live blog: eating at windmills

What is there to do after church but eat?! Wandering downhill I noticed a few scattered cafe tables outside a windmill overlooking the sea. Thinking it might be the perfect spot to while away the sunset with a snack and a Metaxa – the savory Greek brandy that has quickly become a part of my evening routine – I was surprised to discover a makeshift restaurant behind the crumbling facade. The menu looked inviting, peppered with a handful of distinctive regional dishes, so I ordered a pitcher of wine and settled down for a somewhat breezy early evening dinner: fresh seagreen salad, briny and crisp and unlike anything I have ever tasted; dolmades and zucchini blossoms stuffed with rice; pan-fried lamb meatballs, or keftedes, with a healthy sprinkle of lemon juice; makarounes, the local pasta, served simply with fried onions and a few grates of a hard ewe’s milk cheese, was a minor miracle; and for dessert, loukamades, Greece’s answer to the beignet, drizzled in aromatic wildflower honey. Maybe it was all the sea air, maybe it was the atmosphere, or maybe there was some unexplained emotional connection I was having with eating food so basic and so closely connected to this island, this village even, but I devoured absolutely everything, as if I was consuming a culture and not just a meal. What else does it say that I left the taverna not feeling remotely full?

skewered and spit-roasted

Named after the symbol for the Santa Ana Pueblo, Corn Maiden is the fire-roasted restaurant at Hyatt Tamaya. Blending local Southwestern flavors with traditional tapas plates meant for sharing in an adobe-style home, chef Sam Reed incorporates native tradition into present day concepts beautifully with such starters as Crispy Quinoa Fritters with piquillo pepper coulis and razor-thin Buffalo Carpaccio dressed with shaved Reggiano and a chiffonade of basil. Skewered, spit-fired meats however are the specialty of the house and they, too, do not disappoint. Brought to the table on a sword, the house classic, k’uchininak’u, includes a fiery local chorizo, Fresno chile chicken, and a hunk of chile-rubbed heritage rib eye. A trio of sweet and savory sauces – mole, peach salsa, and a cactus chutney - sets off each of the individual meats, leaving barely any room for the accompanying potatoes au gratin, let alone any desert dessert.

top 100: telepan

As a long-term resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time turning up my nose at the dining options available on the other side of the park. For many years the Upper West Side was primarily the redoubt of cheap Chinese restaurants and hand-scrawled signs offering free box-wine with dinner. At a push there was Zabar’s. If you wanted a proper sit-down meal that didn’t involve a Kosher pickle you went downtown – or headed east. Reluctantly I’ll admit to having held on to this East-West bias for far too long. Times have indeed changed. The area surrounding Lincoln Center has blossomed and – dare I say? – makes my old ‘hood seem downright stodgy when it comes to fine dining. Case in point: Telepan. Earnest, honest, market-based cooking tucked into an unassuming side street brownstone – this is the type of restaurant you’d love to make your local if only the price points were as demure as the setting. There’s nothing outlandish or extravagant about the kitchen save Chef Bill Telepan’s devotion to seasonality. The homemade mozzarella is unlike any you’ve ever tasted: a shiny boletus cap that’s part cheese, part saltwater taffy. No workaday caprese, it is served atop peppery spring arugula and toasted green garlic with (appropriately enough) crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. A country pate “sandwich” arrives with house-made pickles, citrus chile vinaigrette and toasted triangles of brioche. Jumbo Maine sea scallops are seared to perfection. Cleverly presented on discs of fingerling potato, the toothsome mollusks are accompanied by the last of winter’s reliable veg, cauliflower and kohlrabi. A meaty filet of halibut replaced the advertised wild striped bass the other night because that’s what was fresh in the market. With wild mushrooms, spinach and sunchokes it made for a substantial entree. It’s at this point I was glad to have ordered a la carte and not done the recommended four-course tasting. While the cuisine might be nouvelle-inspired, the kitchen is clearly at the mercy of a Jewish mother who thinks you’ve gotten too skinny. Perhaps the coming spring menu will lighten things up a bit with a lithesome selection of shoots and leaves – I was hoping for the first ramps of the season myself –  but until then my best advice would be to pace yourself.  Because  the food is that good. And dessert is mostly worth saving room for. I would have loved a more significant (and less decorous) contribution of meringue in the Meyer lemon meringue pie, but the gooey puddle of sweet and tart – heightened by supremes of blood orange and grapefruit – made for a fragrantly pleasant palate cleanser. Wait, let me contradict myself: the pie crust and merengue were unnecessary. A big bowl of that custard topped with a sprig of mint would have enabled the less-than-sober scene of my licking a bowl in public. I have no such suggestions when it comes to the cheese board, however. Okay, maybe just one: there’s four pieces of cheese, Chef; please train your waitstaff to be able to identify which is which. That said, I can’t think of a finer quartet of artisanal cheeses outside of a Terence Brennan cave. The Smokey Blue out of Oregon’s Rogue River Creamery is alone worth the price of admission. Lightly smoked over hazelnut shells, it completely altered what I’d come to expect out of a traditional blue, like Roquefort or Fourme d’Ambert. At once pungently fecund and heady with smoke it tasted of the end of winter – and the burgeoning spring.

playing with fire

BlueFire Grill is by far one of highlights at La Costa. Under the assured hand of Chef de Cuisine, Greg Frey, the casually upmarket restaurant serves a more modern take on locally inspired cuisine –  emphasizing seafood and seasonality. Baja Ceviche is a standout, mixing halibut, stone crab, and persian cucumber in a carrot and citrus reduction. So, too, is the Fritto Misto, enlivened with a togarashi-flecked crust and smoked garlic remoulade. Pacific Chinook Salmon is as you’d expect: crisp-skinned and perfectly cooked. The addition of cauliflower sauce and a winter squash gratin turn the dish into the SoCal equivalent of comfort food – as perfect for a chilly January night as a favorite cashmere sweater. (Special diets are surprisingly well-served, too: almost half the menu is either vegan or vegetarian while nearly everything can be prepared gluten-free.) Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. A chocolate caramel creme fraiche tart is decadent and rich, while two scoops of blackberry Cabernet sorbet make for a refreshing end to the meal – as well as a clean finish on the palate.

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