dinner start at £6 for appetizers and £18 for main courses. In the morning there is a massive traditional English breakfast that consists of eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms, black pudding, and more.
One hundred-eighty degrees in the other direction is Pengelley's (164 Sloane Street; 20-7750-5000; click here), which is separately owned by Ian Pengelley (formerly of E&O) with London's busiest chef-entrepreneur, Gordan Ramsay, "playing a management role" in the enterprise. It has no association with the hotel except the use of its location, which was once a private club named Monty's. The food at Pengelley's has been dubbed "New Asian," which means there's some of this and that from all over the Pacific Rim, with a resident Tokyo sushi chef and a Thai wok chef.
It's a young, sexy place, all light and shadows, with distinct visual evocations of Hollywood movies that take place in mysterious cities of the Orient. It has slatted wood, terra cotta colors, and a long mural of half-nudes with their backs to you (thanks veddy much). The tables are covered, which is very welcome in casual restaurants these days, and the waitresses, many from eastern Europe, are also nicely covered, extremely attractive and knowledgeable. The wine list is well chosen to go with the spice in the food here.
This is a pick-and-choose menu, best if you're with several friends, so you can all enjoy the food family style, if you like, starting with an array of sushi perhaps, although these London prices can mount up fast this way, with two pieces of toro going for £11 ($19.30) and four of hamachi for £12 ($21).
Dim sum is a better choice for a cheaper evening, with good items like prawn dumplings and duck spring rolls scrumptious indeed. Tempura dishes are handled crisply and well, from soft-shell crab to mixed vegetables, and steamed halibut with black bean and chili would have been better if not so spicy as to attack the delicacy of the fish. I really liked the pork hock with chili vinegar, but lamb shank mussaman, while tasty, could have used more complexity in the seasonings.
You can spend pretty much whatever you wish to here, since the categories--"tempure," "steamed," "curries," "fried," and so on, range from £6.5 ($11.45) for vegetable tempura to a top of £18.5 ($32.50) for stir-fried scallops with asparagus and X.O. sauce.
Another nearby Asian option is the very well-received Amaya (Halkin Arcade,
The wine list, separated into categories like "Light, Bone Dry and Refreshing" and "Juicy, Fresh and Fruity," have been well chosen to go with spicy Indian food, although a good Indian beer goes just as well, and I can't quite get over my feelings that red wine really does nothing for this cuisine.
I more or less let the manager and waitress guide my meal, since they make the point that dishes arrive when they are ready. Thus, we began with lovely little lettuce parcels of minced chicken with coconut milk and mustard dressing--one of four soup or salad items that, for reasons unimaginable, have calories and fat grams listed with them. Whatever. The parcels were delicious, as was a spinach cake stuffed with sweet figs, tandoori-baked broccoli with a yogurt-tamarind sauce, and a black lentil dal. Spiced grilled eggplant, cooked very slowly, were excellent and addictively good, so vegetarians can have a field day here with many dishes.
Do not fail to order the Punjabi chicken wing "lollipops," with chili, lime, and cinnamon, or the King scallops in a green herb sauce, both wonderful. Also good was Masal lobster in a light dressing of spices, and lamb chops with more assertive flavors of ginger, lime, and coriander. Very, very luscious indeed was nalli barra, an Indian version of osso buco with a powerful chili sauce. The rice biryani with chicken was pleasant, though at £15 ($17.50) a bit pricey. My only real disappointment was the bread basket of three breads, none of them hot, all of them rather dry.
Desserts, including a crème brûlée that certainly reminded me of Indian kheer, was a good way to end an innovative and enlightening meal.
Many dishes at Amaya are available in small or large plates, and there are several very well-priced fixed price meals, from a lunch at £14 ($24.50 ) and an "introductory menu" for the whole table £25 ($43.85), to a vegan menu at £20 ($35).
Part Two of this London story will appear shortly.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
68 Clinton Street
107 Rivington Street
Those who fear the gentrification of the Lower East Side below Houston Street (there's an acronym in there somewhere) probably have nothing to worry about for years to come. The area, once a neighborhood of Ellis Island immigrants, mainly Jewish, who flocked to New York at the turn of the last century, is largely composed of dark, cramped six-story masonry blocks that epitomized tenement living, with four families to a story. Except for a few remaining synagogues, there is little to recommend the area's architecture, and for decades it had fallen into dangerous decrepitude.
As ever, restaurants become key elements in the revitalization of an old neighborhood, and the arrival a few years ago of 71 Clinton--star chef Wylie Dufresne's first, tiny restaurant down here-- had a marked effect in drawing others very quickly, including Alias, Chubo, Suba, Tenement, and the trendy Schiller's Liquor Bar. Dufresne Photo by Weegie himself moved up the block to open WD-50.
Two new places stand to make their mark with stylized panache and the kind of food that draws the indefatigable foodie, the curious, and those who need to be the first anywhere. This last group is always the most problematic because they move on so quickly to the next new thing, leaving the former newcomer to scramble for a regular clientele and locals who can afford to eat out in their own neighborhood. Prices, on the whole, tend to be cheaper than uptown, of course, and for some the funky charms of the neighborhood have their own graffiti-lettered appeal.
Falai is a well-lighted Italian storefront with a candlelighted alfresco dining area in the back. The 40-seat front room (right) is all white and vibrant, with tin ceiling and silk-screened walls, though pretty devoid of color and decor, save for an open kitchen area, while the 20-seat outside dining area (below) is pleasant in cool weather, but unfortunately surrounded by those old tenements, from which someone was tossing raw eggs into the restaurant space on the night I visited. Unfortunately, I was told by staff members, it's not the first time such incidents have occurred, and they cordially offered us a table inside, and several of New York's Finest came traipsing through to find the culprit. (I'm sure they've already got a crack SWAT team members on the job.) Otherwise, I had a lovely evening, with a menu created by owner Iacopo Falai, a Florentine trained at stellar ristoranti like Enoteca Pinchiorri and Michel Bras; he also served as pastry chef at Le Cirque 2000 before joining BREADTribeca as executive chef and is now busy opening his own bakery across the street from his restaurant. Given his background, the bread here is terrific.
Although the menu isn't particularly Tuscan, just about everything I sampled was very good, starting with fresh, sautéed shrimps wrapped in pancetta and served with a chickpea cream. Pastas are delicately rendered here, including delicious tortelli with goat's cheese and a novel apple compote and parmesan fonduta--lovely idea. What really raced my blood, however, were the spinach gnudi--little "naked" dumplings of ricotta served with a simple brown butter sauce--so good, my wife went home and made up a batch for the next night's dinner. Cernia (grouper) was nicely cooked, flaky and meaty, and chicken comes in a steaming ceramic pot, abundant with poultry morsels, cipollini, baby potatoes, and a good dose of herbs. For dessert a millefoglie (thousand layers) of pastry enclosed sweetened vanilla cream, while a "non-classico" warm polenta with milk froth and green tomato jam showed where Falai's truest talents lie.
The wine list is a one-page, two-sided collection of good regional Italian bottlings, ranging from a $27 La Parrina Ansonica 2003 to a $120 Le Macchiole Paleo 1999, with plenty of selections under $40.
Appetizers run a very reasonable $7-$10; pastas (full portions) $13-$15; main courses $16-$23. Dinner only.
Thor, only a month old, is a very different restaurant from just about anything else on the Lower East Side. With an expansive 22-foot glass ceiling (left) by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, Thor (not named after the Norse god of thunder and protector of agriculture but an acronym for The Hotel on Rivington in which it's located), has 100 seats and probably could fit in several more were it not for a very odd piece of spatial art (below) in the dining room that looks rather like a steely alien monolith has alighted here. I half expected Michael Rennie to emerge and anounce, "We come in peace, earthlings!"
The walls are done in a kind of '60s Op Art print that reminds me of fuzzy black-and-white TV test patterns of the period. The dark, clothless tables do not add light to the shadowy ambiance. Surprisingly, the noise level, up until we left at about 10 PM, was quite civilized.
As part of the hotel, Thor serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and owner Paul Stallings clearly intends the place to be attract a hip, downtown, late-night crowd, which lend itself to a reception that might be chilly at best and condescending at worst. Yet the staff at Thor couldn't be nicer, more cordial or sweeter, a good-looking bunch of well-dressed, wholesome young people, some of whom look like they just arrived after graduating this summer from the University of Kansas; others have that denizen-of-the-night look, but everyone's real friendly, including sommelier Aldo Sohm, whom I consulted with on the growing wine list here. Among the pages is his "Sommelier Discoveries," which include selections he believes are of "high quality and very interesting to the wine explorer," principally from Eastern Europe, including Slovenia and Slovakia; all well priced.
The drawing card in the kitchen at Thor is executive chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, an Austrian who is getting a little busy, maintaining the quality at his first restaurant, Wallsé, consulting for Café Sabarsky, and now overseeing Thor. Which is a lot of work for one chef.
The menu is drawn up under categories of "Cold Plates to Start," "Warm Plates in the Middle," "From the Market on the Side," "Hot Plates Fish" and "Meats," and "Sweet to Finish," which is straightforward enough. Among the first items, I enjoyed a salad of baby Romaine lettuce with a "one-hour" poached egg (surprisingly not overcooked), with saline white anchovies and crispy parmesan chips. A lovely white tomato mousse with a "rainbow" of heirloom tomatoes and opal basil was as delightful as it was pretty, and hamachi with avocado and more tomatoes in a spicy marinade was flawlessly delicate. Foie gras terrine with peaches and P.X. vinegar was on a par with many others in the city.
Warm starters include grilled shrimp on skewers with green tomatoes, pepper, and quark cheese "powder" (new to me), and wonderful ravioli with farmer's cheese, mint, and hazelnut butter. Potato gnocchi with a wild mushroom stew and prosciutto was an early fall dish, and there is a salmon lasagna with Riesling that begins to hint at Gutenbrunner's Austrian background (which guides the menu at Wallsé).
Getting to the entrees, I was quite happy with poached lobster that had the seasonal vegetable fava beans with the surprising, tangy-sweetness of cherries--good idea. Monkfish in a crisp potato crust was no more than pleasing, dotted with zucchini, tomatoes, and lemon thyme. I was so happy to see--and enjoy-- meat glazed calf's liver with apples and scallions, seared and with texture--not overcooked to shoe leather. So few restaurants offer calf's liver any more. Also very good was steamed duck with green asparagus and mustard seeds.
Pastry chef Pierre Reboul's witty desserts include a Concord grape soda float with ginger ice cream, a "Snickers bar" of very rich and buttery, faintly salted caramel with peanut, pistachio, and chocolate sorbet, and luscious passion fruit soufflé.
If I expected more of an eastern European slant or Scandiavinan slant at Thor, I was nonetheless quite happy with the modern, expansive menu here, and with prices for starters $7-$12 and main courses $18-$23 I thought I was getting more than my money's worth for an imaginative meal.
CAPTAIN AMERICA LIVES!
"The idea was to drive a cool car brought from Seattle, ripped on strong coffee and the smell of rain, and eat some salmon. The idea was to eat so much salmon, in fact, that driving would become difficult."--Sam Sifton, "Driving Upstream," The New York Times (July 10, 2005).
A LOST MONTY PYTHON ROUTINE?
Three people were treated for possible fractures and 18 for other injuries after London's cheese rolling competition, at which contestants ran down a 640-foot hill after a rolling 8-pound Gouda cheese. The contest was won by teenager Chris Anderson who said he would display, but not eat, the cheese in his cupboard.
KATRINA RELIEF EVENTS
* On Oct. 21 & 22, the management of Dupont Grille in DC will donate 100% of all sales from lunch and dinner to the Salvation Army's Hurricane Relief Fund. For the special weekend, Chef Duane Keller has developed a new menu items that will pay tribute to the flavors of the
* On Oct. 11 The Chefs Warehouse (Dairyland) will co-sponsor Hope and Hospitality, a dinner and auction to be held at Otto, in NYC to benefit hospitality workers displaced by Hurricane Katrina. $1,000 pp or $15,000 for a celebrity-hosted table of ten. Celebrity hosts include: Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali and Ruth Reichl. 212-674-2044 ext. 16 or visit www.hopeandhospitality.com
* On Nov. 9 the Club Chefs of
* On Oct. 10 Christian Wölffer and Winemaker Roman Roth will roll out the barrels at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in
* From Oct. 17-30, in honor of Breast Cancer awareness month and a clean environment, NYC's Candela Restaurant will feature a prix fixe menu, with a part of the proceeds raised will be donated to Nurture New York¹s Nature Inc. $32 pp. Call 212-254-1600.
* Tomasso Trattoria in
*On Oct. 17 Toast StarChefs.com's 10th Anniversary at The San Francisco Rising Stars Revue at Teatro ZinZanni Pier 29 on The Embarcadero. Tickets $100 in advance, $125 at the door; VIP tickets $150, in advance only Reserve today at www.starchefs.com/risingstars or by phone at 212-966-7575. Events include a 'How to Make It' Chef Panel’; “What's Hot? What's Not? Trends in Culinary Arts” “Career Fair”; Rising Stars Revue Gala;
* On Oct. 19 NYC's The Four Seasons restaurant will hold a dinner with the wines of Marchesi de'Frescobaldi, along with guest Chef Cesare Casella of Beppe and Maremma. $175 pp. Call 212-754-9494.
* On Oct. 20 & 21Wine Spectator hosts two evenings for wine lovers, with more than 250 wineries/chateaus from around the world pouring a great vintage highly rated by Wine Spectator. To be held at the NY Marriott Marquis Hotel. $250 per evening. Go to www.winespectator.com.* On Oct. 22 the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, will host barbecue experts from across the world at the 17th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue to compete for the prize of Jack Daniel’s Grand Champion and their share of more than $20,000 in cash and prizes. Admission is a voluntary donation to the Moore County Schools. Other festivities include a Country Dog Contest, Butt Bowling, and a Ladies Rolling Pin Toss, along with music, cloggers, and an Artisan Festival.
* From Oct. 21-23 NYC's Gourmet Institute will offer behind-the-scenes access to Gourmet magazine at its headquarters. The weekend will feature panel discussions; cooking demos, hands-on test kitchen experiences, food styling & photography; pastry and chocolate demonstrations, and wine & spirits tastings. $1,350 pp. incl. welcome gala at Gotham Hall, dinner at one of 4 NYC restaurants, 4 seminars/demos on Sat. & Sun., access to The Good Living Travel Pavilion, and breakfast and lunch on Sat. & Sun.
* On Oct. 22 at the Heathman Restaurant in Portland, OR, chefs of the Pacific Northwest and national culinary figures, incl. Alton Brown, host of Good Eats; Melissa Clark, author of the Chef, Interrupted; Lynne Rossetto Kasper from American Public Media’s The Splendid Table; and Monica Parcell, Senior Associate Editor at Bon Appétit Magazine, will join Geoff Latham, president of Nicky USA, to celebrate the best sustainably raised game and fowl, paired with Oregon wines at the 5th annual “Wild About Game & Wine Celebration.” Ten chefs will compete in a black-box cooking competition. Info at www.nickyusa.com.
* On Oct. 24 Chef Daniel Bruce will hold a “Meet the Winemaker” dinner at
* On Oct. 24, Cafe Spiaggia in Chicago will present the wines of the Movia Estate from Brda, Slovenia, with a vintage tasting followed by a 5-course dinner with current releases paired by sommelier Alfred Henry Bishop III and Movia Estate Owner and Winemaker Ales Kristancic. Pre-dinner tasting and dinner, $250 pp; dinner only, $125 pp. Call 312-280-3300.* On Oct. 26 Murphy’s restaurant in
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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