the new mexican gastronomy

IMG_2820When chef Enrique Olvera opened Pujol in Mexico City’s upscale Polanco neighborhood almost 14 years ago, the budget was so small that his wife had to paint the walls. Things have changed at what is now widely considered Mexico’s best restaurant, with its platoon of 27 cooks. The subtly lit interior is like a fine suit: understated and elegant. Service is hushed and artful – if just a bit quirky – so you can focus the food. One of the leading exponents of new Mexican gastronomy, Olvera is deeply immersed in his cultural legacy. Dried insects feature heavily, like in the elotitos tatemados, a take on Mexican street food: smoked baby corn glazed with coffee mayonnaise and dusted in salty ant powder. Brilliantly served in a hollowed out gourd, it’s an addictive umami snack. In a minimalist version of the salad course, acidity and herbal freshness are explored in foraged wild greens, pinon, and native seasonings. Olvera continuously re-invents traditional dishes and their presentation—you might not recognize something as a flauta, a taco, or a tamale, but with an artist’s flair for combining regional ingredients and modern techniques Olvera lays a foundation and builds on it to create something new. If Pujol is any indication of how sophisticated (yet wholly unpretentious) fine-dining in Mexico can be, I’m in for a whole lot of sensory overload.

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escamoles

escamolesOur perception of Mexican food has been blighted by years of overstuffed burritos, nacho pyramids, and a scourge of chimichangas and fajitas. Yet authentic Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous MesoAmerican staples like corn, squash, and chiles, influenced by the domesticated meats and cooking techniques of the (primarily) Spanish occupation. It’s one of the world’s great cuisines, holding it’s own against both France and China in my humble opinion. (Don’t believe me? Try your hand at making one of the complex regional moles.)  To a large degree that’s what part of this week in Mexico is about: tasting traditions old and new. Like escamoles, or ant larvae – a dish native to Central Mexico and considered a delicacy by the Aztecs. Insect caviar, if you will. As far as traditional foods go, it’s a lot better than it sounds. The light-colored eggs, harvested from the agave plant, resemble pine nuts and have a slightly nutty taste. Often pan-fried with butter and spices, escamoles can be found in tacos, eaten with chips and guacamole, or here at El Cardenal, turned into a no-pun-intended Spanish omelette.

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côté mas (in the kitchen with taïchi)

beef tatakiThe daily menu at Côté Mas is short, seasonal and mostly locally sourced. San Miguel cured ham is sliced to order on an antique slicing machine; Aveyron beef and lamb are cooked Mediterranean-style and served with garden vegetables; desserts, such as Ile Flottante, are all contemporary takes on French classics. The surprise comes in the subtle use of Asian ingredients, such as in tuna tataki, marinated with garden herbs and served with black radish, wasabi spaghetti, soy jelly and yuzu. The reasoning becomes clear as soon as you notice Taïchi Megurikami leading the kitchen. A Japanese chef at the helm has long been part of proprietor Jean-Claude Mas’ plan. “They will take something as inspiration and make it better,” he says. “They will create something sublime.” Like spheres of duck foie gras with very three distinct flavors: soy sauce, honey, and red mulled wine. Then again such an unorthodox approach to French cooking is in keeping with Mas’ attitude towards making wine, full of the spicy, new world aromas and flavors of the Languedoc.

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a word from our sponsor

jean paul masIn the interest of putting to rest the rumors that I’ve devolved into a wino, it’s high time I introduce you to the man who’s brought me to the south of France: Jean Claude Mas, owner and winemaker of Domaines Paul Mas, which comprises seven estates spread across the crus of the Languedoc – most of which I’ve by now had the chance to imbibe. Jean Claude is an ambassador of sorts for both his family owned estate and a unique concept called “le luxe rural,” or affordable, everyday luxury. There’s no pretense about him, just as there’s no pretense to his wines. And more importantly, Mas isn’t selling some imagined romantic notion a la Ralph Lauren, but bringing the best facets of the rural way of life center stage; made by hand and built on traditions that stretch back to his grandfather, who first farmed a small vineyard close to the estate.  It’s an intoxicating conceit because it smacks of authenticity, not just marketing savvy. Mas talks the talk, but he also lives the life: utilizing the local farms, promoting local craftsmen, pressing his own olive oil, commissioning local artists, even creating a line of clothing line based on provincial designs and textiles. Wine, it turns out, is but the tip of a far grander ambition: taking the ordinary out of the quotidian. Now that’s a life we all could live.

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the stir at la scene

IMG_2268Chef Stephanie le Quellec is causing quite the stir at La Scene, her debut Paris boite inside the newly reopened Hotel Prince des Galles on Avenue George V. The first female winner of Top Chef France, Quellec is no shrinking violet – neither while commanding her small staff in a pristine open plan kitchen, nor when it come to composing multi-textured, intensely flavored plates. (This is France after all: to be taken seriously as a upper-echelon female chef one must engage in a bit of bark as well as bite.) Embracing the farm-to-table ethos of her native Provence and the current trend for responsible sourcing, as well as employment of methode ancienne, Quellec has created a fine dining experience that’s altogether familiar yet radically new at once. Pearl oysters are simply opened, paired with a fragrant matcha foam, white beans and nori; blue lobster from Normandy is roasted and succulent, with chanterelle, juicy apricots, and a silky sauce of old mimolette; sweetbreads so inviting that I blanched and forget take a photo, supple and toothsome, paired with golden apples, white asparagus, and a mousseline of dates; parfait of verbena: crisply herbaceous, with cherry and fluffy egg white presented with an artistic flourish. The tablecloths at La Scene may be starched, but the food – generous and sensual – is most definitely not. Let’s hope Quellec is at the forefront of a new gastronomic trend. I’d call it the new nouveau.IMG_2272

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the elusive bresse chicken

bresse chickenBresse chicken is one of those seemingly mythological creatures I’ve long heard about it, but never seen (or eaten) myself, kind of like a unicorn. The great poets of gastronomy wax rhapsodic over the flesh of these particular birds, which are raised free-range in eastern France and have the distinction of being the first animals designated with an AOC, or appellation. While I would have loved to chance upon a whole roasted bird, I was still pleasantly surprised to find a version of it on the menu at Camelia, the courtyard garden at Mandarin Oriental, where I’ve been staying on the rue St. Honore. In the hands of Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx the plump breast of the bird is layered in a terrine with black truffle and foie gras de canard, surrounded by fruity girolle mushrooms in a savory jus. I never imagined a bird could stand up to the intense aroma of truffle or the pungent flavor of duck liver, but this poultry more than holds its own. Satisfying as an appetizer, it only serves to make me crave the full bird experience.

prelude to a kiss

IMG_2239Across the road from The French Laundry is what appears at first glance to be a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.

in the garden with cindy

IMG_2224Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eatery Mustard’s Grill celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows like Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give away everything here for free.

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sexiest mango ever

IMG_2145A rose is a rose is a rose, but a mango in any hands other than those of Empellon Cocina chef Alex Stupak wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet. The popular combo of mango, chili and fresh lime so often found hawked on street corners by machete-wielding Latin American women is upended by this chef into an ethereal, yet composed, plate of paper-thin ripe mango mounded into a pillow of sorts, dusted with chili powder, and accompanied by a bracing lime foam and dollops of chili sauce. But that’s not all: hidden beneath the fruity pillow – like a gift from the tooth fairy – is a peeky toe crab salad, which manages to elevate an elegant fruit plate into a savory-sweet appetizer that tickles every part of the tongue.

seafood, eat food

IMG_1971It’s a curious sensation sitting down to eat seafood at an aquarium. Yet when the setting is Monterey Bay Aquarium, the research center behind Seafood Watch, a consumer’s guide to responsible eating, and the chef is Cindy Pawlcyn, creative force behind Napa Valley institution Mustard’s Grill, you breathe a bit easier, knowing that everything on the menu will not only be locally sourced, but also sustainable. And delicious I might add. From house-cured olives, which arrive as a gift from the kitchen, to grilled artichoke grown in neighboring Castroville – artichoke capital of the world – the fresh flavor of the produce coming out of the Salinas Valley really shines through. Bodega Bay coon shrimp are a rare and tasty treat, perfectly suited to an old-fashioned get-your-hands-dirty shrimp boil. So, too, is wild-caught King Salmon, simply grilled and tasting like the sea. Dessert is an equal opportunity offender: olallieberries are a California curiosity; a hybrid, they taste like the liaison between a blackberry and a raspberry – and make for a delicious, warm tart. The tables at Cindy’s Waterfront each come with a pair of binoculars for the curious, as well as a guide to the wildlife on ample display in the bay. But don’t be fooled by the distraction, sea otters and cormorants are no match for what’s sitting on the plate in front of you.

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coon shrimpwild king salmon
olallisberry tart

liquid lunch, and then some

0U7G9103Remember when The Paramount was the slickest, chicest hotel in town? (I’ll forgive you if you don’t; it has been a while.) Along with Morgans it started the craze for the now ubiquitous design-forward, boutique hotel experience. The pioneer eventually became a victim of its own meteoric success as new hoteliers came on the scene and pushed the envelope even further. Good news to report, however: the theater district stalwart is in the middle of a 40-million dollar re-imagination. And while I can’t speak for the guest rooms – which were always disparaged for their lack of elbow room – or Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, which will reopen in fall 2013 after a 61-year hiatus, I can say that the Paramount Bar & Grill is a welcome return to stylish form. Dramatic lighting brings the restaurant to life and raised banquettes with a view of the restaurant set the stage for an intimate dinner. Or lunch. There’s an extensive wine list but it’s the craft cocktails that whet my whistle, most notably the Moscow Mule, a mix of Citron vodka, fresh lime and ginger, which – like a proper Mint Julep – comes in its own metal cup. The deceptively simple food from Executive Chef Jason Kallert – late of Le Cirque – is equally attentive to detail: classic American bar and grill cuisine with modern twists, like tuna tartare enlivened with curry, a perfectly dressed not-too-chopped chopped salad, and grilled whole branzino with old-style salsa verde atop roasted fennel. I was tempted to keep yesterday’s visit a secret; we wouldn’t want the crowd at the W Times Square up the block to spoil things for the rest of us. But sometimes a good thing is too good not to share.

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spring on a plate

IMG_1693Spring comes on a plate at Sweet Basil, in the heart of Vail village: quinoa and pecan “tabbouleh” and cornmeal dusted Rocky Mountain trout.  Who cares that the morning snow has now turned to rain?IMG_1699

top 100: gordon ramsay at the london

IMG_1444Gordon Ramsay‘s noxious, narcissistic television persona might put you in the mind that he’s more clown than chef, but the man and his various entrepreneurial gambles collectively boast an impressive 14 Michelin stars, considered by many to be the ultimate benchmark in the hospitality industry. (To wit, there are only four 3-star restaurants in all of the UK, one of which is Ramsay’s flagship.) The bad boy of British cooking might be an unbearable bore, but his cooking is the real deal – even if Gordo is rarely seen in any of his kitchens these days. His first, and so far only, foray into the hyper-competitive world of New York fine dining was greeted with bemused detachment when he arrived with yet another eponymous restaurant inside the former Rhiga Royal, newly christened as The London hotel. Who was this Glasgow footballer-turned-chef come to teach New Yorkers about French food, the foodie demimonde decried. The reception – to be kind – was cool. Yet despite the collective ennui of my neighbors, I must give Ramsay some props. As fine dining it’s all too pretentious, let’s just get that out of the way. The presentation may be classically – and meticulously – French but the complexity of flavor doesn’t always hit the mark. And neither does the suffocating ambiance, which feels more like a temple to Ramsay’s unmitigated ego than one dedicated to dining. But that doesn’t mean the food isn’t often delicious, because it is. The secret is counterintuitive to how Ramsay see himself: treat his dining room as a relatively casual pre or post theater dinner spot. Get there early or late and order off the prix-fixe menu; it’s fantastic and a relative bargain. The simpler the plate, the better, like a perfectly poached hen’s egg over artichokes and basil puree. Or crispy skate wing with roasted fennel. Ramsay is at his level best when he’s humble with his ingredients, proving that sometimes less really is more. Does anyone dare to try and tell that to the chef himself?

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top 100: torrisi italian specialties

torrisiBuzz can be a great thing for any restaurant that’s finding its sea legs, but it really puts the kibosh on the element of surprise. Since opening in the spring of 2010, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s homey Torrisi Italian Specialties has been greeted with the kind of lavish praise that has helped make it one of the tougher tables to procure in this city. (It doesn’t help matters that the slip of a dining room seats only about 20 diners at a time.) Which is why I found myself having dinner recently at the ungodly hour of 5:30pm. On a Saturday, no less. Naturally I arrived with expectations. In a city littered with half-assed Italian restaurants, the promise of something revisionist, or just plain properly executed, gets a man salivating quicker than you can say red sauce. I wanted to love Torrisi. Moreover, I wanted Torrisi to love me for loving them. But the feelings of Sunday supper evoked by storefront windows hung with lace-curtains and an elegant, old-school script end outside the door. Despite the kitschy charm of warm wood interiors set off by mismatched china, it’s business as usual inside. (Perhaps there is something to be said about the downside of success.) That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is delicious and lovingly executed – just imagine your good luck to have an Italian Grandma with a degree from culinary school – but the hipster wait staff is efficient to the point of being brusque, it not downright condescending. Feed the myth, Torrisi: where’s the old lady in her sauce-stained apron? The four-course tasting menu varies seasonally, and I expect now that spring has sprung the chefs will be taking full advantage of baby this and baby that, but I hope for your sake the warm, made-to-order mozzarella is a constant. A puddle of barely-set cheese, drizzled with olive oil, it’s like slurping primordial soup. Earthy, silky, and bubbling with the beginnings of fermentation, it’s intoxicating to say the least. Three more appetizers arrive in succession – you have no say in the matter – and while pleasing, they’re not nearly as hypnotic as the mozzarella: blackened tuna with eggplant; crisp, savory potato millefoglie; and oddest of all, a grilled Boar’s Head sandwich with pickles that reminds me of a concoction I might have dreamed up as a child. Fusilli in a dirty duck ragu is a toothsome pasta course, not nearly as rich or as heavy you might expect, but wholly satisfying. (And properly portioned, thank heaven – enough to sate, not stuff.) Both choices of entrée were winners: country pork muffaletta served with roasted and pickled variations of cauliflower, and monkfish in a zippy pepper marinara with shellfish. For dessert, it’s hard to pass up a rainbow cake, which, though not extravagant, provided just enough sweet to round off the meal in that particularly almond-flavored, Italian way. For the quality of the cooking Torrisi’s $75 set menu is a bargain, plus the wine list is equally reasonable. God knows I’ve had much lesser meals at three times the price. And for all my griping about sitting down to dinner before the sun sets, there was an upshot: I made it to Midtown for an 8pm curtain with nary a hitch.

made to order mozzarella

potato millefoglie

fusilli dirty duck ragu

country pork muffaletta

monkfish, pepper marinara

rainbow cake

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