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RIVIERA by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: kampuchea by John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Planeta Brings Sicilian Wines New Respect
By John Mariani
The Harbor of Portofino
W hen British rock star Rod Stewart, 62, decided last spring to get married again—to a 36-year-old woman named Penny—he chose to hold the reception at the perfectly-named Hotel Splendido in Portofino, high above the rippling Ligurian coast. You may recall that one of Stewart’s big hits was “Some Guys Have All the Luck.”
He could hardly have chosen a more beautiful place on earth, for Portofino is one of those small hidden harbors full of Moby-Dick size yachts, above which hover piney, flower-dappled hills where Dolce and Gabbana and Giorgio Armani have homes. The Splendido itself (Salita Baratta 16; 0185-26-7801) is near the top of one of those hills, up a winding road that isolates it from everything surrounding and below it, and the hotel’s walls are lined with celebrity photos of everyone from Ingrid Bergman to Julie Christie who have secluded themselves there. (There is also a charming small hotel in the town associated with the Splendido, called Splendido Mare.)
To dine al fresco at the hotel’s La Terrazza restaurant (below) is just as glorious as everything else about the place. Certainly nothing improves the taste of food and wine more than salt sea air, and when that air is wafting over La Terrazza and the wine is a local Ligurian pigato, there is nothing to do but surrender to the romance of it all. The first thing to do here is to order one of bartender Antonio Beccalli's aperitifs made from white peaches, raspberry, and prosecco, which he has perfected over his 37 years at the Splendido.
As I was served an amuse of a fresh anchovy on toast and took my first sip of the pigato, I was immediately struck by the notion that drinking the wines of a region with the food of a region not only makes sense but imparts a greater appreciation of the local gastronomy. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but when in Liguria, feast on seafood from the Ligurian Sea and drink the wines made along this glorious coastal region, which extends from Lerici to the sprawling port of Genoa and up to the edge of Monaco and the French Riviera.
What followed that evening was very typical of the cooking of the area, culled from the sea and inland farms and based on the simple idea that good ingredients like langoustines, spiny lobster, branzino, orata, dorade, scampi, and San Pietro fish, along with fragrant olive oil, sweet pine nuts, bitter arugula, and, more than anything else, the most aromatic basil in the world, need nothing more than to interact. To manipulate such ingredients is to compromise them. (Dinner per person, with tax and service included, without wine, will run about 70 Euros.)
I spent several days in Portofino, which rightly claims itself the most fashionable and exclusive resort on the Riviera de Levante, its small harbor jammed with enormous yachts, its hills dotted with grand villas. No cars are allowed into the town’s center, so people stroll arm in arm on their way to the boutiques or to the tiny, rocky scallop-shaped beach fronted with chic restaurants like Chuflay (Via Roma 2; 0185-26-7802)--an Italian pronunciation of “Shoofly”). Here, just yards from the water (below) wealthy travelers come to sip bellinis, eat seafood, and savor crème brûlée flavored with the sweet Ligurian wine called sciacchetrà. They serve excellent crudi (raw fish) with Ligurian olive oil drizzled over it, and I loved the light but rich Ligurian goat's cheese from the Savonesi hills with a dressing of pureed olives. Gnocchi are made with vegetables, lobster, and fresh cherry tomatoes, and the mixed grill is the ideal way to sample the day's catch. I, of course, could not resist having another version of pesto, a sauce and condiment that is at the heart and soul of Ligurian cooking. (Dinner per person, with tax and service included, without wine, will run about 70 Euros.)
Take that perfume-like sweet basil, the pinenuts, some olive oil, and a little garlic, crush them in a mortar with some pecorino cheese, and you have pesto, used in a variety of dishes but so widely in pastas that it has become an obsession among Ligurians who will hotly debate for hours where and when the best basil is to be found. The Genoese dismiss the idea of hothouse basil (cultivated in Liguria since the 18th century), insisting that only the plants from surrounding communities like Pegli, Palmaro, and, in particular, Prà produce superior basil. Long before the tomato reached Italy from the New World, basil thoroughly infused Ligurian food culture.
Some fanatics refuse to eat pesto when the basil flags at summer’s end, though they may secretly pack the leaves in olive oil or make pots of the sauce then freeze it, because it would be difficult for them to hold out until spring without a taste of something than runs in their veins. It is said that basil should never be touched by metal, insisting that only a marble mortar and wooden pestle be used to crush the herb gently and to incorporate the ingredients into a vibrant green, creamy paste.
The classic pesto dish is trenette col pesto—thin fettuccine-like pasta coated with the pesto sauce to which are added boiled green beans and cubes of potatoes to give it more texture. Trofie are small, inch-long morsels of pasta, like gnocchi, also treated to pesto. The sauce is worked into risottos and is lavished on another lovely Ligurian dish made with thin, almost sheer pasta sheets called mandilli de saea (silk handkerchiefs). When Ligurians make lasagne, they don’t sandwich sheets of pasta with cheese and meat sauce and bake it; they merely layer sheets of boiled pasta with pesto. Pesto is also lavishly laced into a hearty vegetable soup called minestrone that is a specialty of the region.
One of Ligurians’ favorite non-pesto sauces is tocco de noxe, made with walnuts, breadcrumbs, ricotta, olive oil, and grated cheese, slowly and gently worked in a mortar. It is traditionally ladled onto pansôti (fat bellies), a ravioli-like pasta filled with herbs.
In the trattorias of Liguria you’ll find local specialties like the rich fish soup called ‘ciuppin, which lent its name to San Francisco’s similar dish cioppino. Bagnun is an intense, well-seasoned anchovy and tomato soup served with crusts of bread, and baccalà is salted cod that has been dried then refreshed in water before being turned into dozens of preparations, included as fried morsels.
of the best
places to try fritto misto (mixed
fry) of seafood is at the very
popular 60-year-old restaurant Da
(Mura delle Grazie 3r;
010-246-6475; left), whose very attentive,
impeccably dressed materfamilias is 95 years old! The fritto misto will
include whatever is freshest that day--sardines, squid, anchovies,
mullet, and other items. codfish fritters came with crisp-fried
vegetables, and paccheri pasta is stuffed with fresh tuna with a sauce
tomato, olives, and capers. Chef Roberto Cantatore's mandilli de saea at Da Rina was one
of the best I've had in Genoa. Sautéed ricciola (amberjack) in a
south of Genoa
you come to the Riviera de Levante region of Cinque Terre—five quaint
villages, each with its own character—and the fishing
villages-turned-resort towns of Portofino, Santa Margherita, Chiavari,
Camogli, and Rapallo. To
north of the city is the other
Riviera, with equally beautiful towns like Noli, Finale Ligure, Cervo,
San Remo, and Ventimiglia. The locals vie to paint their house facades
in bright colors of trompe l'oeuil, which was also a way for the
seafaring Ligurians to spot their homes on their way back.
NEW YORK CORNER
by John Mariani
78 Rivington Street(corner of Allen Street)
I don't know if New York is in for a slew of new noodle parlors--it's not as if the city hasn't long had plenty of them, in and out of Chinatown and Queens--but the overhyped success of David Chang's Momofuko enterprise in that genre has certainly made chefs and restaurateurs think about opening their own. Kampuchea on the bustling Lower East Side has been around since last year, and its popularity is based on all the right moves: The place is casual but snappy, the open kitchen allows you to see what's going on, the prices are right, and the service staff couldn't be nicer. It has also, wisely, dropped "noodle bar" from its name; indeed, while the noodle dishes are terrific, they are equally matched by the great sandwiches and other dishes.
The name is the Khmer word for Cambodia, and Chef Ratha Chau, whose parents emigrated to the U.S., is doing a great job of approximating the street food of that country, not just with noodle dishes but with a panoply of unusual dishes you won't easily find anywhere else in NYC. I have no experience with Cambodian fare--the only other NYC entry was South East Asian Cuisine, which closed--but I assume Chau, who is self taught, is paying his most sincere homage to the food of his home country.
The small restaurant has expansive windows on two sides, some communal tables, and seems to get as many families with kids in tow as it does LES denizens. Kids seem to take to this food readily: a lot is fried, most can be eaten with your fingers. And if you want to complain to anyone, Chau is standing just feet away in the kitchen.
It's an overly ambitious menu for such a small kitchen--18 small plates, 12 sandwiches, 5 crepes, and 11 soups, noodle dishes, and stews. But most of what I had was pulled off with panache, beginning with chilled rice vermicelli with grilled Berkshire pork, Chinese sausage, an egg over easy, shallots, and crushed peanuts. The cold noodles worked nicely with the warm pork and texture of the peanuts. I'm not a huge fan of monkfish liver, but the seared version at Kampuchea with a beef jus, macerated spiced pears, pickled daikons, and bush basil had enough extra flavors to work with the too-often-pungent liver.
Tamarind baby back ribs with cilantro and a lime dip was addictive, and at only $13 everybody at the table should get their own rather than fight over one plate. I do love sweetbreads, and Chau (with Scott Burnett left) does well by them, giving them a quick searing then bobbing them in a shiitake broth with an enoki-basil salad. Mussels, not too big, not too small, are not for th faint of palate--the spicy-sour broth packs a wallop, tamed by okra and tomatillos and sopped up with a crusty baguette.
Now, about those sandwiches: They are sensationally delicious, proving that something considered as lowly as a sandwich can rise to gastronomic heights if you just take care and use great ingredients, much the same as with a well-made pastrami on rye at Katz's Deli nearby. Have the num pang, a tasting of three of them, perhaps the coconut tiger shrimp with toasted coconut; the sweet pulled oxtail with tamarind-basil sauce; or the Hoisin sauce meatballs with tomato sauce. They are the kind of dishes that make you wish you lived right around the corner from Kampuchea.
We also noshed our way through a catfish crepe with ground peppercorn, honey-soy, and sesame seed; a grilled whole mackerel with chili sauce; and crispy pork belly with honey, scallions, and apple cider. And, oh yeah! The noodles: A hot, rich chicken broth with flat rice sticks, ground pork, duck confit, chicken breast, tiger shrimp, and herbs--a kind of kitchen sink dish that succeeds as much on complex flavors as on sheer bravado.
All of us really enjoyed the food at Kampuchea--as well as the signature cocktails like the mango caipirinha--but I think what I enjoyed most was in seeing the commitment and self-taught talent of Ratha Chau and his kitchen staff bring something new to New Yorkers who profess to have seen and tasted it all.
Kampuchea is open for lunch Fri.-Sun, for dinner daily. Small plates $6-$12, sandwiches and crepes $10-$17, large plates $15-$18.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
BRINGS SICILIAN WINES NEW RESPECT
Wine has been made in Sicily at least as early as the
Fifth Century B.C. but it’s taken about 2500 years to get it
right. Even 20 years ago Sicily was known mainly for Marsala and
dessert wines like Malvasia delle Lipari and Moscato di
Pantelleria, whereas many of the region’s cooperatives
deliberately overproduced wine to be distilled into alcohol allowed
under EU laws.
John Mariani's weekly wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis, and some of its articles play of the Saturday Bloomberg Radio and TV.
WHY ARE WE NOT SURPRISED?
Lollipops from - where else? - China have been recalled after metal fragments were found in at least two lollipops sold at central Florida stores.
WE ALWAYS THOUGHT 330 WOULD BE MORE THAN ENOUGH
660 Curries by Raghanan Iyer (Workman, $32.50).
April 30 The
Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce proudly presents the 11th
Annual BROOKLYN EATS™ at Abigail Kirsch at Stage 6
Steiner Studios, showcasing
On May 2, a “Five Star Night”
benefit the Alameda County Meals On Wheels, hosted by Narsai David, at
Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in
* On May 4,
six top female chefs from the Chicago area will prepare the 12th Annual
Girl Food Dinner at West Town Tavern.
Chef Susan Goss and Drew Goss, the restaurant's owners will donate all
proceeds to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Chefs participating
incl. Christine McCabe, Blue Plate; chef Jill Barron, Mana Food
Bar; chef Karen Armijo, Gary Comer Youth Center; chef Leah Caplan, The
Washington Hotel; and chef Nadia Tilkian, Maijean Restaurant. $150 pp.
Call 312- 666-6175; www.westtowntavern.com.
On May 7
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." To go to his blog click on the logo below:
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). Click on the logo below to go to the site.
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John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, Diversion., Forbestraveler.com, and Cowboys and Indians. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press), and other books below.
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