I have a favorite café in Ljubljana. OK, let’s be honest… my girlfriend has a favorite café in Ljubljana, has taken me there on both of my visits to Slovenia, and so by association, it’s now my favorite café in Ljubljana. It’s a French shop with a French motif, the coffee is fabulous and, well, what else do you need to know.
Gascogne is quite simply one of my favorite restaurants in New York. It’s on my must-go list whenever I’m in Manhattan, and between the international smattering of friends that always join me there, the exquisitely prepared French food, the impeccable choices of (affordable!) French wine the staff helps select and the lively yet intimate atmosphere, every visit is better than the last. In warmer weather they open the back garden patio for dining, adding to the “you’ve just stepped into a piece of Paris” feeling I always get when I walk through the overly-narrow cold-weather double-door, into the cramped bar and on to the restaurant jammed with traditionally European slightly too-small tables which encourage intimate conversations with old and new friends alike.
Tuesday night’s menu included pan-seared foie gras with a pear and honey glaze, confit de canard; my forbidden pleasure of a dish (how can you resist duck that’s been preserved in its own fat… I mean, seriously?!), and Crépes Suzette; crépes and orange zest flambeed in Grand Marnier. Two bottles of French Médoc, a complementary round of cognac from the ever-present Cyril at the bar, and five hours of laughter with friends stopping by the table all night long made for an exquisitely perfect evening.
For those that follow the twitter, you know I did something slightly… unusual yesterday. I ate a few things that you don't normally find on western menus. Things you don't normally consider eating. Things if seen in the wild, you'd probably run away screaming like a little girl.
I ate snake.
I ate centipede.
And the pièce de résistance… I ate scorpion.
But let me back up and take you on a tour of the great, famous, Donghuamen Market in Beijing (also seen written as the DongHuaMen Night Market, although it's open during the day).
Breaking tradition, I can't resist posting this movie on here. When we walked into the market, we immediately ran into a TV crew from Curaçao, traveling with Shawn Crawford, winner of the 200m Silver, who were trying to talk themselves into eating something bizarre. They finally settled on the snake (tame enough), but when I ordered a centipede, they couldn't resist getting in on the action. With cameras rolling, the host bit into his snake while I gnawed on the centipede. We traded sticks, and sampled each-others snacks. As you can see in this video, snake and centipede are not high on the yummy list in the islands!! You'll also see the devastation of one crispy scorpion. Delicious!
The video is also on my MobileMe gallery.
My dining experience even merited a comment on Vincent Laforet's Newsweek.com blog! LOL…
This is where to find the Donghaumen Market. On Google it's listed as Dong'anmen St., but I'll stick with the spelling on the sign I photographed there.
This market is amazing, selling pretty much everything you would ever think not to eat. They sell starfish, centipede, grub, scorpion, snake, all kinds of internal organs, and — wait for it — sheep penis. No, I did not put that in my mouth.
Pictures speak louder than words. Check it out…
Selection of scorpions (I ate the smaller ones, thank you!)
Scorpion already fried and ready to be reheated
Soft shelled crab
Soft shelled crab cooking
Yep… there it is. Sheep penis.
Of course the market doesn't just sell the bizarre. It also had a great selection of fruits, vegetables, noodles, and different meats. Not that I'd eat any of that crap.
Little boy eating corn
Old woman eating noodles
What an experience. Even if you don't have the cojones to eat any of these delicacies yourself, no trip to Beijing would be complete without this bizarre experience. You gotta go!
In fact… I'm rating this "restaurant" with 5 feet… because damnit, it rocks!!
I was hungering for sushi my first night, and Sydney has a reputation of great fish. Being Sunday many places were closed, but the concierge at the Westin pointed me to Shiki at The Rocks, a very cool shopping area by Sydney Cove. I'd been there already in the morning exploring the shops, so was excited to go back at night.
Shiki Japanese Restaurant
The atmosphere in The Rocks is very cool; young and trendy, but with a lot of history packed in. A fun mix of old and new, and a lively vibe even for a Sunday night.
I found Shiki relatively easily, and while the restaurant was almost empty, it was beautiful inside, again combining a decór of classic Japanese with a modern edge. The sushi bar was clean and the chefs friendly, and the aquarium of snow crabs behind them was full. Almost too full actually; it was a bit depressing seeing all those crabs piled on top of eachother, barely moving, eyeing their bretherin getting masaccered in front of them. Hmm, on second thought, that's kinda wrong.
The sushi presentation was beautiful, and the fish looked great. However the Hamachi (yellowtail) didn't look or taste like Hamachi, and I even questioned the chef but he insisted it was. Hmm. I'm not convinced. Sake (salmon) was delicious, but he laid several pieces on top of a slice of lemon, and by the time I got to them, the lemon overpowered the fish. D'oh. Don't do that again please!
The chef offered some fish that I'd never heard of (and never did quite get the name he repeated five times), which was tasty and unique, so that was a nice surprise. My closing selection, a salmon skin handroll, was nothing like what I'm used to and quite disappointing. The skin had almost no flavor, was overcooked, and there was no sweet sauce on it like I usually see. My sushi 'desert', wasn't.
When the bill came I had to send it back as it had $30 of food I didn't order; apparently he forgot to "clear the register". Um… seriously?
Shiki Japanese Restaurant
Clock Tower Square
Corner of Argyle & Harrington Streets
The Rocks 2000
rating: 3 feet
verdict: Good fish overall, but questionable Hamachi. The lemon slice under the Sake was just wrong. Great atmosphere, but overpriced. Some tasty chef selections. I'd be able to conditionally recommend it if it was half the cost. OK maybe 2/3; this is Sydney and the US dollar is weak.
Al Contadino Sotto Le Stelle is an amazing little Italian restaurant in old East Berlin that I went to once two years ago and have been gagging to get back to. The experience I had the first time there was something remarkable -- a table of 8 people I didn't know (one couple was a newly introduced friend of a friend who invited me along), and we never saw a menu. The food just came, and came, and came. I think we were there for six hours. Now, the food was absolutely amazing, but of course the experience was made that much better by the people and the wonderful time I had. So of course, I had to go back.
This time we were a smaller group; only three of us. And without knowing the owner, we got 'regular' service, which was just great, especially considering we had to communicate in engligermaspanitalian! The food was very good, and each dish was somehow unique. I wouldn't call this traditional Italian (although perhaps it is, from some part of Italy I don't know), but it was all very good.
Unfortunately I forgot the proper camera, so these are iPhone photos. Not the greatest so you'll have to use your imagination.
Kinda forgot to take a photo of the shared appetizer before it was nearly entirely devoured. All the menu called this was Salsiccia e formaggio alla griglia, or "grilled sausage and cheese". I suppose it's their little secret just what the sausage and cheese is, but let me tell you -- order it. It's fabulous. And it's served with this spicy sweet chutney thing that's to die for. YUM!
My main course was Gnocchi di patate e zafferano con stufatino di coniglio, or
…"Potato gnocchi with saffron and… stewed rabbit? Rabbit stew?" Not sure, and I didn't really taste any rabbit, but the saffron gnocchi was delicious. Perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth smooth, just lovely.
Overall a very good meal. Not the same memory as before, but one really shouldn't expect to re-live those kinds of memories. Definitely a restaurant worth visiting if you're up for good Italian in Berlin.
Dinner at Al Contadino Sotto Le Stelle Auguststr. 34 10119 Berlin alcontadino.com +49 302819023
rating: 4 feet
verdict: I really really wanted to come back and rate this one 5 feet. If I'd only been there this one time, it'd get only 3. So I'm gonna split the difference and go with 4 here. It really is a good restaurant, I was just expecting more from it that night -- probably unfairly so.
Somethin' tells me mom's not gonna approve of this one…
La Fée Verte translates to "the green fairy". Called so because, apparently, that's what you see when you drink Absinthe [Wiki link]. Absinthe has been illegal in the United States since 1915, but the French drink it and are still around, thank you very much, so how bad can it be. Right?
So yes, this restaurant serves absinthe -- alongside some pretty yummy food, mind you. So let's start with the starters, shall we?
OK I gotta start blogging sooner or taking notes. This was… um… onions. And, cheese? Baked, with some kind of sauce. Look this isn't the absinthe speaking OK, this is what happens when you post a week after you eat. It was good. Don't seem to recall it being remarkable, but it was good. Alrighty then.
Next up, the main course. This was a very tasty…
…lamb burger, a bit dry, but chock-full of flavor. I don't think I set it down once I picked it up; it really was quite tasty. The layered roasted veggie thing looked like it could be delicious, but it was served cold, and frankly just didn't appeal. Straight from the oven it was probably lovely.
OK now to the important bit. The absinthe.
There's a routine involved in serving and consuming absinthe, and all any of us at the table knew of it was what we'd seen in movies. Which amounts to pretty much F-all. "I think the water goes in that fancy dispenser"… "I'm sure they're gonna set it on fire"… "You're not really going to drink that, are you?" and so on.
Since I was the only one at the table
brave stupid brave enough to try it, we didn't get the fancy water dispenser (and yes it's for water). Instead I was served a normal glass with a bit of the green glowing drink, a special spoon with a sugar cube balanced on top, and a carafe of ice water. They poured the absinthe into the glass over the sugar cube, then let it sit for some time before bringing it to the table. We asked if it was meant to be ignited, and they said you could if you wanted to… so we tried (obviously). Unfortunately I guess the alcohol had evaporated from the sugar, or the match wasn't hot enough, but we failed where caveman succeeded millennium before. So, pitch the fire, in with the sugar and water, and mix mix mix.
The result is a cloudy white drink. Certain biological components of the absinthe are not soluble in water, so they come out and cloud the drink. Or something like that. It has a pungent anise smell, and equally strong flavor. I love black liquorice, so the flavor appealed to me, but I guess you'd have a hard time with this if you only eat red vines.
Overall, well worth the experience and sure I'd have it again. I didn't see any green fairies, nor did I cut off my ear, but I did fall asleep in the cab on the ride back to the hotel. Absinte-1, me-0.
La Fée Verte
108, Rue Roquette 75011 Paris, France
+33 1 43 72 31 24
rating: 3 feet
verdict: It really gets the rating for the absinthe. The food was OK, but the absinthe experience great. I'll probably go again just for the green fairies.
(catching up on posts so this is slightly out of sync and is from Saturday night in London)…
This restaurant came highly recommended (by the same friend who pointed me to flat white, so who am I to argue!), so for my last dinner in London, which was to be with friends who live there, I requested that we dine at Acorn House. It's walking distance from the King's Cross/St. Pancras train station, which happens to be the London base for the Eurostar to Paris.
Acorn House is unique in that the chef makes exceptional efforts to be 'green' about everything that comes in and out of his restaurant. I picked up his cookbook, and the forward is written by Jamie Oliver who goes as far as to call him the "original green chef". A big part of this is purchasing local, sustainable ingredients, and only buying what's in season. The menu is actually updated twice a day to accommodate!
My appetizer was a fantastic goat cheese on toast with a pistachio pesto (!) and a very sticky, very black, balsamic drizzle. It was absolutely divine, and so unfortunately I had to eat the whole thing. Hate it when that happens.
Next up was a pan fried sea trout, which was good but honestly a little fishy. I didn't find the dish to be remarkable, although the presentation was very nice. My friend had the pork belly with feijoada which he really enjoyed, so perhaps I'd try that next time.
Of course this was accompanied by a fine bottle of wine. Like the rest of the menu, they go to great lengths to find quality organic wines, but even here there was the 'next level' of organic; biodynamic [wiki link]. It's a holistic approach to growing the grapes, and since everything else about the evening was so green (yes I took the train to get there!), I decided that we had to try one of these special wines. I must say the wine was superb. I won't try to review the wine here as this meal was now several days ago and I didn't take any notes, but again it was absolutely delicious; enough so that I photographed the label so I could track it down later.
Overall a good meal and an enjoyable, learning experience. I'll likely go again, preferably in a different season just to see how the menu has changed.
Acorn House 69 Swinton Street London WC1X 9NT
rating: 4 feet
verdict: I love the 'green-ness' of the place. It's a great idea who's time has come, and the quality of (most of) the food shows it. I'll be back in a different season, and I did buy the cookbook so look forward to trying a few things at home.
I loved this funny little noodle place in London. Not so little anymore!
UPDATE: Unfortunately I'm less than impressed. Growth, it would appear, has not been good. The noodles were overcooked and mushy, the same for the veggies, and horribly disappointingly, the carrot juice with ginger -- one of my all-time favorites -- appeared to be watered down.
Wagamama London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 wagamama.com
rating: 2 feet
verdict: The only reason it's getting a "2 feet" rating is that it used to be good. Perhaps it still is and I got unlucky. Otherwise, it's just a 1. Sad, sad, sad.
A short post for now. I'm in Paris, very tired after a dinner of lamb burger and absinthe, and will catch up on blogs tomorrow. However I'll post this one as I have the photos ready to go.
Back in London, a friend recommended a café called "flat white", which was quite close to my hotel. Claimed it had the best coffee in town. Boy, he wasn't kidding.
You can order the standard fare of cappuccino's, latte's and the like, but of course the top item on the menu is the flat white. There's a "definition" on the wall, which is followed by a lat/long reading (someone later told me that Flat White is also a place in New Zealand), and the definition on the wall reads an antipodean style coffee which is served as a strong shot of espresso served in a small cup with textured milk; a damn good strong coffee. Not quite sure what "textured" milk is, but the resulting drink is pure velvet. Absolutely delicious, sweet on the tongue and entirely too drinkable. It doesn't take much to put away a cup of flat white.
flat white 17 Berwick Street Soho, London www.flat-white.co.uk +44 20-7734-0370
rating: 5 feet
verdict: Perfect coffee. What else can you ask for?
Ah, another superb meal in London. This trip is turning tragic!
Tonights choice was Tom's Restaurant, as recommended by an expat friend here in London. We started upstairs at the bar for a drink and snack, then moved to the main restaurant for dinner.
Upstairs vibe was chic and modern, packed with the good looking set of Chelsea. We ordered drinks and a bowl of chips (that's French Fries to you, mate) which were fat and crisp and fluffy and lovely, as well as a small order of their Parmesan Risotto, which was tasty but uninspiring. The flavor of the parmesan and creme fraiche was very nice, however the risotto itself was chalky and undercooked. My friend who joined me for dinner that night is a huge fan of risotto, and didn't think much of it -- and it's one of those dishes I've tried cooking many times and have gotten truly right only once or twice, so I know it's not easy to get perfect. Unfortunately, they didn't quite get it right here.
Chips and Parmesan Risotto
Downstairs however was a completely different story. The food we ate there was to die for. Even though we'd already snacked, I couldn't resist the Seared Foie Gras with Duck Egg, Bacon and Balsamic Jus. While I'll be the first to admit the photo doesn't make it look terribly attractive, and my friend compared it to a Denny's Grand Slam (it's the biggest damn egg I've seen on a plate in a while), it was utterly delicious. The richness of the foie gras with the depth of flavor from the duck egg, combined with the saltiness of the thick cut bacon was, without question, heaven on a plate.
I can't talk about this dinner without telling the story I twittered on yesterday, involving dumping a glass of water in the name of art. (If you don't follow the twitter yet, subscribe!). I commonly will use a wine or water glass at a restaurant as a makeshift 'tripod'; just something to balance the camera against. As you can imagine most restaurants are quite dark, making photography difficult. So I usually use a glass as a balance point. Which of course I'd been doing throughout the evening here, as I always do. Now I can't quite say that I didn't realize my water glass had been filled, because I watched it get filled. But in the heat of the moment of seeing a photo I wanted to make, I grabbed the glass and flipped it upside down. The full glass. And naturally dumped an entire glass of fresh, cold water all over our table, the floor, and of course -- my leg.
And the photo didn't even turn out that great. :( All in the name of the blog!
But back to the food. Main courses came, and they thrilled nearly as much as the starter. I had the Duck Confit, and my friend dined on Filet of Beef. The duck was superb, with gorgeous crispy skin and delicate fat, the meat perfectly moist with the chewy edges I adore so much to accompany the fatty skin. It was served with potatoes and artichoke hearts, and the artichokes themselves were nearly as good as the duck. Eat your heart out, vegetarians -- nothing makes a perfectly good vegetable even better than coating it in duck fat!! The steak was apparently superb, a point worth noting because my friend doesn't eat rare meat. It's been a point of contention between us where I'm always chiding him for taking a perfectly good steak and murdering it on the grill. He admitted that he had been slowly going more and more red on his meat, and that while this particular steak -- ordered medium (and served French medium, not American medium) -- was the rarest steak he'd ever eaten. And he loved it. Good on you man!
Tom's Restaurant (aka Tom's Place. Seems to depend on where you look. And Tom's Café is a different restaurant)
27 Cale Street
Chelsea, SW3 3QP
+44 207 349 0202
rating: 4 feet
verdict: Absolutely superb. Great ambiance, friendly service (both in the bar and the restaurant), and of course great food. The only reason it's not getting a 5 feet rating is the risotto. But definitely, without question, go.