half the fun of lobster is in the tools

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live blog: docked in katapola

We are anchored in Katapola, the main port of Amorgos, which is hidden in a dramatic bay on the most verdant part of the island. The dockside is lined with a dozen or so small, family run tavernas, whereupon late last evening after a relatively inactive afternoon in Chora I availed myself of a massive platter of spaghetti with day boat lobster accompanied by a pitcher of local red wine. So entranced was I by the mountain of pasta and shellfish –  barely coated in a light sauce of tomato and garlic – that in my haste to dive in I neglected to memorialize it with the camera. What remained at the end of this delicious exercise in excess, however, left little to the imagination: empty plates, empty shells, and one very full belly ready for sweet sleep.

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chippie les routiers

Since it was first seen in Paris in 1935, the famous blue-and-red Les Routiers symbol has traditionally identified restaurants and bars of individual character – mainly owner managed – offering excellent food and good value for money. In an age of uniformity, fast food and charmless chains, the members of Les Routiers are not only passionate about what they do, they are the best of their kind, too, whether it is a small cafe serving exceptional sandwiches or a table d’hote laid out with silver and fine china in a luxe hotel or a food truck parked at the side of the road. Tobermory is lucky to have all of these options within easy reach, but it’s the last one that keeps drawing me back. Situated at the head of the pier in the exact center of town, Fisherman’s Pier chippie gets its fish and shellfish from the boats as they return each afternoon, so whatever’s the catch of the day is what you’ll find battered alongside handcut chips that evening, be it haddock, pollack, scrod, scallops or lobsters. (The cod is lovely, too, but there’s no way it’s come off a lone dayboat.) In this rare stretch of sunny Scottish weather, it’s a most pleasant meal and at 7 pounds, a fair bargain, too. Feet dangling off the end of the dock, the only thing I’d add would be a chilled glass of rose to take the edge off the setting sun.

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top 100: le cirque

If you don’t believe it possible that any single establishment could embody the look, attitude, and (un)consciousness of an era, look no further than Le Cirque. In the go-go 1980’s Sirio Maccioni’s restaurant at the Mayfair Hotel was where the elite came to meet and eat. On any given evening you might find the Nancy’s (Reagan, Sinatra, and Kissinger, if you have to ask) cheek by jowl on a red leather banquette alongside European royalty, assorted movie stars, Jackie O, and an editor or two from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair furiously scribbling it all down. It wasn’t, however, solely about the intermingling of the power elite – it was also about the food. David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Jacques Torres, Sottha Khun, Bill Telepan, and Geoffrey Zakarian all spent quality time in the kitchen at Le Cirque. And it should be remembered that under Daniel Boulud the restaurant ascended to four-star status, repeatedly regaled by the New York Times. Few people would argue that as the 20th century drew to an optimistic close Le Cirque epitomized not only everything a restaurant should be but also everything a city could be. Today – despite the bonfire of many an interim vanity – much of what made it great remains. For one there’s the impeccable white-jacketed service fronted by the most hospitable hosts in town. You are welcomed like an old friend – more to the point, an important friend – into one of the more elegant dining rooms in the city. The ceilings might soar double or triple-height but the mood is nevertheless cozy and intimée at a banquette overlooking the room. Le Cirque may have lost some of its buzzworthiness and fallen out of favor with the Page Six set but the air remains rarefied. If anything, the diminished spotlight only serves to focus the attention squarely where it belongs: on the food, which I’m happy to say succeeds from the first amuse to the final petit four. In between, a half-dozen meaty Blue Point oysters on the half shell are cause for celebration. So, too, a restrained rectangle of foie gras with quince jelly. The fish is impeccable: both turbot a la plancha atop olive oil crushed potatoes and john dory in a rich bouillabaisse broth make for satisfying main courses. And I dare you to find a desert to trump the ethereal Floating Island. Under the toque of Executive Chef Olivier Reginensi there remains a handful of oldies but goodies like lobster risotto, diver scallops with black truffle in puff pastry, baked Alaska and Chateaubriand for two, but for the most part Le Cirque has gracefully found its feet in the 21st century, moving beyond those flashy holdovers from another era – society swans included.

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a perfect picnic

Picnicking at the beach house made for the most atmospheric en plein air lunch I’ve had in I don’t know how long. Poached shrimp on a citrus salad with avocado and shaved fennel, and a meaty lobster sandwich with celery, red onions and spicy creole mayonnaise on lightly-grilled brioche made the perfect foil for a splendidly chilled bottle of rose. The postprandial nap was equally sublime, too – just in case you were wondering.

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ça va?

What happened to Todd English? Once considered the boy wonder of Boston, he was heralded a generation ago for his modest take on rustic Mediterranean cuisine at the 50-seat restaurant, Olives.  In the ensuing decades, however, Chef English has seemed more concerned with cementing his reputation as the King of Hotel Dining:  Olives New York at the W Union Square, Bonfire at Boston’s Park Plaza, Olives Las Vegas inside the Bellagio, Fish Club at the Seattle Marriott, Olives Aspen at the St. Regis, Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Disney World’s Blue Zoo, Riche in the New Orleans Harrah’s, The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English, and most recently, Olives Biloxi at Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.  You’ve got to give the man credit for branding, even if in the process his food has suffered.

Case in point: Ça Va by Todd English at the new Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan’s theater district seems designed for tourists who want a New York-style dining experience yet are afraid to leave their hotel.  (Not as safe as it sounds given the grisly corkscrew murder that recently took place upstairs.) Connected to the hotel’s lobby, the main room feels less like the advertised brasserie and more like an Outback Steakhouse with the lights dimmed low.  Now, I’m personally very much a fan of flattering lighting, but what’s a diner to do when it’s too dark to read the menu?  Luckily the bright screen on my companion’s iPhone did double-duty as a flashlight, otherwise, I’m afraid, I was either going to have to ask for the menu in braille or task the server with a dramatic recitation.  Even with the glare the menu looked promising, however, stacked with modernized classics tweaked just enough to seem exciting without being necessarily adventurous: crispy oysters ‘escargot style,’ shaved asparagus salad with asian pear in a mushroom vinaigrette, braised short ribs and sunchoke-lobster fricasse, lobster ‘profiterole.’ If only the execution was as meticulous as the copy-writing. Crispy oysters are indeed, crispy. And tasty, too. Yet it’s evident that what the chef means by ‘escargot style’ is an avalanche of garlic and butter so extreme as to mask the mollusks. This dish would work just as well with any absorbent material.  Bread, for example; or kitchen sponge.  Mealy disks of Marcona almond panna cotta aside, a shaved asparagus salad fares much better.  Fatty short ribs are a passable plat du jour with sides of garlic spinach and a hash of sunchokes, so what’s the point in scattering chunks of flavorless lobster on the side?  And since we’re mentioning flavorless lobster, I bet you can guess how well the disappointingly cold profiterole turned out.

It takes an amazing amount of drive (and talent) to get to the point where you can call yourself a Celebrity Chef with a straight face.  Todd English has more than earned the right to do so, but at what price his culinary soul?  Ça ne pas.

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