Car" by Norman Rockwell (1946)
IN THIS ISSUE
MICHELIN ROAD TRIP, Part Two
By John A. Curtas
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
ITALIAN RED WINES OVERCLASSIFIED?
MICHELIN ROAD TRIP
By John A. Curtas
René and Maxime Meilleur at La Bouitte,
my travels, I try to toggle back and forth between
planning big deal meals in highly regarded
restaurants and just looking around and seeing
what gastronomic finds we can stumble upon.
Thankfully, France still makes this kind of
gastronomic touring very easy. Food may be a
passion in Italy, and a science in Germany, but in
France it's a religion.
LA MÈRE BRAZIER
12 Rue Royale, Lyon
Tel: 33 4 78 23 17 20
Lyon, the second largest city in France, sits on an island between two rivers, much like Manhattan. On one side is the Saône, and on the other, the Rhône. Both act like long wet refrigerators chilling all air passing over them. This is probably a welcome thing in August, but I’ll never know. For three days in Lyon, we froze our keisters off. What I do know is that our meal at La Mère Brazier warmed the cockles of my heart like no other.
The centerpiece was the classic poulet de Bresse demi-deuil—poached Bresse chicken "in half-mourning," a lavish preparation Larousse Gastronomique calls one of the most famous Lyonnaise dishes and mandates that the bird be of the highest quality and poached. The name comes from the dark meat and the truffles beneath the skin which give the appearance of a mourner's veil hiding her white skin.
If you've never had Bresse chicken, the bird itself is a revelation. The white meat has none of the bland stringiness that plagues American chicken, and the dark meat has a finish that lasts until next week. The dish is served in two courses—one festooned with black truffles (right), the other a rich, chicken-truffle soup under a puff pastry dome—and is so good it could justify a transatlantic flight.
I had thought long and hard
about whether to book a table here or at Paul
Bocuse. Both are old-fashioned restaurants (LMB
dates to 1923, PB has held 3 Michelin stars
since 1965), but too many chefs told me the food
at Bocuse is tired and metronomic, so I opted
for the older restaurant with one less star. I'm
glad I did, as there was nothing old-fashioned
about La Mère Brazier, except the building, the
intensive-care service and that beautiful bird.
3 Place Kléber, Lyon
33 4 78 89 57 68
a meal. Any meal. Especially when I'm traveling in
France. Ten years ago, we visited Pierre Orsi and
were thoroughly charmed by the place. A decade on,
the food tasted as dated as the pink and glass
décor. One dish dazzled us—a ravioli with foie
gras and black truffles—but the rest of our meal,
filet of sole drowned under noodles and cream,
tired, sauce-less lobster, and a forlorn piece of
turbot surrounded by a few peas and an indifferent
could’ve come from some pseudo-bistro in Bosnia.
Saint Marcel, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville
Tel: 33 4 79 08 96 77
After leaving Lyon, we made the spectacular two-hour drive due east to Les Trois Vallées (The Three Valleys) of the French Alps to La Bouitte (“Little House”) for a three-star “worth a special journey” dinner from the stoves of René and Maxime Meilleur. In a perfect world, this would have been our first ‘big deal’ meal of the trip, not our last. As it was, dinner came after a week of eating and drinking among the Burgundy stars. When that happens, sometimes you hit the wall. And by "hit the wall" I mean you experience what the French call la crise de foie (liver crisis), when hunger is the last thing on your mind.
Having been through these Michelin-starred rodeos before, my digestive system is well acquainted with this temporary malady, and the best one can hope for is a quick recovery after skipping a meal or two. Thus we ate our three-course dinner at La Bouitte (more like eight courses when all the extras are factored in) but weren't hungry for any of it in the least. It is a testament to the cooking of the Meilleurs that the food was more than memorable, despite our condition.
The father/son team features the elevated cooking of the Savoyard, an area rich in pastures, lakes and rivers, and renowned for its fresh water fish. The Haute-Savoie borders Switzerland and northern Italy, and its cheeses and potatoes are just as sought after as its fish. Giving this hearty mountain fair a sophisticated spin is what La Bouitte is all about, and, after a stunning trio of oyster, codfish and foie gras appetizers, the raclette soup we had to start the meal was light on the tongue yet dense in flavor, as if the Meilleurs have solved the riddle of how to capture the essence of raclette without the weightiness. Modernist this cuisine is not, but this particular bit of alchemy produced a cheese soup I’m still dreaming about.
Maxime started cooking with his father in 1996, and in 2003 they received their first Michelin star. The second arrived in 2008, and the pinnacle was reached in 2015, making La Bouitte the first restaurant in the Savoy to gain the distinction. (These days Michelin tosses out multiple stars to restaurants in New York and Tokyo open less than a year!)
Many of the dishes pay homage to the bounty of the area, but definitely reflect a 21st century sensibility, as when caviar is showered with a bracing cauliflower "snow" (right) or when small bits of fresh pasta are perfumed by cheese, local mushrooms and wild sorrel and bound by Beaufort cheese, "like a risotto." More satisfying winter fare you will never find.
Just as striking were the omble chevalier (Arctic char) and the lake trout "bleu”—both revelations in the beauty of the local waters. The flavors were pure, simple and direct, as if the fish had jumped out of the stream and onto your plate. Every bite was a testament to confident chefs who know they are working with supreme raw ingredients and only want to make them shine.
As good as these were, it was the mélange of warm, Savoie root vegetables (above) that had us fighting over every bite—proof once again that great chefs are the best vegetarian cooks. It was as much a delight to the eye as it was to taste, and helped revive my flagging appetite all by itself.
Unfortunately, an artistic display of just-picked produce can only go so far to restore a worn-out liver, so, for the first time in twenty-five years, I did something unthinkable in a French restaurant in France: I skipped the cheese course. To repeat, I skipped the cheese course. In a Michelin-starred restaurant. In France. Right smack dab in the middle of the best cows' milk cheeses in the world. No Tomme de Savoie, Beaufort, Reblochon, Gruyère or Comté would pass our lips this night. Au revoir to any Tamié, Vacherin du Haut Doubs, Tomme des Bauges or Chevrotin. "Quelle horreur!" we could hear Julia Child crying from her grave. But I simply could not stomach another bite.
Everything about La Bouitte—the room in a rustic Relais & Chateau style, the staff, the spa, the dinner and the breakfast—was impeccable. We can't wait to return, next time with a big appetite.
AUBERGE DU ROSELET
182 Route d'Annecy, Duingt
Tel: 33 4 50 68 67 19
We stumbled upon Auberge du Roselet as we were driving to Lausanne, Switzerland. The sign said "Spécialties des Poissons," so we took the bait and walked in, not knowing what to expect. What appeared was a surprising treat, and the kind of out-of-the-way, knock-your-socks-off meal that only exists in France. The welcome was warm and cordial; the tables were dressed with thick linens, and the menu was the prettiest and heaviest I've ever seen. So pretty was it that we begged to take one; they said no. Then we offered to pay for one; they said "non, merci." Finally, we contemplated stealing it. But the food was so good, the view so stunning, and the staff so nice, we demurred.
Our appetite restored, we feasted on delicately smoked ham, beautiful salmon fumé and, finally, a whole, gorgeous fish, swimming in butter. All of it from a modest little place on the side of a road, on a country drive along a lake. Amazing, but seemingly par for the course in this part of the world; it was proof once again that some of the most delicious finds occur when you quit reaching for stars and let your curiosity take over.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
240 West 56th Street (near Eighth Avenue)
NYC is not rife with elegantly appointed Indian restaurants, but it teems with more modest ones offering both high quality and very good value. Indeed, Indian cuisine is one of those that most people assume will always cost less than others, like Italian restaurants charging $30 for pastas and Mexican restaurants charging $125 for wagyu fajitas.
For a while now Benares has occupied a space in the Theater District (with a newer branch in TriBeCa) on a Restaurant Row that includes two other Indian restaurants along with the venerable Italian-American Patsy’s two doors down. Owner Inda Singh (formerly at Devi), Executive Chef Peter Beck and Chef Qutub Singh Negi are featuring northern Indian food, but, like so many competitors’ the Benares menu is very, very long with standard regional dishes that range from Goan lamb vindaloo to Kozhi Varutha curry.
Benares (also called Vanarsi) is said to be the oldest continually occupied city in the world, or, as Mark Twain quipped, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” As a pilgrimage city, it naturally drew the culinary influences of other countries to it, as evidenced on the Benares menu that features a dozen appetizers, vegetarian dishes, seafood, goat and lamb. The food tends to be a little lighter than at some Indian restaurants around town, which makes it a good choice in hot, muggy weather.
Our party of four chose from all over the menu, beginning with classic samosa, triangle turnovers stuffed with potatoes, cumin coriander, ginger and mango powder ($8); the pastry was fine and crispy and the seasonings provided layers of flavor. Bhel puri ($8) are puffy rice crisps with chopped onions, potatoes, the interesting addition of avocado and corn kernels, all tossed with sweet-sour chutney. Lahsooni gobi shows a Chinese influence in a dish of cauliflower marinated in tomato, garlic and green chili sauce ($9), while chicken tikka as a starter were tender grilled morsels of chicken richly marinated in yogurt and spices ($12). You may also have chicken tikka masala as a main course, simmered in fenugreek-scented plum tomato sauce ($16).
Among the main courses I certainly recommend the aamiya jhinga jumbo prawns marinated in mango, chili, rice vinegar and ginger (below), then plucked out after mere seconds in the tandoori oven, sizzling and smoky but very moist, too ($22). Rare is the Indian restaurant that doesn’t serve lamb vindaloo, though so often it is cooked into gray shards of tasteless meat; at Benares it comes juicy and suffused with vinegar, hot chilies and spices ($17)—hot but not incendiary on the palate.
Whether you are a vegetarian or not, you will find a dish of baby eggplant simmered in coconut, peanut, curry leaves and topped with stuffed peppers, a dish named baingan mirch ka salan ($13), riddled with contrasts of flavor and texture. Paneer-style dishes, made with Indian cottage cheese, are extremely popular in Benares, here cooked with spinach and tempered with cumin, ginger and garlic ($14). You’ll need to order a rice dish because none of the entrees come with rice, and I loved the jeera basmati version so aromatic with cumin ($7).
The breads are always a stand-out in northern India, so the garlic naan ($4) is irresistible, and the balloon-like poori ($4), often oily, is greaseless and crisp to the touch, deflating dramatically and releasing wonderful yeasty perfume into the air.
Desserts (left) run from the traditional rasmali cottage cheese dumplings in rich coconut milk ($5) to the rarely seen shahi dawat, a creamy carrot pudding served on saffron bread and topped with raspberry and a nut-rich rabri sauce ($6).
The midtown Benares is comfortable, if not particularly impressive in its décor (the downtown branch is more modern), with copies of paintings of India from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum printed on aluminum.
The extremely affable manager, Ranbir Bhatia, runs a tight ship, so that the timing of the courses’ arrival is down pat. There is a wine list and the usual Indian beers, but the cocktails are clumsily made and not worth the effort to wait for them.
Frankly, I have not tried the other Indian restaurants along 56th Street, but in the future Benares will be my standard by which to judge them.
Benares is open
daily for lunch and dinner
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
ARE ITALIAN RED WINES OVERCLASSIFIED?❖❖❖
A Somewhat Irreverent Look at the Situation in Tuscany
By Geoff Kalish
so I understand the DOCG, DOC, IGT and VdT
classifications of Italian wines. For those not
familiar with these classifications, my
interpretation -- which may cause protest among
iconoclastic Italian imbibers -- is as follows:
In the 1960s a group of government
officials set out to somewhat emulate the French
d’origine contrôlée) categorization by
developing a classification specific for Italian
All this led to the apocryphal story being told of a winemaker in the early 1970s lying on his deathbed with his three sons pleading for him to tell them his secrets of winemaking, and with his last breath says, “Sons, it can also be made from grapes.”
So the government, looking to rectify the situation, and perhaps add a few jobs to the public roles, created the DOCG (Denominizaione di Origine Controllata Guarantita). This classification means that the government guarantees that the grapes that are in the wine are from the area the label proclaims and that the wine was made by the strictest rules of that area and that government agents have tasted the wine and have documented its quality. And, so there’s no hanky-panky, the wine is then immediately sealed in the presence of some official with a number on the seal that’s across the closure.
what about wines that don’t fit into either of
these categories? Well, there’s two more vague
classifications, the IGT (Indicazione
Geografica Tipica), meaning that the wine is
merely typical of wines made in the area in which
it’s made. And the VdT (Vino da
Tavola), which merely means that the wine
was made in Italy and should be consumed as “table
wine,” although many of these wines are often sold
“under the table,” to avoid taxation.
So how does the consumer of wines from Tuscany know what they’re getting in terms of price for quality? The best advice I can offer is to heed the counsel of your local retail shop owner or manager or trust the recommendations of a respected wine critic (generally one who writes for an “edited” publication, who does not have an axe to grind, and has been to the areas he or she is writing about). And remember, it doesn’t have to be expensive to be good and try any selection not only alone but with food, as many Italian wines, especially from Tuscany, taste very different with the right fare.
Finally, from the results of a number of recent tastings, the following half dozen bottles are some suggestions for some sensibly priced Tuscan wines widely available on the market (independent of their varietals and classification).
2013 Tenuta di Trinoro “Le Cupole” Toscana Rosso ($32)
This blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot – fermented in stainless steel vats and aged in oak barrels and cement tanks -- shows a bouquet and taste of cassis and ripe cherries with hints of cinnamon and dark chocolate in its finish. It makes a great match for grilled lamb or veal.
2013 Petrolo Torrione ($26)
This fruity wine is fashioned from a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented primarily in oak (with a small portion fermented in cement) and aged entirely in oak for 15 months. It has a lush flavor of ripe blackberries and cherries with a hint of cassis in its vibrant finish. It makes a good mate for grilled ribs, blue-veined cheeses and even grilled tuna steaks. (Note: Based on tasting older vintages of this wine, this vintage should be expected to improve over the next 5 to 6 years, developing aromas of violets and notes of earthy herbs in its taste.)
2014 Luce della Vite Lucente ($20)
A blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Sangiovese, this wine provides a fruity bouquet of strawberries and ripe cherries, with a smooth well-integrated taste of fruit and oak and a memorable finish that matches well with grilled duck, barbecued chicken and salmon. (Note: For the bouquet and taste of this wine to reach its peak, it should be decanted and exposed to air for an hour or two before serving.)
2013 Castello Banfi Excelsus Sant’ Antimo ($44)
Made from a blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine has aesthetics more reminiscent of a top-tier Bordeaux than a ‘Tuscan red table wine.’ With a bouquet and bold taste of cassis and ripe plums it’s perfect to pair with grilled steak, pork chops or baby-back ribs. And -- based on experience with other vintages -- with a few years of aging it should be quite indistinguishable from a premium red Bordeaux.
2013 Conte Guicciardini Il Cortile di Castello di Poppiano Chianti ($20)
This wine is an excellent example of what a well-made, modern-day Chianti can be –- showing a fragrant bouquet and mouth-filling taste of ripe plums, cherries and strawberries, well integrated with oak and a bit of acidity and tannin in its elegant finish. It mates well with most fare, especially red-sauce pasta, pizza and grilled flank steak Also, expect this wine from Colli Fiorantini to improve with 5 to 6 years of age, some of its fruity flavors muted with a taste of exotic herbs emerging.
Better known as the producer of
legendary “Super Tuscan” Sassicaia, this winery
uses a Bordeaux-like blend (60% Cabernet
Sauvignon, 40% Merlot) to make this oak-aged quite
a worthy “second wine.” It shows a bouquet and
taste of ripe cherries and cassis with
well-integrated notes of spice and a touch of
tannin in its finish. Mate it with grilled meats,
especially veal chops, as well as flavorful
cheeses like cheddar and Jarlsberg.
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Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
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