Sunday, June 1, 2014

Pelagia Trattoria's Golden Spoon Award is well deserved!

Pelagia Trattoria on Urbanspoon
 Upon domiciling in Florida after an exceptionally long career of investigation and other capering in boggy London, Watson and I chanced upon a publication early on in our retirement geared towards those with an interest in all things 'Business' in this Sunshine State: Florida Trend Magazine.

As a monthly general business publication it ingratiates itself to the many who have come to rely on it's unique specificity into doing business in this disparate territory. Yet it was not the discussions of the citrus or sugar industry, tariffs or cruise ships, politics (hanging chads), exports (perhaps TO Chad), Who's Who, (or Who is Not) and the like that caught our keen eye, No! It was the yearly commitment to the innumerable and tireless perfectionists known as 'The Restauranteurs', that brethren either breaking new ground at the table or astounding year after year throughout this state as they hone their craft and offer up these gastronomic jewels for those lucky enough to partake. 

These Scrolls of Mastication started initially some 40 years ago and graciously catered most to the  traveling executives and ambassadors of Florida business, its focus on providing these Captains of Capital and Policy with a reliable source of professional comfort and consistency. With our own arrival stateside in the early '90's (1890 or recall quite spotty at times) the tome sported a mere 100 Restaurants throughout the state. Yet with continued population growth, attributed to the many seeking those most sought after life qualities as forever sunshine (some 300 days per year), forever beaches (the longest coastline of any state in this union it would appear) as well as the remarkable absence of a state income tax, it became apparent that the corresponding growth of exquisite dining made it nearly impossible to fill out ONLY a Top 100 List.

Additionally, the devotion to excellence by so many of these enclaves in the Florida peninsula thusly dictated that the list expand to the Top 200 Restaurants (broken down by region of course - Florida being almost 7-8 different 'states' within itself..or at least states of mind), an added new category named 'Best NEW Restaurants', and saw the origination of the "Hall of Fame Awards", reserved for those recipients who have won their coveted Spoons 'many, many times' (a nebulous description but whose number appears to hover near 10......years that is, or more!)

Thusly, while Watson and I traverse the asphalt corridors in this region (or float gently thru it's skies), the 'Golden Spoon Award Winners' listing is kept in close proximity for whenever an opportunity posits to sit and study or ponder a case this list rightly proves indispensable AND shows the worthy provenance of the Golden Spoon recipients. 

And so it was that year after year these Golden Spoon Winners delivered unto us experience and extravagance extraordinaire (as was expected) and, very often, delivered much more than anticipated.
Delicious Sourdough and Kalamata Pate

And with above homage paid to 'The Golden Spoons', all justly deserved, Tampa's 2011-2014 Award Winning Pelagia Trattoria exhibits all the qualities worthy of such a list while being regrettably hidden on the lee side of Tampa's International Mall Food 'Pavillion'; that area on the west side with a plethora of ubiquitous branded offerings that while quite acceptable and even delicious at times, does not rise to the level of excellence exhibited by this Mediterranean find.

Located just inside Marriott's Renaissance Hotel (with a separate entrance as well) and almost appropriately adjacent to Neiman Marcus ('A chenille wrap m'lady?'), Watson and I squired ourselves into a window side table on a very early Saturday night with nary a soul in sight. We were both thankful for our luck as no wait was to be had and a bit forlorn at the lack of said activity for this surely was a treat sitting in plain sight!

Relishing the nearly isolated focus of our ebullient server, one Miss Katherine I noted, our libations were quickly proffered and with a glance at the 'Signature Bites' portion of the menu...the 'Charred Octopus with Chorizo Oil, Arugula, and Grapefruit' was also summoned - my desire to compare the Pelagia Octopus to those of Dodecanese Blvd. fame in Tarpon Springs, FL. - an cephalopod heaven if ever there was one!

The dance of flavors was admirable on this dish, the tart grapefruit and the slightly spicy chorizo oil offering quite the balance to the surprisingly meaty octopus...and despite Watson's hearty early  commitment to sampling the dish I swiftly assumed all manner of its completion - I do admit to a predisposition to any heartily grilled and marinated octopod tentacles of the Mediterranean or Greek variety.

Pelagia Trattoria, surely espousing the beliefs of gastronomic free-will and the consumptive self-determination of the misunderstood yet highly interpretive ascetic Pelagius, has a tight menu with enough of just about everything such that no one would ever walk away without feeling there was a choice made specifically with their delight in mind. And while on a normal occasion I might venture into the 'Signature Dish' category for the verbalized melange on this occasion was nearly intoxicating.... today was a day for their house made pasta.

It must be noted that once you grow accustomed to properly made fresh pasta any other kind becomes nearly inedible....or at least insufferable, and the wide variety of deliciously fresh and sumptuous pasta at Pelagia is enough nearly in itself to prompt many return visits...which we plan on doing from this date forward.

However, it is what is done with these homemade delights that sets Pelagia apart and surely earns it their place amongst the 'Golden Spoon' chosen.

To wit, a Blue Fin Tuna Pappardelle, Potato Gnocchi with Braised Short Ribs and House Made Ricotta, Cavatelli in Porcini and Black Truffle Cream Sauce. Very heady stuff these with only the prior Grilled Octopus satiation holding back a multiple entree order.
Squid Ink Linguini with Sea Scallops, Shrimp, and Blue Crab ($26)

But it was the Lobster Fra-Diavolo with Saffron Tagliatelle and the Squid Ink Linguini with Seared Scallops, Shrimp, and Blue Crab that commanded our attention (as well as the spelling of Diavolo as Diablo on the menu.....adding credence to it's 'Spicy' sauce and not to any misspelling, that's for certain!)



Lobster Fra-Diavolo with Saffron Tagliatelle ($26)

These two dishes were as close to perfectly done as one can imagine with Sea Scallops, Shrimp, and Blue Crab found in plentitude along with the Ink Squid Linguini such that it neared becoming one of the finest pasta dishes eaten by my trusty partner. 

The Lobster Fra-Diavolo, with chunk lobster, spicy saffron tagliatelle, and cherry tomato sauce was simply mouth wateringly delicious and had me perfectly ensconced in comfort - full but not incommodious, and yet still yearning for more!

And more there was.......

Perhaps apropos for this city built on the fortunes of the Cuban cigar industry many eons ago, a coffee and cigar with delectable and heartwarmingly good cappuccino's were next on the agenda. Tho by 'Coffee and Cigar' Pelagia had us elated again for laid upon our cloth was a Bailey's Mousse in a chocolate tuile laid upon an espresso panna cotta produced a euphoric ending to a splendid evening.... and upon our retreat it was noted that many more were discovering Pelagia's charms.......well deserved and earned, that is for certain!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Case of the Wistful Assemblage: Wisteria of Atlanta

Wisteria on Urbanspoon
An ever increasing investigative caseload due to our consistently high level of granular specificity has Watson and I gourmandizing the Atlanta restaurant scene more often than in all the years past combined.  Our miscible observations to date are that 'Hot'Lanta' has as robust a gastronomic enterprise as any we have ever enjoyed anywhere with no shortage of fine banquet halls, excellent gastropubs, sterling bistros and cafes, exceptional steak and chophouses along with a very healthy plethora of those individually unique locations that hew closely to the locally grown and sourced integrants with their disparate eclectic dishes all served up in spectacular fashion.

Let it be here pronounced that Atlanta's Wisteria is just such a place!

Found in the curvilinear Inman Park area just east of downtown Atlanta, this evenings case again involved our amenable neo-Georgian's Prince M. William and Lady Elizabeth, our new confidants in this region with both now involved in the higher echelonic machinations of Emory University. And it is primarily due to their recent relocation here that we have quickly been drawn into over two dozen highly intriguing candidates for our espiance...and much to our delight I might add!

With its lush and rolling geography the Inman Park area was originally envisioned as an oasis for city-dwellers by landscape designer and city planner Joel Hurt in late 1880's, a time when Watson and I were working on our own thriving investigative practice at 221B Baker Street, London.  Named for his business associate and compatriot Samuel Inman, these twisty roads were designed to yield visitors a relaxed view of the expansive greenery and (after many changes in the last 100 years both economic and gastronomic) the region is again experiencing a vibrant resurgence with a very healthy quantity of top class eateries festooned throughout the region.

A Wonderful Mix of Old and New

While parking can be a tad vexing in the fairly tight Highland Corridor, the harried visitor (or soon-to-be satiated patron) can surely come up trumps with the free valet lot next to Wisteria. The tight streets belie the fact that the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, in the wide open and expansive Freedom Park greenway, is just some 1000 meters (yet an entire world) away to the west. 

Wisteria is housed in the end unit of a single story row of shoppes with brickwork more than 100 years old and the architectural use of said brick inside parlays this decor to its sure advantage. The pub wall is aptly backed by an expanse of this original brickwork .... and as justly, throughout the enclave one finds the contemporary touches of local artists adorning the walls as well. This clean, neat, sometimes classical interior proffers the proper mix of old world southern charms with a modern interpretation of style and grace and only begins to prepare you for the taste melange that awaits your palate.
Cornmeal Fried Calimari with sweet and sour
apricot sauce and wasabi creme fraiche (9)

Intriguingly, the menu is not just the beguiling twist put on southern staples like 'Shrimp and Grits' that begins to alter the provisional balance here in the New South, although that too is especially good here. No, it's more that 'Contemporary American Fare' is deftly served with a uniquely updated Southern flair and that these offerings from Chef-Owner Jason Hill are quantifiably on par with the finest available anywhere. To our great benefit!

Now, with every good dasher sporting a healthy and eclectic mix of slakes and libations these days, Wisteria is well represented herein as well for the Breckenridge Bourbon Old Fashioned I thusly summoned was among the best I have ever sampled and, with a semi-coherent belief that it MIGHT have been a mere distilled fluke, I had to have another for veracity!

A Most Delicious
Breckenridge Bourbon
Old Fashioned
Properly wetted, and to aid in our primary entree decision making, the Prince suggested we draw on an order of Fried Calamari appropriately dredged in cornmeal from the local Red Mule Mills (where said cornmeal is in fact ground locally by 'Luke', the eponymous 15 year old Red Mule himself). Served with a Sweet and Sour Apricot Sauce and a Wasabi Creme Fraiche, this delivery skillfully gives one the Southern Twist initially sought out while also delivering a delicious starter for our small cluster.

It was almost too much for us to order only one 'taster' as there were a number of others that looked especially appetizing: the Ancho Chili Rubbed Sea Scallop, Flash Fried Gulf Oysters in a Sherry Cream Sauce, the Beef Carpaccio along with a tantaric Salmon Tartare Flatbread. However, Watson is not much for these early invitationals and a grumbling belly soon pushed us to quickly know our onions.

Pan Fried North Carolina Flounder (27)
What initially appeared as a limited list of 12 main plates soon showed itself (upon finer inspection) as a very well balanced assortment of dishes with all bases seemingly covered: Six were water related in some way, two beef involved, one pasta friendly, one of fowl, one of foal (lamb), and one completely vegetarian... it was a poetic balance.

Almond Crusted Georgia Mountain Trout (21)
On this night it was the Pan Fried North Carolina Flounder ($27) with herb spaetzle, baby spinach, pink lady apples, and lemon butter pan sauce that caught the eye of both Watson and the Prince while Lady Elizabeth opted for the delightful Black Pepper Crusted Grilled Salmon ($26) with little gems lettuce, Asian pear, farm egg, curried candied pistachios, and filled creme mousse. The descriptions alone were more than our senses were prepared for but their gift was in the water generating aromas given at delivery. 
Sweet Potato Souffle with Candied Pecans (6)

As a self-avowed trout aficionado I chose the Almond Crusted Georgia Mountain Trout ($21) with green beans, corn, roasted tomatoes, fingerling and red potatoes, and bacon vinaigrette. It wasn't perhaps the most picturesque delivery but the succulence was palpable. And it should be noted that trout can be served in many ways yet this was a heretofore unique amalgam.

Braised Greens Mac N' Cheese (8)
Relying on our exemplary waitperson Rob(ert) to deliver us an additional two accompaniments to complement the orders received thus far - he did not disappoint. A simply scrumptious Sweet Potato Mash with Candied Pecans($6), which we certainly would not have ordered but were instantly astounded at with its nuanced pleasure, and the Braised Greens Mac n' Cheese ($8) which has now attained a perch in our collective side-dish hierarchy of Best Ever! Simply superb!

It should also be noted that a seemingly small matter to some but huge in our investigations is the presence of teamwork in any enterprise, where all are clearly rowing in the same direction to further the efforts of the whole. At Wisteria it was the subtle drink delivery by a previously unseen steward, a quiet whisking of plates by another that showed us ethereal web intricately woven beneath the surface aiding the entire operation. A well run endeavor indeed and certainly not one glossed over.

And once dining plates do disappear the timing of the desert introduction is also another sign of measured expertise; not rushed or dallied yet smoothly enveloped in like that far-off oboe singing during an intricate classical symphony. Heavier meals in other locales might call for a digestif along with a final plate yet the light fullness of these meals suggested something perhaps with a bit of frippery.

The Small Bites Desserts, which offered three of the eight full dessert parcels in more moderation (3/$10 or 6/$18), is the perfect communal table piece allowing social participation yet discreet restraint at gluttony.

Our chosen delightful trio consisted of the hand crafted Caramel and Sea Salt S'more, Chef Walker's Seasonal Granita - this one of Pink Grapefruit and Fresh Ginger(!), and Jakes Homemade Ice Cream - tonite a Mexican Chocolate-Salted Bourbon Pecan-Vanilla Bean melange that was cool, soothing, and yet had a bite to it that rightly startled!

Overall Wisteria sports one of the largest gluten-free menu's in the area, hosts a large array of locally ground and sourced raw ingredients, and is  constantly changing based on the availability of these fresh ingredients so that the listed menu rotation will be ongoing yet the excellence with which it is served will certainly be everlasting if our experience is any harbinger.

The unique nature of the evening was brought to a pointed when upon retrieving our coach outside we saw what appeared to be a Sunbeam Tiger, a 1964-67 production aided by Carroll Shelby who also designed and developed the quintessential AC-Cobra, an automotive gauntlet whose throttling reverberations are documented in auto auctions worldwide. This 'Tiger', witnessed for the first time, was unlike anything we'd seen ever before - just as Wisteria was a find like no other!

A Sunbeam Tiger

Sunday, March 23, 2014

State Bird Provisions - San Francisco, Ca.

State Bird Provisions on UrbanspoonAs we closed what had been quite an eventful year of cases with well over 120 fine establishments investigated in 2013 (with only a small handful of those opined on thus far here on these pages) I can attest that we have seen both the heights and the depths of the hospitality trade and have done so in locales all across these fine United States.

To be frank, many of our visits involved high levels of anticipation and (for the most part - per Newton's First Law) that anticipation has been met in equal force by the delivery of exemplary service, exquisite taste, welcoming comfort, and festive ambiance…not to mention the ubiquitous yet altogether necessary (and desperately appreciated) containment of costs in the end.
Quickly designed orders laid in wait -
before a street side window no less!

Rare has it been, thus far, where Watson and I have been utterly disappointed by any visit for it is my predilection to always try to see the good in most culinary efforts and to acknowledge the difficulty in assembling the many harmonious pieces needed to conduct a stellar epicurean operation. Not easy machinations these!

I say, show me the tremendous effort required and attention to detail to the last and I will  envision the Herculean struggle rendered and call it out forthwith - and will do so in spades!

When confronted periodically, however, with those merely mundane efforts, which may be quite satisfactory for that perfunctory outing (which we both attempt to avoid whenever possible-life is too short I say), as well as those visits ephemerally described as 'poor', reviews are simply squelched here altogether with a terse 'avoid' and we rightly move on - all the while continuing to maintain our generally good food disposition. 

[Tho let it not be said that we would  shirk our responsibilities in any way if an establishment represented a danger to those in the general populace with their offerings - a loquacious cease and desist would certainly be issued hence although I have only done so once!]
Hand Pulled Garlic Burratta - $8

Now rarest of all is that visit which immediately separates itself from all others, where the singular morsel placement into one's mouth transports that gifted recipient to a higher gastronomic plane of existence, where the ability to triangulate, cross-reference, and compare that experience is simply rendered moot as there IS no comparison to anything else ever auditioned… has simply not been done before and therefore no comparison exists! The flavors, the tastes, the simplicity of the dishes, the nuance, all working together - they quickly ameliorate a transcendental gap so large that it astonishes any participant at once to it's size.

Here make no mistake, State Bird Provisions is such a place.

It was way back in December of 2013, with a singular weeks' worth of travel taking me on grueling cases from Toronto, Rochester, Denver, and then finally San Francisco before a final stop in Sonoma, CA (on an undercover assignment at Infineon Racetrack), I knew that I would need to rely on some well placed and trusted associates for help in order to attempt a successful San Francisco sojourn. 

Calling on an old friend, The Esteemed High Princess Abigail, formerly of the Harbor of Palm, and her most resilient and trusted partner The Honorable Lady Ferris, the gambit at first appeared to be a simple one……... secure a reservation at State Bird Provisions two months in advance and allow us to reminisce with one another in glory and in peace. Given the time allotted, surely we would find our place. Oh, how foolish we were at first!

Initial attempts at securing reservations were for naught as the digital reply from the usual suspects of web reservations services was a terse: 
'There are no reservations available at this time'

which was immediately curious for the blatant fact of the matter was that we hadn't yet entered any dates or times at all! This was  tangentially very reminiscent of the late NY Mayor Ed Koch's street signs erected in NYC in yesteryear: 

'Don't even THINK of parking here!'

So imagine my surprise when day-of-visit reservations to State Bird Provisions were successfully secured by Lady Ferris tho only by physically arriving at the front door at 4 PM, 1 hour prior to opening, to secure one of the coveted and apparently clandestinely available 'open' tables on a first come first served basis. (And even at the 4:00 pm hour a line was already 30 minutes in the making.)

Lobster Salsa Salad $14
State Bird Provisions, SBP herewith, can be found at 1529 Fillmore St., and it seems only fitting then that this single most legendary dining experience of our professional purview would be in such close proximity to the legendary 'Fillmore West Music Hall' located not 50 meters away on the corner of Fillmore and Geary streets (a remnant of the great 'Fillmore West' of legend with such fantastical happenings as 'The Allman Brothers, Live at Fillmore West, as well as hundreds of shows produced by the musical legend Bill Graham whose historical musical effects can still be sorted, sifted, and ultimately purchased directly at

The Fillmore District (or the 'Western Addition' - that area 'West' of downtown San Francisco that was 'Added to' in the 1800's) is an area rife with history and ambiance and possesses an aura in local eutony of 'groovy feelings' - and is a spectacularly fine choice for the domicile of such an outstanding eclectic hashery.

SO it was that on a brisk and rainy Friday night I headed directly to  Fillmore and Geary from SFO where Her Highness, having already arrived, met me at the door and squired me to our table and the awaiting Lady Ferris. The throng of other prospective diners forlornly lining the foyer also caught my attention for they waited, standing with mouths agape, for the unheard of 'no-show' or the sudden availability of even a lone counter seat. 

Smoked Trout Creamed Beets, $7
Unlike some of my previous investigative reports, this one will not spend any time on the confines of the enclave itself - the layout and seating, the lighting, the wall decor, no none of that. For whatever benefits these areas bestow, and they were indeed intriguing, they are surely side shows to the grand festival that awaits you and for which you will need to keep your wits about you….the food experience itself!

With a nod towards my previous acknowledgement, remember that when comparing entire establishments and offerings it is sometimes only natural to take the benefactions of one and compare it's taste and execution to a similar minded serving from another, weighing the benefits and attributes of each and notching a mental vote on where one might stack up against another.

In a fine Italian restaurant for example, a fellow investigator I know from Scotland Yard has been known to compare the dessert of a well made tiramisu and render an entire opinion based on that single selection. Another constable uses Hungarian Goulash as a barometer on all Eastern European quarters….. and in each case what is thus attempted is the firm and verifiable establishment of a comparative baseline, a launching pad from which to offer a verdict.

Tastes that all arrived before our first order was delivered!
Yet it is this very attempt that makes SBP exemplary for it is unpretentiously beyond compare. There are no offerings in all my years that can be placed alongside those proffered here for balance and rendering. These dishes are seemingly concocted from the minds of a gastronomic Salvador Dali, one whose final product might conjure up the same fanciful and fantastic imaginings with equally outlandish and surrealistic taste results.

And as MOST of our adventures begin, yet particularly in this case, the call for adult beverages was immediately in order. My ordinarily robust thirst for mead was however quickly confronted with a mere triumvirate of draught beers! Three! With two of these choices being an Allagash Stout and a Port Brewing Wipeout IPA....both choices not ordinarily found in my bailiwick. So with an additional peripheral glance at the following verbiage on the menu: "All wines and beers are carefully chosen for their balance and versatility to accompany the ever-changing menu..." I threw myself into the final selection: The Linden Street, Urban People's Common Lager. Being more accustomed to the inner working minds and travails of the working man made this choice almost serendipitous.

Her Highness Abigail chose the clean and elegant Abbaye St. Hilaire, Le Prieur Rose which would surely allow for the enjoyment of the soon to ensue lengthy dialogue. Lady Ferris, perhaps maintaining her demure disposition opted for a Tascante Sparkling Wine with it's delightful and diminutive  effervescence.

Cucumber Tapioca with Red Trout Caviar-$??
The fairly small and  (initially!) limited menu is at first distracting with its 'Is this all there is?' wonderment. But no matter... it's pedigree allowed us to grant it the necessary space and we presumed to make do with what we have been given.

With our now properly sated thirst we thus turned our full attention to this folded, half page menu printed on a thick page of kraft-type papier which propounded only three small yet seemingly delectable categories and their brief observances (said observances listed here only for no descriptions are provided in print...)

Pancakes - those small starter dishes, either wrapped in or involving a dough of some kind, which can then be eaten by hand or cut and shared; 

Commandables - more substantial 'small' plates, with some served in both small and somewhat larger offerings, which I naively assumed were 'entrees' (the Common Lager beginning to work the magic of the Urban People no doubt) and then

Desserts - which I mistakenly examined only cursorily but upon closer review presented mixtures and textures described in a way that gave the appearance as to be from another solar system entirely!

With a seemingly thorough (and as it turns out naive) grasp of the menu and believing our orders of a Sourdough Pancake and an order of Pork Spare Ribs would allow for some mental breathing room and some much needed catchup time with my esteemed guests, it soon became apparent that this diminutive matrix of dishes falsely lulled us into a relaxed mental state for it was at this very moment that ALL of our faculties were most required!

Soon arriving table-side (completely unannounced mind you!) began a semi-frequent procession of hip, effusive, and attentive waitpersons introducing the much more difficult variable of special 'non-menu' dishes drummed up by the kitchen and brought dim sum style and sold then and there table side.

Pork Spare Ribs with shichimi togarashi
glazed in their own juices with sautéed kale and green onions - $10
It was in this way that a scrumptious looking Lobster Salsa Salad ($14) pronouncedly found it's way onto our table, followed fairly quickly by a bevy of Raw Oysters with Spicy Kohlrabi Kraut and Sesame ($3 ea), as well as an altogether unrecognizable dish of 'Smoked Trout Creamed Beets' ($7) long before our originally ordered Sourdough and Spare Ribs were anywhere near arriving. 

This, yes, THIS is where the challenge truly begins for with no printed guide to aid in our discovery, and a slowly relaxing memory due to both extensive travel and the welcome and steady intake of alcohol, the three of us were soon enraptured in the swirling tastes and aromas delivered.....and most happily so!

And it was with that first bite, that first delectable taste of the Lobster Salsa Salad, that a sudden bolt of lightning coursed thru the synapses of my culinary mind and upon turning to exclaim such an event to my beautiful guests I was confronted by the same mirror- like site in their eyes as if to say 'Am I truly tasting what I am tasting or am I just dreaming?'

These first few morsels, pulling us into another realm, were then deliciously savored over with a slowness that belied the extraordinary measure of frenzy taking place on the palate.

Charred Octopus w/ Tomato-Chickpea Salsa
and Pork Belly and Grape Salad w/ Mint Sprigs
The next dish to 'suddenly' arrive was taken as a lark, a bet on the come if you will based simply on the results of those first initial Lobster Salsa bites', imagining our conjoined mindset as "If the first dish was THIS astounding, what else do they have here and how quickly can we get it to this table"!

So irregardless that 'Cucumber Tapioca with Red Trout Caviar' was not precisely what one might have envisioned as an otherworldly second taste, there it was placed serenely before us awaiting our judgement.

But with one small yet beguiling tidbit it was as if the burning fuse to a gastronomic rocket had been lit. The visible orbs swirled, the mind melted, the taste buds began to dance and while maintaining one's sense the whole dish was quickly pushed across the table to my guests for corroboration of this heady indulgence...... with the resulting glances all but confirming that something indeed special was taking place - and one we would not soon forget!

Then finally(!) arriving table side (in under 10 minutes mind you) were our original two 'testing' choices. The 'burratta', as it was described upon delivery, was astounding in it's presentation as well as in its taste yet it was not listed on the menu as a 'burratta' but as 'Sourdough with sauerkraut, pecorino, and ricotta cheese with a light lemon drizzle and peppercorn'. So again, it is imperative to keep your faculties clear or definitively risk losing your way in this swirl of flavor!

Another surprise awaiting delivery
to the next unsuspecting guests!
And yet still the menagerie continued! Miss Abigail secured a delightfully diminutive Pork Belly and Grape Salad with Mint Sprigs that demonstrably soared in it's deliciousness,  with it's delivery accompanied by a crucible of Charred Octopus with a Tomato-Chickpea Salsa that, while not appealing to the palates of my delightful guests, was exceedingly well received by this investigator and deemed both scrumptious and worthy of a second helping!

The mirth of the evening was in high swing and our original pangs were pleasantly lessened with each subsequent and ultimately vanishing nibble and yet there was something viscerally amiss, something that had Lady Ferris nearly flummoxed into a twitter. 

What was it I wondered?

 After a careful study of the surroundings along with the nearly frantic twitching of The Lady it became apparent to me that the true desire of this nervous Nellie was the anticipation of the lusciously described desserts on the menu, for which she had apparently been pining for since she arrived at 4 PM!

Truth be told it was Princess Abigail, who no doubt had witnessed such a display before, who had tipped me off to the longing glances of her friend towards the sugary concoctions. Quickly looking to remedy this anxiety, we all agreed to 'share' our dessert choices (the Princess and myself already heady over the primary amalgamation of food sensations) leaving the choices to Lady Ferris - and she did not disappoint.

Soon bestowed to the table (and somewhat demurely ignored by myself and the Princess) Lady Ferris was soon in a swan song over a Bittersweet chocolate ganache tart with brown sugar-oat crust with olive oil and creme fraiche ($8), her glucosian pleasure evident by the joy on her face and slackening tension in her frame.

Perhaps it was the variety of tastes, the dizzying choices with even more bewildering deliveries, or perhaps the effervescence of reconnecting again with old friends after so much time. Whatever the cause, it was enough to keep a photo from being taken of the final dessert of spiced quince granita with ginger tapioca, grapes, and mint ($8), which, while regretful to not have captured such a delicacy was made an almost non-event by the visual explosion awaiting us in the parking garage.

This behemoth of a vehicle caused one to question whether the vertiginous aura felt was indeed factual or an image proceeding from an overwhelmed sense of satisfaction...... either way, there was no questioning the delight of both automotive and gastronomic for this was an event for the ages and one that should we look forward to again for the menu, as misleadingly small as it is, is updated thru the seasons and those items I've just described may already be semi-retired for newer more unbelievable tastings!

GO QUICKLY! This game is surely afoot and should be caught!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Mr. Crystal, We all commiserate…… good friend!

Mention the performer 'William Edward 'Billy' Crystal' and one might be first tempted to smile, recalling a favorite cinema line or humorous quip from your memory, and one might even fully believe that having spent the last 40 odd years watching, listening, and laughing (at and with) this Long Islander, that one might believe that they actually 'know' him.

And on a certain level one might be right in that conviction. It's a common delusion among media mavens (all of the viewing public) that the real personality of any performer can be extracted or distilled from the very attributes and characters he or she chooses to portray, or at least some might believe that you can. The 'relationship' thusly formed with any performer, or more the persona of the performer, may emulate a 'friendship' and lead this populace towards a more convivial one than otherwise exists.

Yet presently at The Imperial Theater in New York (and not too much longer mind you!), one learns for themselves both the truth and the fallacy of this 'reality'.

Having had the opportunity to sit before such a 'friend', and hear him tell you (and 1475 of his other closest friends) the backstories of his life, the quirky machinations of his inner mind, the joys as well as the fears, trepidations, and anxieties of growing up and then at 15 years old dealing with the death of his father (having been together for only '700 Sundays'), was as emotional a roller coaster as one can summon.

This, yes, THIS was the fireside chat that will allow you to not only enter the mind and heart of one of the world's most enjoyable performers but, when you leave this wonderful theatrical experience, you will genuinely feel as though you leave as friends (or, at least leave you with a much better understanding and closeness about YOUR friend!)

Intriguingly, there was never a belief in my investigative mind that a Saturday afternoon spent with this fine comedian ("I was never a comic, no, a comic was the guy wearing the cow head running across the football field at the game. No, a comedian would be the guy who got him to do it in the first place! There IS a difference!") would result in unexpected moments of such poignancy and such heartbreak, moments that drew you into the emotional viscera of his life. And then after lingering for just a moment, the deft performer and ever professional that he is, turns on a dime (subway token) and makes a heartbreaking moment disappear before your very eyes and quickly replaces it with the deep belly laughter and elation that he seems quite capable of summoning up at will.

Very few in life can perform such feats……to travel the emotional gamut from Anxiety to Zany-ness and convince us all every step of the way.

It was truly an honor to have the privilege of spending a short afternoon with Mr. Crystal, and I would harken to say that in the very short time left that this performance has to run (it closes early Jan. 2014), one should do everything within their power to allow themselves such a treat…. it will be a joy one will remember for a very long time.

Yet, knowing this to be an impossibility for so many, our 'friends' at HBO (I still remember when it was called Home Box Office) will be recording the Jan. 4th and 5th performances to air sometime in the fall of 2014……..a recording that (in my humble estimation) will seal one William Edward Crystal as one of this world's all time talents …… and forever our good friend.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Becco Beccare Bastianich Bravisima!

Becco on Urbanspoon The provenance of the name 'Hell's Kitchen', that now gentrified area west of 8th St. in Midtown Manhattan north of 34th St. and south of 57th St., has been bandied about almost as often as our dear Mrs. Hudson frets about her proper Scottswoman's breakfast!

Perhaps one of the most plausible explanations appears to be the dense propensity of butcher's, slaughterhouses, and disparate rookeries that had sprouted up in this tight little area in the mid-1800's. When melded together with the steamy and hardscrabble German-Irish denizens and disparate street vendors cooking and openly exchanging their (ahem) 'services' curbside, along with the visceral (and openly visible) nefarious street gang activity (you might visualize Scorcese's 'Gangs of New York'), this West Side sector rightfully garnered the infamy of being 'Hotter than Hell'!

'Hotter than Hell' indeed for it was this very proclamation, infamously voiced by one rookie green patrolman upon witnessing before him a conversation between two of the area's hooligans (using knives), which caused his more veteran partner to then opine 'It may be hotter than hell, but THIS here? THIS is Hell's Kitchen!"

And thus 'Hell's Kitchen' was baked solidly into New York lore, with 'Kitchen' being the definitive word here.

Moreover, more than 100 years later, NYC Mayor John V. Lindsey, in a public dedication in the very heart of Hell's Kitchen - West 46th St. between 8th and 9th Ave., proclaimed: 

"Where else, except maybe Paris, are there so many great restaurants to choose from …. than here on Restaurant Row!"

There and then Restaurant Row in Hell's Kitchen was born, the name bestowed upon the thoroughfare bursting with the esteemed eateries found on this stretch of W. 46th St. in Hell's Kitchen.

Now, in the winter of 2013, it beckoned us for a preliminary investigation of our own.

And so it was that an excursion was made to visit 'Becco' late on a recent Friday evening, which had us arriving late after a Broadway visit with Mr. William Porter's fabulously 'Kinky Boots', an occasion more heralded than had been anticipated. (And, if one needs to know, the Sex is indeed in the heel……even if you break it!) 

Circumstances and timing being what they were it was decided that rather than rush hastily to arrive and dine prior to this Cyndi Lauper/Harvey Fierstein extravaganza, we would visit these environs afterward, calling ahead and making what would surely be an unnecessary reservation for 10:30 PM…..

It was only dining with Watson during a prior excursion at 'Esca' on W. 43rd St. of this year that we were brought into the nexus of 'Becco' in the first place. On that visit my investigative instincts unearthed that the matriarch of 1/3 of Esca's Pasternak-Batali-Bastiniach triumvirate had opened previously opened 'Becco' in 1993 and has been keeping patrons deliciously sated ever since.

Thereupon, leaving 'Esca', a mental note was made to return to the area and perform a further review of this progenitor establishment.  

Accompanying me on this visit, what with my good friend Dr. Watson laid up with a mysterious and unnamed malady, was my good friend Lady Cassandra of County Orange who so graciously rode the iron rails for nearly 2 hours to join me on this festive night in 'The City that Never Sleeps'. Having not seen Lady Cassandra in more than 30 years it was a gesture of great faith and trust on her part to take a leap of faith and agree to meet with me, to which I will be forever indebted; her company made what could have been a more solemnly singular affair remarkably delightful (as well as delicious!)

Yet truth be told, the arrival and subsequent company of Lady Cassandra immediately diverted my investigative attention much more than I had anticipated for her form and beauty was beyond what I had remembered or imagined it would be. Deciding to add a Maker's Mark Manhattan or two to allow me to get my bearings again and remove the harsh traveling edges of this sleuth seemed to only leave me more smitten and beholden! This case would certainly be much more difficult!

A quick stroll on a warm November eve from the Al Hirschfeld Theater (named for the forever revered Artist of Broadway, Al Hisrchfeld) to W. 46th St. took less than 5 minutes and we were seated fairly quickly in the back dining area past the short yet well appointed bar (removing another Manhattan from its confines along the way.) 

Seated at a fairly tight and crowded table, it must be mentioned that the din of this restaurant with it's reverberating ceiling pummeling sound waves all about us essentially eliminated the ability to hear much more than a jumble of words between us, and certainly none of those from our mumbling and  angst-ridden waitperson. For from his first verse methought his morose verbal tendencies were simply rehearsal lines for a nearby depressive-ridden audition.

In episodes like this one where my faculties are being compromised by senses all about me (both alcohol and female related) I amble along a well worn mental path by choosing an establishments' flagship item and let the laurels rest where they may rather than venture into unchartered territory needlessly. If a restaurant's reputation is to be tested let their success be on that which they profess to excel at or hoist them up by their own petards with it's failing!

It was not difficult to find Becco's specialty for it is positioned at top dead center of their concise yet well balanced menu: "Sinfonia di Paste", the unlimited tableside service of three freshly made choice pasta's by Executive Chef William Gallagher. Pushing both Lady Cassandra and myself  in our decision making was the ever-present and busily wandering servers hoisting hot skillet's of these freshly cooked pasta's dishing out seconds (and thirds) to other hungry patrons. With the primer of Antipasto Misto also included in the $22.95 price it was quickly decided that we would let these morels find their own level.

Arriving quickly, the Antipasto Misto (a sampling of marinated and grilled vegetables along with a side of pickled and marinated seafood choices) and surprised us both with it's substance and it's lightness. This item alone would be a splendid pre-show theater treat of sparkle, taste, and perfect balance… an attuned theatergoer the needed satiation without the accompanying post-meal sleepiness!

Also aiding our delight was a wonderful Garlic Hummus with choices of two types of bread for dipping: a delicious breadstick and a sustaining Italian loaf. (Again, my inability to truly capture these items in photos can only be attributed to the dizziness I was suffering from being in the aura of Miss Lady Cassandra.)

After enjoying the Misto, fresh plates were delivered and the three pasta's arrived in order: A delicious Portabello Mushroom Ravioli (methinks this was what was served for I did not actually hear our James Dean SAY this!), a luscious Rigatoni Pomodoro, and then a Linguine with a delightfully fresh clam sauce.

Each pasta was remarkable in it's own right, delivered perfectly al dente with each of these initial portions and thusly savored for it's taste and aroma. 

However, and I must speak openly, when taken in triplicate these three flavors soon overwhelm one's palate and this did not render one's viscera calmly. The clam sauce, with it's brothy and briny bromide (delicious as it is and served with fresh clams -in the shell no less) did not necessarily meld when taken in any volume with the Pasta Pomodoro and a Portobello Ravioli in a cream sauce.

While a little is wonderful, 'a little more' came off as less so. Picking your favorite of the three and then moving for a second (smaller) helping might be the preferred way to go and yoll surely come up trumps!

None of these minute concerns could dissuade us both of the geniality created in the moment. While I nursed another beverage, Lady Cassandra coddled an iced tea - allegedly to root out the toxins from a past weekend of fun and frivolity….as well as in anticipation of an upcoming one. (Lady Cassandra's thirst for fun was admirable in the most overt ways!)

And not until after 1 AM did we arise from the small comedy club sized table and venture out into the New York air, but not before we were effusively 'Thanked' for coming in on our way out….. a surprisingly sincere vocal gesture appreciated as it was received. 

It was then that I noticed additional patrons still waiting to be seated for their own Bastiniach experience! The authenticity of the meal and the relatively light effect on one's purse in comparison to many other locations citywide was not lost on more people than I had imagined.

So with constitution fortified, mental capacities returning, and still in the presence of the Lady's loveliness, a healthy 15 block walk to the hotel was MORE than what the good Doctor might have ordered and we made our way slowly from our bubble back into the realities of the real world.

My kingdom for the bubble's return!

Advice to be heeded, make the post show reservation and enjoy the experience.
Espied at the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market on Saturday after the show

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Luna Del Sea Steak and Seafood - In a pinch, it was a snap!

Luna Del Sea Steak & Seafood Bistro on Urbanspoon
A phone call from an former global financial croupier had me on a plane to Baltimore recently on a case of international intrigue involving the peculiar nature of the specialty foods industry, a worldwide sales network consortium, and a tale of the world's finest Basmati rice, rumored to be imported from India and thus the impetus for the call.

Sir Archduke Shawla, late of Lebanon yet now residing in the New England area, requested my professional opinion on a case that he had been toiling on for several months (and had it nearly solved himself). 

Yet, for confirmation purposes and perhaps a bit of board- sounding, he had requested my imprimatur before moving forward with his own previously devised strategy.
The Street View

What my learned investigative experience has told me over the years (coupled with quite a few instances of rake-stepping) is that the solution to any case can only be found by religiously following wherever the clues take you…and taking heed OF those clues no matter WHERE they take you!

And this case was no different. 
After confirming for the Archduke that indeed the Basmati Rice from India was far superior to any rice I've experienced to date (having sampled rice during sojourns all over the globe) and that the network in question was fully capable of handling it's United States distribution, we retired for the day and set off in search of a watering source of joint celebration.

Maryland Style Crab Soup
With only a very short amount of time before the return flight back to Baker St., we quickly settled on a fine example of all that the city of Baltimore has to offer - and we did so without moving more than one block from the Baltimore Convention Center: Luna Del Sea Steak and Seafood Bistro, posited directly across the street.

Briny and Fresh Local Oysters, sans Horseradish
On this particularly cool day we elected to sit outside on the side patio, where one is impressively ensconced in a near bubble of peace from the bustling traffic on Pratt St., which is intriguing in it's own right as it was rush hour AND the local ballers, The Orioles , were tearing tickets not one street down for their evening game. 

The Archduke and I were immediately greeted by one of the fine waiters there employed whose visible immediate focus was to slake our obvious parch.  A fine young man indeed!

Johnny Walker Black it was for the Archduke; always Johnny Walker Black (save for my sole introduction to the Archduke of the finest of spirits - Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, for which he fell harder than a grade schooler with his first crush.) 

And as a test of this waitpersons rectitude, and a bellwether of his skills nonpareil moving forward, I asked that he choose a local brew of his own design for myself. 

The Signature Dish of Luna Del Sea
Throwing the unexpected curve will sometimes unbalance the less capable servitor, resulting in either their visible indifference to the request (evidenced by a noncommittal answer) or deliver the verbal rumblings of the less equipped staff. In this instance neither of those events occurred for he   correctly asked first for a disposition towards heavy or light and if there were any allergies present before rewarding me with a fine choice - the Heavenly Seas Breweries Golden Lager which I had not had before and enjoyed thoroughly if for the simple accomplishment of this fine steward (which I also later learned had garnered awards at The Great American Beer Festival in Denver, the Pantheon of U.S. Festivals.)

With a long day of convention hall walking behind us, and fine ferment now coursing through us, we moved to request the specialties of the house, those dishes that would ensure our satisfaction and leave us with nothing but glad tidings to bestow upon all others within our earshot.

Salmon Oscar with Crab Hollandaise and Broccoli
Soon enough the Archduke was spooning a succulent Maryland Style Crab Soup which was festooned with mushrooms and other vegetables along with Maryland Crab in a delicious broth, something not usually espied on such menu's accustomed to Clam Chowder - Red or White, or a Lobster Bisque. So ubiquitous, making this dish all the more exciting. And with a half-dozen oysters for myself, albeit without a serving of horseradish, we were soon working down our lingering hunger.

However, it was the arrival of the entree's we were looking forward to!

No Question Which was Which
And as quick as a hunted Royal Grouse, a Salmon Oscar with a Crab and Corn Hollandaise Sauce was placed before me while the Signature Dish of Luna Del Sea, the Crab Stuffed Lobster Tail, was set before the Archduke. The aroma was palpable and the deliciousness wafted throughout our olfactory senses so as to render us nearly senseless, such was the delight.

And while the portion on the Salmon Oscar was a bit 'light' for the somewhat hefty price-tag, the promise and the delivery was as foretold. Similarly with the Crab Stuffed Lobster which 'appeared' to have been left under a heating element or broiler for it's ubiquitous scorching a hair longer than necessary, it too delivered upon its promise and did not appear to hinder the Archduke's appetite in the least.

The Baltimore Time Sentinel Watching Over Us