FESTIVE NIGHT AT CENTRAL

The year is almost coming to an end. And you know what’s really scary about it? In less than 3 months I’ll be adding one more year to my life,  but still have not shared with you the wonderful celebration we had for  my Birthday back in March. In one word: unacceptable. So without further ado let me invite you for a flash-back from that great evening.

Central DIning Room

Dining room at Central Restaurant

I don’t normally blog about dining out. First, I think there are countless sites and food blogs devoted to that already. Second, I am not too fond of taking photos of meals in restaurants. But, I make an exception for places that involve unique dining experiences (like Lasserre and Taillevent), or places we love so much we tend to go back at every opportunity. Exactly the case for Central in Washington, DC.  I’ll start by sharing with you the review Phil left on Open Table the following day:

We’ve now had the pleasure of Central restaurant 3 or 4 times. It is a Parisian bistrot on drugs! French food with a decidedly American (Hollywood) accent. After a LONG day in DC on business, just the thought of Central began to raise my mood. It was also my wife’s birthday. The restaurant is so festive and exciting, literally buzzing with excitement, from the servers to the chefs and the diners. The food is unique and delicious in classic French fashion: simple, yet exquisitely and richly prepared. Our appetizer was gougeres and prosciutto, a perfect combination and generous portions of both. Our plates were coq au vin and miso salmon with glazed turnips. At Central you find yourself saying things like ”….this is the best (your dish here) I’ve ever had”, and tonight was no exception.  At the end of the meal one had to say, WOW! Then, because of the birthday they brought the “Celebration Cake,” complete with a Roman candle. It’s kind of a chocolate encrusted clafoutis, topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries and whipped cream. After eating our meals it looked HUGE, but after a few bites we couldn’t stop ourselves, and we ate it all. My wife commented that it was one of her favorite meals in the past decade.”

 As Phil  mentioned, we had a kind of a tough day. Let’s say a scientific meeting was involved. And it wasn’t much fun. At all. So of course we were looking forward to exorcising the demons of the day and celebrating the occasion. One of the things I really look forward at Central is the bread basket they bring to you the moment you sit at the table. It is one of the best breads we’ve ever had. Rivals the best Parisian crusty baguettes you can sink your teeth into. Seriously. And, if you finish the basket, they will bring you more, so pace yourself and try to follow the mindful eating path. Yeah, right. Bread can be exquisitely addictive.

BreadCentral
The restaurant has an open kitchen next to the dining room, so you can see all the action like the powerful salamander this guy is using… Crème brûlée, anyone? Onion soup gratinné, perhaps?

Central Kitchen

Michel Richard does a fantastic job, we’ve never had a bad meal in his place.  And I must say his manager Adriane was such a gracious hostess, absolutely perfect! Chatted with us without being too intrusive, making sure we were well taken care of.  Central feels special, slightly upscale, or as Phil likes to put it, “casual but chic.” If you find yourself in Washington DC, make a reservation, and have a blast!

CentralGougeres

Cheese Puffs… Don’t skip these!

Below you see a photo of our meals. The Coq au Vin was luscious, served over pappardelle. And my salmon was exactly what I was hoping it to be: perfectly cooked, just rare in the center, and paired with a reasonably light side dish, that did not steal the show.  Both entrées were spectacular.

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One of the dishes that never leaves their menu is the famous Lobster Burger. I ordered it once for my dinner just out of curiosity, and it was quite decadent. But if you want decadent, nothing beats their “Celebration Cake“, which is pretty much three desserts in one: mousse, cake, a tumble of fruit encased in a crunchy shell of chocolate and topped with a sparkling candle. I still find it hard to believe we polished it off, but that’s exactly what happened.

Celebration Cake1

If that doesn’t say Happy Birthday, nothing will!

Celebration Cake2

I don’t always eat dessert, but when I do I make sure it’s spectacular…

 

PicMonkey Collage


ONE YEAR AGO:
The Perfect Boiled Egg

TWO YEARS AGO: Light Rye Sourdough with Cumin and Orange

THREE YEARS AGO: Homemade Calziones

FOUR YEARS AGO: Plum-Glazed Duck Breasts

FIVE YEARS AGO: Holiday Double-Decker

SIX YEARS AGO: New York Deli Rye

SHANGHAI SOUP DUMPLINGS

Years ago I saw an episode of No Reservations in which Bourdain visited Shanghai, and indulged in their famous xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).   His description, and the whole visual experience left my mouth watering. Thanks to Amelia, who left a comment with a youtube to that particular episode, you can watch the whole thing here.   I searched for the recipes online and in cookbooks, but it quickly became clear that to make those dumplings you need to be born in China, and raised by a mom who grew up watching her own mom and Grandma making them in their home kitchen.  For all the intervening years I’d hoped to find them in a Chinese restaurant somewhere, but I never did.  My frustration ended yesterday, on the last day of April, when the Tan family invited us to join them for lunch at Din Tai Fung Dumpling House in Arcadia, a neighborhood 30 miles east of UCLA.

The place has a well-deserved reputation for THE best soup dumplings outside of Taipei, and you need not take my Brazilian-American word for it, (even though I am a lover of  the Chinese culture).  Our friend’s  grandfather knew and worked with the founder of the first Din Tai Fung (in Taipei).  Her family is part of the fascinating history of the place, which you can read about here.  The Tans have tried countless soup dumplings in the US and Asia, and agree that apart from Taipei’s original spot, the Arcadia location is the winner.

(image from Wikipedia)

So, what makes Shanghai dumplings special?   Well, for one thing, they are not called soup dumplings because you serve them floating in a bowl of soup.  The soup is actually the filling!  The skin surrounding the dumpling is so thin that it seems physically impossible for it to hold anything, especially a liquid!  But that’s exactly what’s inside: a rich chicken stock that warms your body and soul the instant you bite into the dumpling.  As you savor the delicate shell of dough only one thought occupies your mind:  how many of these babies can I eat without being rude?   😉  Everyone in Din Tai Fung suffers from this same dilemma, and the solution is simple: keep ordering them.  At some point you might be willing to smile at the person across the table and say, “no, thanks, you take the last one…  really!”  

So, if you find yourself in Los Angeles, stop by Din Tai Fung (before 11:30am, or the waiting list will scare you) and be ready for a meal you won’t forget!  For directions, click here.

ONE YEAR AGO: Bite-sized Chocolate Pleasure

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TOUR DE FRANCE FINAL STAGE: PARIS


Last year I participated in an event with the goal of increasing awareness about cancer,  “The Taste of Yellow“, that was hosted by Barbara from Winos and Foodies.  Now I have the privilege of joining one of her other events:  food blogging along  the “Tour de France,” the premier bike race in the world!  This year   sixteen teams cruised, bounced and blasted through a 2,263 miles circuit that started in Rotterdam on July 3rd.  Each year the race takes a different route, but it always end in Paris, with the final stretch taking the athletes back and forth along the spectacular Avenue des Champs Elysees, between the sublime Place de la Concorde and the gorgeous Arch du Triomphe.  What a visual energy boost it is!  In Barbara’s “Tour de France 2010,”  bloggers posted their descriptions of the food traditions from each locale surrounding the individual stages.  You can enjoy this virtual tour  here.

I was thrilled when Barbara asked me to cover the final stage of the tour, because I love Paris so much! But was also quite nervous about it, because  she was originally going to write about it herself.  Talk about pressure!

So, I’ll start by sharing some thoughts on the City of Lights, and finish by offering the recipes of  three Parisian treats, hopefully as authentic as  La Tour Eiffel itself!

The Paris that everyone knows…
Even people who never set foot in Paris know about its cafes, restaurants, cheeses, baguettes and museums,  that create the aura of romance and charm permeating every corner of the city.  It’s a  favorite activity in Paris to sit outside at a cafe and indulge in people-watching on a pleasant day.  We always gravitate back to  Les Deux Magots and Cafe’ de Flore, that are situated almost next to each other in the shadow of the oldest church in Paris, St. Germain de Pres.

Not bad to enjoy a  cappucino, croissant or pain au chocolat, while staring in awe at the austere tower of the cathedral, provoking dreams of the middle ages, or the days when Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir sat at those very tables, maybe looking across the Boulevard St. Germain to the ultra-traditional Brasserie Lipp, where Hemingway or Modigliani sat and ate Alsatian food fit for the gods (that they were).

Flickr Creative Commons photo

The street markets… are pretty much a French institution.  Our favorite may be  on Rue Cler, in the 7eme arrondisement.  It only takes one stroll through the market to get anything and everything needed to prepare dinner, from the freshest seafood to the most perfect veggies, fruits, cheeses and chocolates.  And don’t forget to stop for a fine Sauternes or Bordeaux!  During the “R” months, fresh oysters from Bretagne will be  waiting for you, either live in the shells or shucked in seconds by the vendor’s expert hands.   If you just want to “window-shop,”  then grab a crepe made at the small stand halfway along the length of the market:  you’ll be amazed at how delicious it is.

Croissants…. are not French by birth, but they will always be associated with Paris.  A great croissant makes a soft crunch as you bite into it, and it covers your lips with tiny buttery flakes.  It’s messy, but you don’t want it any other way.   My favorite  (OK, one one of my favorites)  is from the Lenotre boulangerie in the 15th arrondisement, but good croissants are everywhere in Paris.   Ask for a “croissant pur beurre,” which excludes any lower-fat variations from your lips.  No point in having a croissant unless it comes loaded with buttery flavor and goodness.  You know, “moderation in moderation.”  😉

Macarons… Apparently, I’m the only human being who does not care for macarons (or macaroons,  the English spelling).  I apologize for this handicap, and hope you will still visit the Bewitching Kitchen after learning about it.   Nevertheless, they are a Parisian fever,  so I did my homework and learned that macaron lovers are crazy for those from  Pierre Herme‘s patisserie in the 15th arrondisement.  And if you want to make them at home, click here for a great tutorial!

Bread, cheese, and metro stations… have something in common:  wherever you are in Paris, they’ll all be within walking distance.  Baguettes are freshly baked around the clock, and nothing beats munching on one that’s still warm from the oven you stroll through the streets.   I always go for the “baguette tradition,” made according to precise specifications of the bread bakers syndicate: it has no illegal additives and its exclusively leavened with Saccaromyces cerevisiae (the famous “baker’s yeast”).   No corners are cut with these baguettes, and their taste and texture proves it.   But one cannot mention Parisien bread without also talking about Pain Poilane, and its famous bakery, where you can buy the huge four pound “boule” and enjoy it for days!


With a great bread, one needs some great cheese.  When I first lived alone in Paris, I developed a nice relationship with the cheesemonger near my apartment in the 15th.  Every week I would ask for my “usual suspects” (Brie de Meaux, Roquefort, and a camembert au lait cru), and she would pick a new one for me to try.   That was a happy year!  No, I wasn’t able to finish tasting all of these, but I had fun trying.

The Paris that not everybody knows about….
The bees in Paris are almost as busy as its lively streets, making some of the best honey around!  The largest beehives are in Jardin du Luxembourg and Parc George Brassens (site of a weekly book market that is also worth a visit).   But  smaller hives are on top of the Opera Garnier building, and also on the Hotel Eiffel Park.   Bees travel a maximum of 2 miles around the hive, and collect pollen from a large variety of flowers.  Parisian honey has a complex flavor, and even more “complex” price!  😉   Because production is small, the pots of Parisian honey sell like liquid gold.   When you are in town take a guided tour of the  beehive in Luxembourg, it’s a  must see.

Menu “Faim de nuit” (late night “munchies menu”) at La Coupole

photo from Wikipedia

One of the most famous restaurants in Paris offers an affordable dinner every evening starting at 10:30pm.  Why have dinner so late?  Well, when in France, do as the French do!  No sense going to sleep before 2am anyway!  La Coupole is always packed, a very popular choice not only for tourists, and not only for dining: in the basement you can dance the night away, following a tradition that spans many decades.

Wine, sure… but made in Paris? Mais oui! In the 17th century the vineyards of Paris were the most important in the country, covering a huge area of more than 100 thousand acres.  Later other regions started to produce wine, Paris turned into a metropolis, and the vines almost completely disappeared.  Almost, but not quite.  Small production still takes place in vines located in Montmartre (Clos Montmartre) and a few other spots around town.  With very few exceptions, the wine produced in Paris cannot be commercialized.  This site is an interesting read (in French).

photo from Wikimedia Commons

Now, the most important question:  what to cook at home to celebrate Paris?  Follow me to the next page to find out.

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TAILLEVENT

For some people Paris means fashion: clothes, shoes, perfumes, jewelry and make-up. But me, I couldn’t care less if Louis Vuitton’s gold-encrusted store disappeared from the the planet, and along with it all the $2000 handbags and $800 belts. On the other hand, I still mourn the closing of Bistrot du Papa, a simple restaurant in the 7th arrondissement, that served the best quiche Lorraine we ever tasted. Excuse me while I wipe away some tears.

For a long time we contemplated dining at Taillevent, considered by some the best restaurant in France. Indeed, a place that held a three-star rating for 37 years must be doing things right. This dream stayed unfulfilled for many years, until our 10th wedding anniversary provided the extra push to indulge ourselves. We decided on lunch at Taillevent, rather than dinner, and it met our highest expectations!

Entering some of the upscale restaurants (Tour d’Argent comes to mind… ) is intimidating and overwhelming, almost like stepping – uninvited – into a Hollywood movie. Their exquisitely opulent surroundings transform the initial experience into a dream-like blur that’s difficult to even completely remember. In this respect the sophisticated but inviting ambiance of Taillevent was a pleasant surprise. Its beautifully organized table settings, with a modern theme, were overseen by smartly-dressed waiters who were always available, but never intrusive.

After we made our choices among the lunch menu options, the waiter brought a small lentil soup as an amuse-bouche. Calling it just a lentil soup, however, is an understatement. The texture of the lentil component was between that of a cream soup and a mousse. Served cold, it surrounded an icy cream in the central interior, and contained a small “chip” of Serrano ham floating on top. Its inspiration undoubtedly came from the classic ham and lentil soup, and we both loved the chef’s transformations of this dish! The smokiness of the ham did not overpower the lentils, and the cream component provided a contrast of both flavor and temperature. It was a few spoonfuls of perfection.
(click on the photos to enlarge them)

For his first dish, my husband chose a cream of broccoli soup. The waiter served the bowl empty, except for seven small ravioli inside, and then spooned the (amazingly green) hot cream of broccoli on top. It was light but substantial: the creamy cheese within the ravioli filled the soup with satisfying flavor. I often think of toppings on cream soups, but now I’ll definitely consider hidden surprises at the bottom instead, and pouring the soup at the table made it even more interesting.

For my first dish, I took a chance and went for the fish (rouget), served with a cumin-seasoned eggplant crisp and black olive tapenade. I eat almost everything, but I’m challenged by strong-tasting fish. In this case, though, my risk paid off with what I’m tempted to say was the best dish I’ve ever had. The fish was prepared with its skin on; the meat was flaky, tender and flavorful, but without a hint of ‘fishiness.’ The eggplant crisp and the olive tapenade lent flavor, but were not so pungent as to distract from the main component, the fish. I can’t explain how the eggplant crisp was made – it was not a thin slice of eggplant, but perhaps it was a thin-spread puree that was dried and baked. Maybe Carol from Alinea at Home knows how to prepare it. The plate was embellished with saucy decorations of parsley and mustard coulis.
(click on photo for larger version)

My husband’s main dish was a roasted duck breast, with hydromel and minced dragees (yes, its a type of candy).  The dish was served with a spinach puree, that was, unbelievably, as good as the duck. It was a main dish that blew our gastronomic minds… It’s not new to pair duck with sweets, whether it is oranges, prunes, honey or maple syrup, but the fine dust of candy and hydromel was an eye-opener. I am not sure exactly how the duck meat was prepared, it may have been seared before roasting. The spinach puree was simply outstanding. I detected some nutmeg, without a trace of bitterness in the vegetable. Again, the serving was decorated by spinach crisps, perhaps prepared in the same fashion as the eggplant crisp described above.

My main dish was a beef filet with soy glaze and caramelized root vegetables. The meat was delicious, and the veggies beneath were perhaps even better: carrots, parsnips, turnips, and a perfectly roasted chestnut.

After the main dishes came a cheese course, in this case brie studded with raisins in a creamy middle layer, served with fine slices of Honey Crisp and Granny Smith apples, and a light “angel hair” of celery and finely minced chives. A smaller portion of cheese would have satisfied me, but sometimes in life sacrifices must be made. 😉
(click on photo for larger version)

Dessert awaited us. My husband chose a “sable aux deux chocolats”. Dark and white chocolate mousse/cream sandwiched between a lace cookie on top and a chocolate cookie below, surrounded by touches of caramel on the plate. Decadent. Luscious. Sexy.

My dessert was a rhubarb crisp. I’d never experienced rhubarb before, and I’ve been curious about it for a long time. This was my chance, and I wouldn’t let it pass, even if my beloved twists his nose at rhubarb. Friends, I’ve eaten many desserts in my lifetime, but this rhubarb crisp enters my Desserts Hall of Fame. In the picture you’ll see some things on the plate that resemble small specks, perhaps carelessly left by the cook in charge. No, those are little pieces of a sweet ribbon, thin as a sheet of paper, that surrounded the rhubarb mousse, sort of enclosing the two crisps as a package. I wish I knew the preparation. The rhubarb mousse had lemon curd beside it, and everything was topped with a honey sorbet. I can’t master enough adjectives in any language to sufficiently praise this dish; let it suffice to say that even my husband enjoyed it, rhubarb and all… 😉

(click on photo to enlarge it)

We’ve dined in several of the great restaurants of Paris, but Taillevent immediately climbed to the top position, as my favorite.

The restaurant has been managed by the same family since its opening in 1946. Jean-Claude Vrinat was responsible for the three-star rating it obtained in 1973, and for managing it for three decades, even as its many brilliant chefs came and went. He passed away in 2008, and his daughter, Valerie Vrinat, now manages the restaurant, with Alain Soliveres as Head Chef since 2002.

Additional note: I asked for permission to take photos and blog them, and the staff was absolutely wonderful about it.

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PARIS, JE t’AIME…

When we finally took off for Paris our Boeing 777, the biggest and most comfortable of the jumbo jets, didn’t even notice the heavy rain and overcast enveloping Washington DC. And the happy couple it was transporting to the place they love so much didn’t’ mind the foul weather either. Clouds and rain, after all, are the norm in Parisian winter months, so we were ready for it. But, the initial day of such trips is the most difficult: an early morning arrival after a night on the plane with only a few hours of sleep, followed by the huge but requisite struggle to defeat jet lag. To reset our circadian clocks to the new schedule we walked outside as much as possible, and only saw the inside of our hotel room after night fell.

Having lived in Paris for several years we don’t visit many museums or tourist hot spots. “… Been there, done that,” from the Tour Eiffel to La Defense, from Montmartre to the Louvre, from Musee d’Orsay to Musee Salvador Dali, from cemetiere Pere Lachaise to the quartier Latin … Instead, what we love about Paris are the neighborhoods we used to call home. As we turn each corner we pass by each of our favorite cafes, brasseries, and boulangeries. We enjoy repeating our weekly Saturday afternoon walks, and that’s exactly what we did again yesterday… we departed our hotel close to Ecole Militaire and walked and walked, and walked some more….

We stopped at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, where I bought some “pimente d’espelette,” we strolled up rue de Rennes , then turned down to boulevard Montparnasse. We walked and walked some more, stood at the corner of Boulevards St Michel and St Germain, the gateway to Notre Dame, now so beautiful after its recent cleaning, and continued down to the cafe Les Deux Magots, which brings memories of dining outside at countless cafes throughout Paris, savoring the views of people passing by. Yesterday it was 40 F (3 C), but all the seats outside were filled by people from all over the world, each one living their own private love affair with Paris.

What’s for dinner? It was a simple meal at Le Bosquet, a classic brasserie two blocks from our hotel. The same waiter from several years ago handed us a menu that was almost unchanged. Why change oysters, confit de canard, and tarte Tatin? 😉

On a side note – If you haven’t seen the film Paris, Je t’Aime, I urge you to do so – it is a series of short stories by different directors, filmed in different Parisian neighborhoods. One of our favorites is the final vignette, the narrative (in broken, yet adorable French) of a lonely, middle-aged American woman who, after studying French for a few years, finally visits Paris for the first time in her life. Beautiful, touching, and a declaration of love for one of the most amazing cities in the world.

I feel the same way. It’s so nice to see it all again!

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Dining out on Oahu: 21 Degrees North

Vacations are an amazing, revitalizing, much needed break, but some things are a bit tricky when away from our cozy home.  Like cooking, which is not that easy in someone else’s kitchen.  After several days of “not-exactly-home-cooking” in a bungalow close to Waimea Beach, we treated ourselves to a dinner last night at  “21 Degrees North,” in the Turtle BayResort.  The name reflects its location on the planet, at 21 degrees north of the Equator.  What a gorgeous setting, we had a table window overlooking the ocean, totally romantic…

turtlebayskyNEW

Not to detract from the aura, the restaurant lightning was dim,  which meant bad news for blogging.  But, my husband managed to snap a few reasonably good photos (thanks, honey!).  First, the appetizer that we shared, foie gras potstickers, joining two of my favorite things in the gastronomical world.

FoiGrasPotSticker1

His main course was a  crab-crusted Hawaiian sea bass served over mixed beans and sauteed spinach, in a lemongrass coulis. Very delicious, with a quite stunning presentation…

CrabCrustedSeaBass

I had a fantastic pepper-seared ahi tuna, cooked to perfection (nearly raw inside…), served over thin ribbons of zucchini, carrots,  and summer squash in a miso sauce, with corn crisps (think about a thin corn pancake, crisp on the outside, tender and creamy inside).  Sorry, no pictures of my dish.

Their signature dessert is a chocolate souffle with creme anglaise, a classic that was scrumptious.

ChocSouffle1

And to keep the touristic chronicle going, here are a few photos from the last couple of days,
click to enlarge them.

Turtle Bay

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Surfing lessons at Turtle Bay – yes, I was a little tempted…. 😉

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Waimea Beach, our favorite

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A tree, with fruits and amazing seed pods… called “Autograph Tree” (thanks for the info, Rhea!)

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they do look like some extra-terrestrial beings!  Amazing!
(make sure to click on this last photo to enlarge it)

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