Tuesday, February 27, 2007

12 Eateries in 12 Months, Part I

Over the past twelve months, we have enjoyed a wide variety of dining experiences – from wine and cheese with Amy and Steven at The Point in Corona del Mar to Ben’s seafood boil on the back deck in Corolla, from champagne and gobelins at Le Bar du Plaza Athénée (near the Seine) to schnitzel and weisswurst in the basement of the Shawnee Presbyterian Church (near the Delaware). Actually, to be perfectly frank, the wife didn’t really "enjoy" that last one so much.

At any rate, along the way, we discovered a few new restaurants, and rediscovered some old favorites. Here’s 12 Eateries, more or less, in 12 Months:

  1. Last February, we were hanging out in Philadelphia for my birthday. We will always have a soft spot in our hearts for Davio’s, site of an early romantic evening for us, but on this particular trip we literally stumbled in from the freezing cold at Sotto Varalli. Located in Philly’s theater district, Sotto Varalli is comfortably intimate, with imaginatively prepared seafood and a side dish of live jazz. We shared some fresh shucked oysters and a couple of dirty martinis, and I had the whole fish of the day, roasted with fennel, tomatoes, celery leaves, Yukon potatoes, lemon and extra virgin olive oil. Topping it all off, for dessert – a couple of scoops of the extraordinary gelato made by nearby Capogiro, Philadelphia’s own gelato artisans. Try the Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut) or, for something a little edgier, the Lime Cilantro.
  2. We enjoyed a trip to London last May, for a friend’s wedding. The old cliché about London is that British food is terrible. Having lived there for a couple of years earlier in this decade, however, I can tell you that, cuisine-wise, London ain’t your father’s Old London anymore – the city now boasts some of the best restaurants in the world. We didn’t go out of our way to visit the justly-praised Terence Conran establishments, or Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, though. Instead, we chowed down more casually at Wagamama, the now-ubiquitous noodle bar that typifies the trickle-down effect of London’s explosion of cuisine. The Soho and Covent Garden locations were old haunts of mine, but this time the wife and I enjoyed lunch at the Tower Hill spot. Seating is family style, in a modernized echo of the best tradition of British chop houses, on long pine-and-aluminum bench tables, and the atmosphere is always bright, noisy and cheery. My long-standing favorite Wagamama dish is the Yaki Soba – “teppan-fried soba noodles with egg, chicken, shrimps, onions, green and red peppers, beansprouts and spring onions, garnished with black and white sesame seeds, fried shallots and red ginger” – with a bottle of Asahi Super Dry. The wife enjoyed the Seafood Ramen and some fancy fresh juice, while we shared some excellent gyoza. (Watch for two new Wagamama locations, the first in the U.S., opening in Boston later this year.)
  3. Osteria Basilico was a cramped but gregarious little gem we found in Notting Hill. Free yourself from all notions of personal space, embrace a spontaneous and lively sense of community with strangers, and you’ll do fine here. We spelunked our way through the narrow passages between the tiny, rustic dining tables to the antipasti buffet for starters, and it was definitely worth the trek: a tasty selection of cheeses, grilled vegetables, cured meats and olives, and insalata pomodoro. The entrees are hearty, pastoral Italian favorites, such as Ossobuco with Saffron Risotto, Homemade Tortelloni filled with spinach and ricotta and topped with tomato and fresh basil, and my choice for the evening, the Char-grilled Lamb Cutlets, with roasted vegetables and pine kernels. Add a couple of bottles of Barolo and a pair of good friends from Yorkshire, and you have yourself a great evening out.
  4. Paris offers tasty treats everywhere you look. For the mother of all splurges, however, on the recommendation of my wife's aunt we had to try Lasserre, on Avenue de Franklin Roosevelt, near the Champs-Elysees. With its gilt-trimmed décor and sober decorum, its almost pathologically attentive service, as well as in its classic menu and extraordinary wine cellar, Lasserre is the height of Old World French elegance. Opened in 1937 by Rene Lasserre, who passed away at age 93 only a few weeks before we visited, the restaurant was once an international celebrity haunt whose regulars included Dali, Malraux (who has a pigeon entrée there named in his honor), Audrey Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich; it has, in its old age, become a celebrity in and of itself. It was a drizzly evening in May when we were there, but the staff did us the favor of opening the retractable roof for a moment, giving us a peek at the clouds above Paris and a sense of what it must have been like to dine under the stars, with the stars, once upon a time. The old standbys – the duck a l’orange and so forth – can still be found on the menu, but hidden among them are updated surprises, such as the mouth-watering delicate Macaroni with foie gras and truffles, the Chablis-flavored oysters, and the Lemon-and-Ginger Côte deVeau. The wines are priced comparably to nights in a luxury hotel, but the good news is that the more you drink, the less you’ll worry about the bill when it’s all over.
  5. The wife spent more evenings out together in Washington, D.C. during our dating days than anywhere else, so we’ve developed a number of comfortable favorites there, including the Old Ebbitt Grill (the site of our post-wedding day brunch), Johnny’s Half Shell (in its old location in DuPont Circle) and Firefly. On one of our recent returns to D.C., however, we went with some good friends to a place that wasn’t even open when we were Capital regulars – Agraria, at Washington Harbour. Opened by the North Dakota Farmers Union in June “with the intent to promote and enable the American family farmer to capture a greater share of the food dollar,” the Washington Post called this restaurant a “culinary lobbying campaign,” situated on K Street as a constant reminder of the plight of the American family farmer. Don’t let the agricultural collective talk scare you away, though: the restaurant is beautifully appointed with an elegant minimalist design, and its Transcendental American fare is first-rate. We were there less than two months after it opened, a notoriously shaky time in the life of any restaurant, but we were willing to overlook minor gaps in service for the Cabbage Soup (with white beans, carrots and potatoes); the Beef Carpaccio (with arugula, parmesan, black pepper, olive oil and lemon); the grass-fed Rib-Eye Steak; the Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes; and the Scallops in bouillabaisse sauce with baby fennel. Desserts are mighty fine, too, including the Cocoanut Bread Pudding and Chocolate Terrine.
  6. In Las Vegas, of all places -- on the fringes of the great ringing and ch-ching-ing of the slots midway at Caesar’s Palace, a few paces away from all the chintzy plaid and glitter on the folks lining up to see Celine Dion in her Colosseum -- there is an unexpectedly refined and stylish eatery that gave us one of our most memorable dining experiences of the year, Bradley Ogden. Ogden, of course, has gained renown as a Bay Area chef-restaurateur, but his Las Vegas location truly seems to have knocked the establishment food critics for a loop; it was the only restaurant outside of New York to be nominated for the coveted James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award in 2003, and it beat ‘em all. The polished stone, glass and dark wooden beams of the sleek interior are evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemplative, organic Post-Prairie Style, which had the overall effect of spiritually transporting us far from the garish effrontery of the faux Roman motifs inside Caesar’s. The waiters, elegantly attired in gray suits and ties, are true professionals of the sort you rarely find in American restaurants. Our gentleman was extraordinarily well-informed about every facet of the restaurant, and a good listener, too; having quickly identified us as foodies, he gave us a tour of the kitchen at the end of the evening. And speaking of the food … it’s New American cuisine, upscale comfort food, meticulously presented for the eye as well as for the palate. We enjoyed a course of Oysters, unveiled in five imaginative tableaux; Farmer’s Market salad; Wood-fired Pork Loin; and to top it all off, an Apple Cobbler with custardy Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream.
See Part II.

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Blogger Erin Lee Gafill said...

This review of Nepenthe is really well written - clever, concise, and I wonder if you're right about the Miller influence on the salad. Tastes were simpler then. Erin

2:34 PM  

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