Archive for Travels

Dinner at Avec

sardines2

Yay, Top Chef is back! Last year I watched the entire season from start to finish, and I was totally hooked. So I found it appropriate that the weekend before the newest round of this culinary competition was set to begin, Jim and I took a quick trip to Chicago, where last season was filmed. We even had dinner at Avec, Chef Koren Grieveson’s Mediterranean-inspired wine bar and the more casual cousin of neighboring restaurant Blackbird. Chef Grieveson was a guest judge on Top Chef last year. (See, I told you I was hooked.)

I have to admit, I hadn’t read much about the restaurant before we jumped in a cab and sped over from our hotel. But once I started recognizing some of the faces behind the bar and made the Top Chef connection, I was even more excited about our newest dining adventure. We started with a drink at the long, stainless steel bar while waiting for seats at one of the restaurant’s communal tables. (Avec does not take reservations.) After ordering from the lengthy wine list, we observed the bustling scene and listened in astonishment to the noise emitted from the room. Top Chef notoriety aside, Avec hosted one of the most festive—and loud—crowds in town. 

After about half an hour, Jim and I were led through the narrow, blond-wood dining room to a table near the back of the restaurant, close to a glinting wall of green wine bottles. As our neighbors settled in around us, we perused the menu, which was divided into “small” and “large” plates. I suddenly understood the use of the word avec—which means with in French—as the name of the restaurant: As the menu made clear, this was food to be shared and experienced with other people. 

lemonsausage

We ordered some meaty house-marinated olives to start our meal ($5). Next, piles of deliciously oily, house-pickled sardines with shaved apples, red onion, radish sprouts, and fresh parsley tumbled over thick slices of buttery bread ($12). The contrasting interplay of crisp fruits and vegetables with the tender, salty fish created a dish that Jim is still raving about. Without a doubt, it would have won any Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef.

But the preserved lemon sausage with fresh kidney beans, one of Avec’s daily specials, was also a strong contender that evening ($8). Lemony bits of crumbled meat were gently tempered by the smooth beans, and Jim and I scooped spoonfuls onto our plates, enjoying the textural jumble of flavors. Perhaps the ultimate champion of the night was the “deluxe” focaccia, a closed pizza-like dish oozing with warm taleggio cheese, fresh herbs, and musky truffle oil ($14.50). Chef Grieveson would never lose an Elimination Challenge, not with this decadent focaccia.

focaccia

As Jim and I ate our meal, we noticed our neighbors striking up a conversation with each other. Soon these once-separate parties were sharing dishes such as the chorizo-stuffed dates and buying each other shots of limoncello. The jovial spirit of Avec is infectious, and makes friends out of strangers. Jim and I were so stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but we left feeling thrilled with our dining experience. I can’t wait to return and try more dishes from the menu, as those chorizo-stuffed dates and the house-cured salumi are still calling to me. I’m certain that a second visit to Avec would never feel like a repeat of Top Chef—or any other show for that matter.

Avec, 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago 60661 T: 312-377-2002

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Cape Cod and the Sesuit Harbor Café

First of all, let me apologize for being out of touch for so long. Last week Jim and I escaped to Cape Cod and spent most of those days with our feet buried in the sand, only looking up from our books long enough to sigh and stare at the ocean. It was wonderful and relaxing, but after seven days with little cell phone reception or Internet access, I’ve had some trouble getting back on the grid this week.

We took breaks from the beach with quick lunches at the area’s myriad seafood shacks. The options were endless: fried clams, scallops, cod and more. Tasty items indeed, but when I’m on Cape Cod, I’m there for one thing: the lobster roll. And on this trip I found my new favorite spot for it, the Sesuit Harbor Café in East Dennis.

It actually wasn’t that easy to find. Driving through the gates of the Sesuit Marina, Jim and I saw only towers of grounded boats. In addition to this industrial-looking entrance, no signs indicated the presence of a restaurant. But we had faith we would come across it (especially after we asked someone where it was), and a few turns later, our shabby shack finally appeared.

After this rather lackluster approach, we weren’t expecting much in terms of atmosphere. But once we waited in line and placed our order, we walked out back to a charming waterside patio. Boats actually sailed by the tables—that’s what I call ambiance. After a few minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the restaurant, holding a tray with our two “world famous” lobster rolls ($15.95 each). “58!” she shouted. “58!” We waved her over to our table as quickly as we could.

Forget about the French fries and cole slaw, which were perfectly decent; I went straight for the creamy, fresh lobster meat piled onto that grilled and buttered hot dog roll. And I’ll cut to the chase right now: the Sesuit Harbor Café’s lobster roll was one of the best I’d ever had. I tasted the freshness of the seafood in each bite against the crunch of crispy green lettuce. Lightly seasoned mayonnaise, in just the right amount, created a silky sauce around the dense pillows of lobster meat. One week later, I still can’t stop thinking about it.

So please forgive me for being out of touch. I was busy eating lobster rolls. And I wish I still was.

Sesuit Harbor Café, 357 Sesuit Neck Road in East Dennis, Cape Cod, Massachusetts  T: 508-385-6132

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More Memories of Morocco

Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey

A few months back I mentioned that Jim and I spent our honeymoon in Morocco. Over ten days we explored some of this North African country’s most amazing cities: metropolitan Casablanca; the marvelous maze of Fez; Marrakech and its bustling markets; the seaside jewel of Essarouia.

I also told you that our camera, with hundreds of pictures documenting our trip, was stolen on our way back to New York. I still have trouble talking about it, the loss is so sad to me. Now Jim and I rely solely on our memories and senses when talking about our honeymoon. 

One way we relive our trip is through food. Throughout the centuries, Morocco endured years of Arab, Spanish, and French rule, all of which influenced its unique cuisine. With its mix of exotic spices and culinary traditions, Morocco’s food is impossible to forget, and on two of our three anniversaries, Jim and I have celebrated by creating our own Moroccan feasts at home. (Last year we skipped town and went to the North Fork, which was fun in a non-Moroccan way, of course!)

While we were in Morocco, we began each meal with a selection of mezze. Mezze are small plates of food—some hot, some cold—served to stimulate the appetite. For our first anniversary, we devoted an entire Sunday to preparing our meal. We started with a cooked eggplant and tomato salad, another minty salad of cold cucumbers and tomatoes, and a dish of paprika-infused caramelized carrots. Last week our anniversary was on Wednesday, so we scaled down our celebration and made only two mezze when we got home from work. We threw together a tangy feta cheese, red onion, and cucumber salad, and we also whipped up some baba ghanouj, a creamy roasted eggplant and tahini dip.

Anniversary 2008Table with mezze and Tagine

One of Morocco’s most distinctive dishes is the tagine, a savory, slow-cooked stew. Classic tagines combine meat with fruit and spices. The word “tagine” also refers to the conical earthenware vessel in which the dish is cooked. While in Fez, Jim and I actually purchased one as a souvenir. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold a lot of food, so now we use it more as a serving piece and cook with our Dutch oven instead. Supposedly the use of Dutch ovens and slow cookers is growing more diffuse in Morocco as well. During our trip Jim and I tried many different tagines, with ingredients such as lamb, chicken, seafood, and vegetables.

Anniversary 2006Anniversary 2006

On our first anniversary, our main dish was a traditional tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and artichoke hearts. Last week we chose to make a simple tagine of chicken with tomatoes and honey. We slowly simmered 4 chicken legs in a sauce of canned tomatoes, onion, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron, cooking it down until it caramelized, and adding honey at the end. The whole dish was then topped with toasted almonds and sesame seeds, resulting in a sweet, fragrant stew of tender meat and tomatoes.

So while we don’t have any photographs of our honeymoon in Morocco, we do our best to recreate it once a year. We’re planning to go back for our tenth anniversary, and hopefully next time we won’t lose our camera. Check back in with me in seven years…

Recipe for Djaj Matisha Mesla (Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey [first photo at top of post]; adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

  • 4 chicken legs, legs split from the thighs
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 1 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes
  • salt (to your taste)
  • pepper (to your taste)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 cup sliced, toasted almonds
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Put all of the ingredients except for the honey, almonds, and sesame seeds in a large Dutch oven. Cook gently over medium-low heat, covered. Turn the chicken occasionally to make sure it cooks evenly. Break up the whole tomatoes with a spoon as they cook. Cook for about 1 1/4 hours, or until the meat can be pulled easily off the bone.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and place on a plate. Continue to cook the sauce over medium heat until it thickens. This can take around 15 minutes. Stir the sauce as it begins to caramelize. Stir in the honey. Return the chicken pieces to the sauce and heat through. Serve the chicken hot, covered in the sauce and sprinkled with the almonds and sesame seeds. Serves 4 as a main course. Enjoy!

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Back to the ‘Burgh: Pots and Berries

We just got back from an adventurous (and sweltering) weekend in Pittsburgh, where we spent a few days visiting with Jim’s parents. As always, we had a fantastic time eating and drinking our way through Steeler Nation, and on Saturday morning we hopped in the car for a food-related tour that I’m still recovering from.

We started by driving to the All-Clad warehouse sale at the Washington Fairgrounds. If you’re as obsessed with cookware as I am, and you find yourself in Western Pennsylvania during this twice yearly “seconds” sale, you definitely need to stop by. With a little patience you can find great bargains on this brand’s pricey cookware and kitchen tools in near-perfect condition. Anyway, after an hour of pans, people, and heat, we returned to the car (with 2 pots!) and surrendered ourselves to the air conditioning.

Next came a restorative lunch of lobster bisque and a Reuben sandwich at the very pretty Back Porch restaurant in Speers, followed by a trip to Sand Hill Berries. As you can tell from the name, this small, family-owned fruit farm in Mount Pleasant is known for its berries: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries and more. They are also famous for their fruit pies and jams, all made on site at the farm in small batches.

Having wandered through a sea of people and stainless steel at the All-Clad sale, it was a relief to relax in the serenity of Sand Hill. We tasted some very sweet grape and berry based wines at their new Greendance winery, and then sat outside on the terrace to enjoy live music and fresh baked goods from their café. The strawberry shortcake I ordered was covered with fresh strawberries, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream, a cool mass of summertime goodness in the 95 degree heat. Jim’s vanilla ice cream topped with raspberry sauce was also refreshing, and his parents shared a piece of blackberry pie made with the farm’s frozen berry stock.

After working our way through the sweets, we decided to call it a day and head home, where I took a nap on the couch. The combination of pots, berries, and heat had that affect on me. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for a great weekend!

The All-Clad sale takes place at the Washington County Fairgrounds: 2151 North Main Street, Washington, PA, 15301. The sale happens twice a year, usually in December and June. It is not advertised on All-Clad’s website, but I found out about it here.

The Back Porch Restaurant, 114 Speers Street, Belle Vernon, PA 15012 T: 724-483-4500

Sand Hill Berries, 304 Deer Field Road, Mount Pleasant, PA 15666 T: 724-547-4760. Greendance Winery is located on the same property.

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Wine Tasting in Sonoma: Bartholomew Park Winery

Sonoma Landscape

 

Days before our olive oil and wine tastings in Paso Robles, and way before that lunch at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, we spent a day wine tasting in Sonoma with Jim’s parents. Our West Coast trip had begun in San Jose, where we had all convened to celebrate the holidays with my sister-in-law and her family. But somehow, even after two days of wonderful food and wine, we still had room for more. So the day after Christmas we hopped in our rental car and drove out to wine country.

After a two-hour, sometimes-scenic drive, we made our first stop at Sebastiani Winery and its impressive tasting room near the center of town. But then we drove down a rustic, tree-lined road to Bartholomew Park.

With its gorgeous grounds, simple tasting room, and knowledgeable staff, Bartholomew Park Winery won us over even before we tried their 2004 Kaspar Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. But peppers sealed the deal. After smelling this wine, I expected fresh green peppers to come pouring out of the bottle–the aroma was that strong. Their flavor in the wine was more subtle but surprisingly enjoyable.

Bartholomew Park’s property has quite an eclectic history. It’s all on their website, but it’s interesting to know that for a period of time starting in 1920 the land hosted a State Farm for Delinquent Women, housing prostitutes, drug addicts, and “wild women.” Long after this excitement (and much more), Bartholomew Park Winery was officially founded by the Bundschu family in 1994. They focus on small batches of handcrafted wines, all of which are available only at the winery and through their wine club.

We did some more driving and wine tasting that day, even going all the way up to Healdsburg to explore their wineries. But we kept talking and thinking about Bartholomew Park. It was those peppers; we just couldn’t forget those peppers.

Bartholomew Park Winery, 1000 Vineyard Lane, Sonoma T: 707-935-9511

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Pasolivo Olive Oil

Pasolivo’s Tasting Room, Paso Robles, California

 

Joshua Yaguda, Pasolivo’s olive miller, stood in the middle of the press room hosing down the Pieralisi olive mill. We turned our heads with the rest of the tour group as a small voice, with an accompanying echo, came from inside the tall steel vat to our left.

“Oh, that’s just my daughter Veda,” said Joshua. We joined in the laughter as little Veda gaily greeted us from inside the vat, where she was helping her dad with the cleaning. I’m still wondering what she found in there.

It’s this family-centric attitude that makes Pasolivo, and most of Paso Robles’s small, family-owned wineries, so unique. Pasolivo is operated and owned by Karen Guth; her son Yaguda and his family also run the ranch with her. Over 45 acres of Tuscan olives are hand-picked on the ranch at harvest time in order to prevent bruising and maintain the highest quality for their extra virgin, award-winning oils.

Oh yes, the olive oils. We tried several of them that day: the 3-month old “olio nuovo,” and the Meyer lemon, lime, and tangerine varieties. Rustic bread dipped in olive oil and then topped with coarse salt combined to refresh our palates. All thoughts of the Cabernet and Syrah we had tasted just minutes earlier on our wine tasting trail were forgotten, and we left with a bottle of the Meyer lemon oil, our favorite from the tasting.

In an attempt to recapture those sunny days on California’s Central Coast, I’ve used the lemon oil in almost every meal we’ve cooked since returning to dreary, wintery Brooklyn. On the suggestion of Joeli Yaguda, Joshua’s wife and Pasolivo’s sales and marketing manager, I covered a chicken in the citrus oil and roasted it to create a juicy and flavorful meal. The oil has also brightened up several salads, and last night we brushed it on some grey sole baked with garlic and breadcrumbs.

And that’s how we’re keeping our Paso Robles vacation alive: some Pasolivo olive oil on our salads, a glass of Hansen Vineyards Cabernet with our dinner. I just don’t know what we’ll do when we run out of wine. 

Pasolivo Olive Oil, 8530 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles T: 805-227-0186

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Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

The winding roads, sun-stroked hills, and draping tree branches of Paso Robles, California, were just as I remembered from our first visit a year and a half ago. I relaxed in the car’s passenger seat, taking in the scene while Jim navigated us around one of our now-favorite destinations. But in addition to viewing the area’s natural beauty, we had another agenda for our trip: wine tasting.

Paso Robles Landscape

 

Paso Robles’s warm days and cool nights encourage the production of a wide variety of excellent wines, including Cabernet, Syrah, Viognier, and of course Zinfandel. (We’re not big fans of Zin, but the area is very well-known for them.) As the reputation of the local wines has grown, so has the number of wineries dotting the landscape. During our first trip we explored several of Paso’s family-owned vineyards and chatted with their friendly, passionate winemakers. This year we returned to visit old favorites as well as wineries we missed the first time around. Here are some of the standouts, all of which produce both red and white wines:

Adelaida Cellars: As soon as we arrived in Paso we drove straight to Adelaida. Their vines grow in the limestone soil of the Santa Lucia Mountains, imbuing Adelaida’s vintages with bold flavors and minerality; the winery is actually located at an elevation of 1,800 feet. Picnic tables overlooking the panorama supply the perfect spot for outdoor tastings. Upon entering the small, unassuming tasting room, we were happy to see staff members we met during our first visit. Favorites from our tasting included the Viognier Glenrose Vineyard from 2005, a tart, clean white wine with hints of grapefruit, and the fruity Rhône Style Red from 2004. 5805 Adelaida Road T: 800-676-1232

Hansen Vineyards: A leisurely scenic drive towards Templeton led us to Hansen Vineyards, where the gregarious owner was holding court in the rustic tasting room. We had arrived on a lark, looking to buy a bottle of wine for a friend with the same last name as the winery, but we wound up being pleasantly surprised by Hansen’s strong, peppery Cabernet Sauvignons. After a lively discussion with the owner over which vintage we preferred, Jim selected the 2004. We ended our visit with a picnic lunch in the winery’s sunny yard, and then moved on to our next stop. 5575 El Pomar Drive, Templeton T: 805-226-9023

Maloy O’Neill Vineyards in Paso Robles

 

Maloy O’Neill Vineyards: We visited this small, family-owned vineyard after several disappointing stops at larger wineries along busy route 46E. While Maloy O’Neill has been growing grapes since 1980, the actual winery has been open for only 2 years. Concentrating on handcrafted quality, Maloy O’Neill sells 35 different wines, mostly blends, and makes very small quantities of about 200 cases each. Most can only be bought at the winery or through their wine club. Among the many interesting wines on their list were a 2004 Malbec, an unusual wine varietal for Paso Robles, and the 2005 Enzo, which utilizes a grape called Lagrein, originally found in Northern Italy. 5725 Union Road T: 805-238-7320

Tablas Creek Vineyard: Robert Haas partnered with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in France to create Tablas Creek, one of Paso Robles’s best-known wineries. It specializes in estate-grown, Rhône style blends, focusing on the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style. During our first visit to Tablas Creek a year and a half ago I discovered my love for Mourvèdre. Mourvèdre is a meaty, fruity grape often used in blends with other grapes such as Grenache and Syrah. And even though Tablas Creek uses it often in their blended wines, they also produce a 100% Mourvèdre, which I especially enjoy. 9339 Adelaida Road T: 805-238-2083

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