papadakis

Papadakis - risotto with sea urchin and cockles

One of the many things I’ve so enjoyed about being in Greece is the quality of the seafood. (I should really use the plural because, as I’ve discovered, my nephew is as gastronomically adventurous as myself.) Besides fish, Athenians know how to cook all those other devilishly difficult sea creatures with a simplicity which brings out the full force of their distinctive flavors. So on this, our last night in Greece, I thought it only fitting that we splurge and have dinner at what is considered by many to be one of the best seafood restaurants in the city: Papadakis, in the upscale shopping district of Kolonaki. Sitting outdoors on a quiet, tree-lined block we leisurely munched our way through a seafood feast of lemon-dressed crab and baby lettuces, octopus simmered in red wine and honey, orzo pasta cooked with giant langoustines, and – kudos to the kid – shellfish risotto with sea urchin. A fitting end to the evening was delivered to the table following coffee and dessert: a decanter of homemade strawberry liqueur. Despite my best attempts on this trip to get a taste of alcohol to pass his lips, my nephew has assiduously stuck with Coca-Cola. Tonight, however, he couldn’t resist – and neither could I.

Papadakis - crab salad

Papadakis - octopus in wine

Papadakis - langoutsines and orzo

Papadakis - a digestif

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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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hairy crab, with style

Hairy crab turns out to be a delicacy best enjoyed in the sleeves-up style of a Maryland crab boil: bibs, mallets, and lots of messy picking, poking, and shell sucking. Following my visit to the wet market, however, a newspaper-covered communal table strewn with hairy crabs was not exactly the meal I had envisaged. Luckily the concierge at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental had a few alternate suggestions – including Island Tang just around the corner from the hotel. This latest venture from Sir David Tang, the entrepreneur behind Shanghai Tang and a host of Chinese-themed luxe dining clubs, oozes nostalgia for 1940’s Hong Kong with antique chandeliers and ceiling fans spinning lazily above an airy dining room of yellow silk banquettes. Tucked into the second floor corner of a shopping mall, the unassuming façade is an easy blink-and-miss and perhaps that’s the point: something tells me Sir David wouldn’t be keen on just anyone stumbling in and spoiling the chummy atmosphere. Dinner started with a bamboo steamer of the fluffiest, juiciest pork buns I’ve ever tasted. In fact, from this point forward all pork buns shall be held up to Island Tang’s imposingly ethereal angel pillows of porky goodness. Braised egg noodles were bound to be a disappointment after the revelation of the bun – even enlivened with tender slices of brisket. Alas, I also forgot that I had signed up for the subtlety of Cantonese cuisine and not the fiery noodles of my neighborhood Sichuan Kitchen. More important, however, was the arrival of evening’s star attraction: hairy crab with fried tofu. Sweet crabmeat, tender as butter, melted into the creamy tofu to create some kind of crazy Chinese version of risotto. It’s the kind of dish that makes you thankful for chopsticks because with a spoon you’d just shovel it in. The rare and elusive hairy crab turned out to be a bit of a misnomer.  Butter crab, anyone? Get the bib – I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

 

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ulysses s grant: president, hotel, grill

While I stand by what I posted yesterday, it’s now time for me to gladly eat a slice of humble pie. The hotel US Grant commands the heart of San Diego’s city center across from historic Horton Park Plaza and the Irving Gill-designed fountain.  Built by Buck Grant in honor of his father, Ulysses S. Grant – yes, that Grant, the Civil War hero and 18th President of the United States – the hotel debuted in 1910, setting the standard for this city’s brand of glamor. Sophisticated, opulent, and appointed with original artwork by French artist Yves Clement following a multi-million dollar renovation in 2006, the hotel rightly deserves the moniker grande dame. Tucked behind the main entrance, the hotel’s chic Grant Grill makes a seductive setting for spectacular seasonal cocktails and – you guessed it – farm to table California cuisine, too. Organic produce, Pacific seafood, and local meats and poultry are given the “less is more” treatment by Chef Chris Kurth, keeping natural flavors at the forefront of market-fresh dishes like Dungeness risotto and Niman Ranch pork cheeks with spring fava beans. Now that I’m gladly eating (ever so slightly) yesterday’s words, let me also raise a toast to the Grill’s mixologist for inspired garden to glass libations. The Wildflower Whiskey Collins of cornflower infused oat whiskey, dandelion bitters and fresh pressed Meyer lemon is like drinking SoCal in a glass:  sweet, sour, salty and perfumed with flowers, it goes down oh, so very easy.

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