We're based in Melbourne, so this is for everything outside the Melbourne region. Places to drink, eat, stay, and tours.
A bottle of beer is 220mls, a container of yoghurt is 150mls, and most people are drinking wine by the glass or 500ml pichet for two….so serving sizes are smaller, and drinking seems to be much less than it used to be. But there’s a lot of smoking – but not inside buildings, and I’m noticing more Coca Cola on tables.
Cakes are expensive. At the best local patisserie in the rue de Bretagne, a slice of opera and a raspberry tart came to 8 euros. A croissant is 1 euro 10, the same price as a small loaf of bread.
It’s the season for strawberries (gariguette are my preferred) and raspberries. Asparagus is still around – fat white asparagus, and green.
Restaurants: Crom’Exquis, 22 rue d’Astorg. The décor is modern, clean, rather dark colours. The food is updated traditional – very good indeed. Pierre Meneau is the son of Marc Meneau, of L’Esperance in St-Pere sous Vezelay (one of the greatest chefs, for my money). We went for lunch – 39 euros for three courses, which seems to be the spot for many of the better places. I began with a version of oeuf meurette – but the egg had been cooked at 72 C, and it was on a bed of spinach with tiny croutons and lardons, and the wine sauce was rich and smooth. Very elegant, very fine. My main course from the menu was a slice of cabillaud (like cod) on a bed of eggplant ‘caviar’, with dollops of exceptional béarnaise around the edge of the plate. My dessert was a combination of beetroot and strawberries (which seems to be the fashion at the moment): a rectangle of beetroot jelly, beetroot foam, and strawberries with faiselle (like a very fresh cheese) from Normandy. We drank a bottle of Marc Meneau’s Vezelay 2010 (38 Euros). Excellent service.
Il Vino 13 Boulevard de la tour Maubourg… The owner was sommelier of the world, and the food is built around wine. There is a small wine list: choose your wine, and food will be prepared to match it. Or there’s a 90 euro menu, four courses, four wines. Or the 135 Euro surprise: five courses with unknown wines.
The first wine was a 2010 Saint-Perray Harmonie, marsanne roussane blend from the Rhone. Full and round, some floral notes, very rich on the palate. Served with white asparagus with a parmesan cream, and some assorted salad leaves.
Second was 2010 Domaine Ferret Les Perrieres Pouilly Fuisse, tasted more like a Meusault, with grilled langoustines, a verveine foam, lightly pickled vegetable slices, rolled, and a raw langoustine served in a small bowl on the side, semi-coooked by the clear prawn broth poured over it.
Third was 2004 Chateau de Tetre Margaux, with roast lamb, small pieces, pink and tender, with fresh broad beans and some tiny potatoes.
Fourth, served in a dark glass, was a rose, mainly cabernet franc, served with three different goat’s cheeses.
We sat next to a couple from Texas who own an apartment nearby, and starting talking, first about food and wine, then other matters. He is an international human rights lawyer, her work includes work with orphans and babies. We were so busy talking I forgot to note the dessert wine.
Sur Mesure, at the Mandarin Oriental, 159 rue St-Honore. The most expensive, and the most disappointing. It was all about the theatre of dining: from the moment of entry through massive glass doors (like going through the Looking Glass), through a white dining space with ragged walls. Everything seems to float. The table is bare except for a cover plate, which is removed. There is a parade of waiters while everything is brought to the table. The menus are presented on a tray in a double-ring napkin ring (and you keep them), the wine list comes in a leather box. We opted for the nine-course degustation, which was a mistake. Six would have been more than enough, but it seemed like a good idea to go through the whole experience. We choose a William Fevre Chablis – and there was some discussion, because it was listed as a wine by the glass and I had to explain that was my preferred chablis.
The starter Laurent Perrier rose came with two ‘chips’, one of which was a slice of dried mango.
Star course for me was the poached egg with peas and mint: actually an egg yolk just cooked, with its surrounding white being tofu, and a surround of fresh peas. A little bowl or pea soup with mint, absolutely smooth, was served separately, and there was a toast finger along the edge of the bowl. Actually it was a tomato flavoured slice of focaccia, the flavour wrong for the eggs and peas, for me.
It’s very inventive food, presented exquisitely, each course on something else, a bit like kaiseki. Everything is transformed in some way. The peppers and eggplant that came with the roasted lobster were like opaque balls, which released juice when cut into.
The dessert bento box was very clever: a stack of dishes, each holding three sweet tastes.
It is very expensive. Oddly, the night we were there, there were people going out for a grand dinner - but not particularly enjoying it.
Le Violon d’Ingres, 135 rue St-Dominique, was the great disappointment. It’s one of a run of Christian Constant restaurants in the street, and the most formal. We were there last year, and had a great meal. This time, not so. Waiters were extremely competent, but seemed too stressed to be pleasant. A couple of little dishes arrived at the table the moment we were seated – tiny savoury a pastries, a bowl of spiced almonds. We ordered a glass of Laurent Perrier rose, drinking very nicely, thankyou, and a bottle of Albert Bichot 2010 Montagny 1er cru – pleasant but not outstanding.
First course very good: I had an asparagus bundle wrapped round with a slice of cured ham, a poached egg, and a very good mixed salad. The other entrée was pan-fried foie gras, which had not been prepared properly because there was still a stringy vein through it, served with a single baby carrot, a miniature leek, and an alleged ginger sauce. Really great butter with the bread – the kind of butter that makes me think that bread and butter could constitute a meal.
The problem came with the rotisserie of the day, which was chicken. Would we like wing or thigh? Wing, please. Ten minutes later the waiter returned to say there were no wings left. A long wait, then the chicken arrived, served with an elegant macaroni gratin. The chicken skin was almost burnt, but the meat was undercooked – quite red. We caught the waiter’s attention, he frowned, and took away the plate. Another plate arrrved, with more macaroni gratin and two small pieces of chicken, one of which was still very red at the bone. Interestingly, at the table next to us, the woman sent back her fish because it was undercooked. Clearly a bad day in the kitchen: and not what I expect from a one-star Michelin restaurant.
Note that English is spoken in all the restaurants above.
In Bordeaux: The Bar a Vins near the tourism office does a selection of small dishes with a range of wines. Best buy: the terrine of foie gras with a glass of 2010 Barsac, for 12 euro. An excellent way to try wines by the glasss, with or without a plate.
La Tupina, rue de porte-monnaie, Tel. 05 56 91 56 37Everyone’s favourite bistro, and consistently good. It’s big, warm, rustic, and the food has a decided south-west France bias. I began with an excellent spring salad of peas and broad beans with artichokes, on a beetroot puree, and then had roast chicken (I was in search of the best roast chicken) which was very good. Not notably tender, but excellent flavour. Servings are enormous here: the chicken wing was the size of a small turkey wing. We drank a bottle of 2007 Les Charmes de Kirwan, after some discussion with the waiter. Lovely drinking. There’s a brilliant choice of Armagnac here. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Le Bistrot du Sommelier, 163 rue Georges Bonnac, tel. 05 56 96 71 78 isn’t a bit smart, but it has an excellent wine list – 2008 Les Fiefs de Lagrange at 38 euro meant I would be lenient on the rest. An excellent tomato and goat’s salad, a fine roast chicken (the farm, Vertessec, was named on the menu) that came, inexplicably, with three kinds of potato - mashed, with some crisps, and chips on the side. The peppered roast duck breast was very good. There’s a briskness about the service, and if they speak English here, they don’t admit it. But there’s a no-nonsense atmosphere that’s quite engaging. It’s as if the sub-text is “You’re here to eat and drink well, and we’ll look after that. You want fancy service, you’re in the wrong place.”
The reason to go to Montpellier, apart from admiring a medical school that was founded in the 12th century, is Le Jardin des Sens, 11 Avenue Saint-Lazare, tel. 04 99 58 38 39, the restaurant and hotel established by Jacques and Laurent Pourcel in 1988. The large dining room is surrounded by Mediterranean garden, and it feels light, bright, elegant – and happy. Waiters everywhere, and never obtrusive. We had the degustation – since it changes, there’s not much point in listing every dish, except to say there was a glass of hot pea and asparagus soup with some foie gras as a greeting to the menu, and that the zucchini flowers filled with langoustine, served with orange scented langoustine, were outstanding, and so was the roast duck fillet, with a sauce lifted by cardamom. The cheese selection is excellent – 25 of them, and, interestingly, the trolley was not refreshed during the evening. If you want the best choice, don’t leave it too late. There wasn’t a low point in the meal or the service. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the special lunch menu is 49 Euros, including a glass of wine. Next time, I’m going to stay in the hotel for a couple of nights and eat nowhere else.
It sounds corny, but afternoon tea at The Peninsula Hotel is really a good idea. It starts from 2pm, but non-residents are advised to queue from 1.30. Even on weekdays. We were there on a Thursday, after a cheap and very nasty quick dumpling lunch in a busy shopping street, and the queue started forming at 1.30. But tea started early: we were seated by 2pm. A choice of teas. which I like. I ordered the Peninsula afternoon blend, Alex the Darjeeling. The pots come with pots of hot water that are constantly renewed. The usual three-tier stand for afternoon tea, here with fruit scones on the bottom layer, savouries in the middle, and cakes on the top. The savoury layer including smoked salmon sandwiches with some of the best smoked salmon I've had for a while, and cucumber sandwiches (white bread), which always seem silly until that lovely refreshing crunch. Nice extras provided: a shot glass of panna cotta with a raspberry coulis on top, and two fabulous chocolate truffles at the end.
Afterrnoon tea appears to be a popular activity. Available also at Harvey Nichols restaurant and cafe in the Landmark store, at Cafe Landmark, and even at Joel Robuchon's, where the policy is for two cups of coffee or tea. That made the Peninsula's endless hot water refills much more hospitable.
If you can find it, The Chairman in Sheung Wan is worth a visit. It's contemporary Chinese, so the restaurant feels quite western, with smaller rooms and various set menus, including one for two people. We ordered that, and a grand bottles of Faiveley Combe aux Moines Gevrey-Chambertin from a very small list. The food arrived in a different order from that listed, but the beginning was a bowl with two chilled cherry tomatoes that had the merest hint of aniseed, on batons of lemon-grass flavoured daikon. A big bowl of claims wirth a spicy tomato sauce, little pork cakes with vinegar, a single wonderful prawn, roast squab (the least successful dish),fried rice, chinese broccoli (peeled stalks, elegant) with ginger, steamed chicken with salty spring onions, a small scoop of icecream and a coffee cup of warm almond cream (too bitter almond for me to swallow), and tea. At 528 HK per person, good value. Service charge of 10 per cent on top on that. I thought what was missing was a good maitre d' - someone who welcomed people, kept an eye on tables, engaged in conversation if needed. The address is Kau U Fong, and even with a printed out large-scale map we needed to ask our way three times. There is no sign in English, and no indication from the outside of what the interior will be. The address is in Central, but if you're coming by MTR, go to Sheung Wan. Tel. 2555 2202. www.thechairmangroup.com
New Zealand: Wellington, Nelson
In Wellington for the triennial pinot noir conference, and in Nelson for an aromatics symposium. What we like about eating and drinking in New Zealand: the fish, the fruit, the wines (pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and anything from Gimblett Gravels), the good humour, the quality of the beef and the lamb, wine prices in restaurants (not over-inflated).
What we don’t like: high charges for bread and olive oil to begin, the use of giant pepper mills by waiters (and no peppermills on the table), sweet Rieslings and super-bitter beers.
Restaurants we ate at:
Martin Bosley, Wellington. First thing to say is that the view of the harbour is stunning, and the restaurant in the yacht club is designed to show it off. There’s a certain formality about the place, although the shiny paper overlays make the white tablecloths more casual. The menu’s strength is seafood: we began with the house version of a sashimi plate, not really a sashimi plate at all, but a great array of tastes, including snapper ceviche,
We were there on a Sunday night. Sunday night is fish-and-chips night - $30, including a glass of white wine. Extremely popular with Wellington people, from the look of the crowd.
Things I particularly liked: attentive staff, the use of sustainably caught fish, the imaginativeness of the cooking, the range of meat dishes, and that vegetables were available as small or large.
It’s open for lunch and dinner daily, with a menu range that includes a degustation. The wine list is extensive, leaning towards NZ wines, with only a few from Australia, France, and Spain. Good for the crew at Martin Bosley: if top restaurants don’t support the local industry, who will? And what better way of introducing tourists to NZ wines?
Martin Bosley, 103 Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay. Tel. (4) 920 8302. www.martin-bosley.com
Other places I recommend in Wellington: Arbitrageur Wine Room, 125 Featherston Steet; The Whitehouse, 232 Oriental Parade; Logan Brown, 192 Cuba Street.
Hopgood’s, Nelson. It’s won a number of awards, usually in the casual dining category. It’s a larger restaurant than it appears as you enter past the timber bar and the big blackboard behind it. The mood is casual – bare tables, single sheet paper menus, pay at the counter, and a bit noisy. But the food is pretty serious, and the wine and beer lists are serious, too, without being overpriced.
I began with a zucchini flower stuffed with a creamy white cheese (tasted like mascarpone or a goat’s cheese) on a bed of couscous with ratatouille, black olives and local fetta. Too many flavours? Not at all, because it was a play of vegetable flavours. Beautifully judged textures, too. It was good until the last mouthful. We also had a crispy duck salad. Pretty good – quite a big piece of duck on a salad of Asian flavours. “Crispy” is the menu’s favourite word – it appeared three times, including a crispy egg on the carpaccio. Fantastic slow-cooked lamb rump and beef fillet with a mushroom and parmesan crust, and a spinach puree. A bottle of Craggy Range 2010 Gimblett Gravels syrah. Excellent coffee and a fine Japanese green tea to finish.
Note it is open only for dinner from Monday to Saturday from 5.30pm, but the menu and bar mean that it is possible to call in for a drink and plate of something.
Hopgood’s Restaurant and Bar, 284 Trafalgar Street, Nelson. Tel. (3) 545 7191. www.hopgoods.co.nz
Guide to Paris
Dinner at Pur, in the Park Hyatt Vendome. This is all extreme luxury, not in the usual style of curlicues and gilded surfaces, but in design, textures and staffing levels. The restaurant itself seats only 30; we were seated at the chef’s table, a polished black granite table looking straight into the restaurant kitchen, where there seemed to be about a dozen people cooking and plating up. We chose the six-course menu with matched wines, which began with a flurry of little appetisers, starting with a ball of foie gras encased in a fruity glaze. It looked like a lollypop, which was part of the fun of it. What made Jean-Francois Rouquette’s cooking so interesting for me was his balance of sweet/sour/acid with smooth textures broken by crunch. The foie gras with hibiscus was an example of that. The glassware was as fine and delicate as anything I’ve encountered – the champagne flutes scarcely there at all, their weight only the weight of the wine. The menu danced its way through flavours - mushrooms, anglerfish, saddle of lamb. Everything was highly worked, imaginative, and an immense pleasure to eat.
The sommelier is a Spanish woman called Rut, whose approach to wine and wine matches is broad. None of the predictable Bordeaux and Burgundy with everything…
I can’t wait to eat there again. And at Orchidees, where breakfast is served. Even for me, who doesn’t much care about breakfast, the selection of fruits, breads, butters, jams, cheeses was stunning. Fresh orange juice squeezed to order. Wonderful cured salmon, with crème fraiche. Staff everywhere, watching and predicting.
Park Hyatt Vendome, 5 rue de la Paix, Paris 75002.
Timber floors, tables of wood and stone, white walls, an open kitchen, dishes to share, a Spanish accent in the cooking… sounds familiar. But this is Paris, at Pinxo, one of the restaurants owned by Alain Dutournier, a long-established and acclaimed chef. It’s more casual – and more affordable – than the two-starred Carre des Feuillants nearby.
Pinxo is attached to a hotel, but with a separate entry. The doors are heavy timber, and there’s an entry foyer that gives into a longish dining room. There are bold contemporary paintings on the walls. The tables are wooden, with a stone inlay.
We shared the croustade of foie gras to start: a slice of country bread, with slices of very good foie gras, sprinkled with a mix of coarse pepper, cut into fingers. Then the fricassee of chipirons and pimento with ‘pates seches’ – not quite enough pimento for me, and the pasta seemed like mogarabbieh. Good flavours, lively but not too punchy. We also ordered the supreme de volaille, which came as rolled chicken, sliced into three, and presented as three ‘towers’, with new season’s girolles along one side and three little bundles of silverbeet on the other That was the best dish, in terms of cooking and flavours. The wine list is limited, and organised according to price. We ordered a 45 Euro bottle of burgundy (aligote).
Bread does not come first here. It appeared, two miniature baguettes in a tiny coloured flower-pot, just before our main dishes arrived. No butter, of course.
Pinxo, 9 rue d’Alger, 75001. Tel. 01 40 20 72 00.
Lavinia was a years-ago discovery, a three-level wine store not far from the Madeleine. It has a restaurant on the top level. It used to have a large bar area where you could order from their list, or choose any bottle in the place and drink it without an extra charge. The bar has gone (or rather, it’s now only a couple of tables in the basement). The lunch menu is 38 Euros, and the dishes of the day included vegetables a la grecque and a fillet of pork. I had the fish soup with mussel ravioli, followed by the veal en lute, which meant it was presented in a little casserole (Staub, very chic) sealed with a flour and water paste. Hmmm….the soup was beautifully presented – croutons and ravioli sitting in a shallow bowl, with the soup itself in a jug. But the soup was lukewarm, rather than hot. The veal was a disappointment, too: it was rather pink, although I thought that it would have been well cooked in the casserole. The vegetables in the pot were carrots, turnips, potatoes, and little balls of zucchini. I did better than one of the women at a nearby table, who sliced into her piece of veal and found it was very rare. She didn’t send it back, which surprised me, given the way her eyebrows shot up and her mouth pursed as she cut into it. Alex’s main course of pan-seared scallops with lentils was much better. The place was packed – and they appeared to be seriously understaffed. But we drank beautifully: Charles Heidsieck brut reserve. It has new packaging – a longer-necked bottle and a grey label – but still has all the qualities I love about it. Quite weighty, with aromas of brioche, nougat, peony and almonds, and low dosage.
Would I go back? Only possibly. The drinking’s better than the food, I think, and because you can choose anything in the store and pay store prices, it’s an excellent place for good drinking.
Lavinia, 3 boulevard de la Madeleine, 75001. Tel. 01 42 97 2020
There’s a strong Japanese presence in Paris, at all levels. At one level, there’s a Thierry Marx sushi shop, The other is the stretch along the rue des petits champs, and rue Richelieu, which runs at right angles to it. Izakaya Issé is a tiny place, a few tables upstairs, and the kitchen and some more tables down a startlingly steep staircase. They found room for us at the counter, where the staff were having a dinner break at 8.30 on a Friday evening. We watched all the cooking being done in a space that looked not much bigger than a cupboard. Was everything cooked to order? Yes indeed. Were the ingredients good quality? I can vouch for them all. The place is not quite comfortable, but it’s friendly, and the food is good, and good value as well. In addition to the menu, there’s a daily list of suggestions. This is what we ate: three grilled oysters that had been just shucked; a delicate sauté of scallops and prawns with sushi leaf; spinach and shimeji mushrooms; sashimi; rice; and a couple of beers. The total bill was 68 Euros (roughly $80). There’s a considerable sake list, and a tiny wine list. Some of the staff speak English, but the menu is in Japanese and French. Would I go back? Of course. I’d try the avocado salad next time, any of the brochettes, whatever the grilled fish was, and the tempura.
Izakaya Issé, 45 rue Richelieu, 75001.
Guide to Turin
I’m very fond of Turin: once home of Fiat, still home of the aperitif (vermouth and others), of Lavazza. So there’s great coffee, and wonderful old cafés, great icecream and the best chocolate (not to mention great architecture and museums). It’s got a lot going for it. It’s not a pretty town, nor does it have the handsomeness of Florence or Siena. It looks grim and grey, and there’s a lot of poverty here.
On the plus side, it is a wonderfully designed city, thanks to the architect Juvarra, who worked on Versailles before being engaged by the House of Savoy, whose capital was Turin. Guarini was the other great architect. Long straight streets, covered colonnades, archways framing views of parks or buildings, and huge squares, so that every so often, you walk into a huge handsomely proportioned space that’s like an explosion of light. Piazza Carlo Felice, Piazza San Carlo, Piazza Madama, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, ringed by small stores, bookstores, and caffes of various sizes. There are two long pedestrian malls: via Lagrange (great food stores), and via Garibaldi, said to be the longest pedestrian street in Italy. Perhaps. It dates back to Roman times.
One of my favourite streets is via S. Tommaso, one of the narrow streets full of good eating. The Lavazza restaurant is there, called San Tommaso 10. It’s packed in the morning, when everyone has coffee, and the coffee is terrific. Meals are pretty good, but not the best – a bit dull, a bit heavy, and a dreary dessert on the menu when we were there (icecream in warm zabaglione). The street also has an excellent icecream shop and a tiny little café that has a blackboard list of salumi. Fancy a bread roll with hand-sliced 30-month old prosciutto crudo and some house-made yellow capsicum preserves? That was 5 euros. If you eat in, there’s wine available too. (Oh, and for those staying in Turin, there’s a really good dry-cleaner and laundry in the street.)
Stay: Town House 70, 70 via XX settembre. email@example.com Good location, close to Palazzo Madama and via Garibaldi, wonderful staff, and well-designed rooms.
For something reliable, Giovanni, 24 via Vicenzo Gioberti. Classic Piedmontese, slightly old-fashioned décor, with a central display table for antipasti and desserts. Some Italian is useful, if only to read the Italian-only list of day’s specials. Excellent pasta (agnolotti in particular), prosciutto hand-sliced to order, a good wine list at moderate prices. Take advice if you need to. Service tends to be brisk.
Vintage 1997, piazza Solferino, is not modern, whatever its name suggests. It is formal in its style (although does not require formal dress), with a number of rooms. The maître d’ is a master of his craft, able to steer through the conflicting expectations of many nationalities. The wine list is considerable, excellent for big spenders, but also satisfying for more modest budgets. There’s a complimentary glass of spumante as you sit down. The food doesn’t always live up to the expectations of its mood – the antipasti served altogether (not the Piedmontese style), pasta too salty, a pedestrian mixture of chocolate desserts.
Rural, 15 Corso Verona is sleek and modern, all white and stone and brick, and something of a breath of fresh air after all the formal and historic décor of the city. Go for the wine, and the pasta, which is truly excellent. It’s made by Pastificio Defilippis (in via Lagrange).
Enoteca Bordo, 19 via Palazzo della citta is tucked away on the side of a square, modest and informal, with fair-sized wine list and a number of wines by the glass (including French as well as Italian). A glass of prosecco and a plate of Piedmontese salumi is a very good way to begin. The mood is that of a local haunt, with timber floors and bare-topped tables, and it’s relaxed. Waiters can be stretched when the place gets busy (as it does).
Eataly, Via Nizza, Lingotto. Lingotto was where Fiat made cars, and it’s been a fantastic revival of the site. One of the places there is Eataly, a huge food store run on Slow Food principles (opposite of fast food, not slow cooking) . No chance of not knowing about food here: with a list of what’s grown in the region near the fruit and vegetables (0 food miles), and a huge range of small and large producers of everything edible and potable. Upstairs there are places to eat, with every shopping area offering a food counter. There’s vegetarian, cured meat, meat, fish. Downstairs, in the wine and beer section, there are two restaurants, one more formal, one casual (Disguido). Not to be missed: this place is a gastronomic and marketing education.
Lovely city, wonderful river, and variable restaurants. After a few days there in June, I thought perhaps lots of people are gluten intolerant, because bread does not come automatically to the table. In some places – as in New Zealand – there’s a hefty extra charge for bread. The favoured dish is salad nicoise (on many of the menus I saw), and the preferred sound level is high (at least in the places I went to).
Here’s my pick:
Tuck Shop Café, 180 Newcastle Street, Northbridge. Tel. 08 9227 1659
Here’s the deal. They open for breakfast and lunch daily, they don’t take bookings, and there’s generally a queue. It’s also very close to the Perth Art Gallery, where the current special exhibition is 14 Modern Masters: from Picasso to Warhol. Pretty much worth a trip to Perth for that alone.
Back to the Tuck Shop: I don’t do food queues, and we were lucky to get a table without waiting. It’s bustling, noisy, and the staff are terrific. The menu is written daily, but there are constants. We had a mixture of things, including Moroccan-style meatballs on flatbread and a za’atar fried egg (it’s a Lebanese spice mixture) with humous, spinach and mushrooms with fetta on toast, and the BEST salade Nicoise. Salade Nicoise, by the way, features on lots of Perth menus at the moment. This one is a constant on the menu, apparently. The waiter said they can’t take it off the menu. I know why. This was a ripper because every single ingredient in it was super fresh and entirely delicious. It was one of the busy salads (much like the one in More than French, which I co-wrote with chef Philippe Mouchel), containing lettuce, thick slices of ripe tomato, shaved fennel, canned tuna of high quality, white anchovies, green beans, potato, and a poached egg. At $15.50, it’s a great bargain.
There are blackboard specials, and pies are a feature of the place. So are the smoothies. And there are things to take away, too. The coffee is very good, too.
Le Bistro des Artistes, 424 Hay Street, Subiaco. Tel. (08) 6141 8761
A joint venture between Alain Fabregues of The Loose Box, one of WA’s long-running and highly acclaimed restaurants, and Emmanuel Mollois, known as a pastry chef. It’s the new darling in town, and my experience there was seriously disappointing. It’s quite an attractive place, with terrazzo floor, timber chairs, white walls covered with paintings and drawings, all very bistro in style. It’s open from breakfast onwards. Dinner starts at 7pm, and is a compulsory five courses for $75. That includes tea or coffee.
My disappointment is based on a single meal. There were four of us. Three of us requested the vegetarian option instead of the charcuterie platter to start, and that wasn’t a problem. Big tick for that. And then it all went downhill. The vegetarian option consisted of five little dishes: mixed olives in one, pickles in the second, mushrooms (rather a la grecque) in the third, a kind of Russian salad in the fourth, and shredded celeriac in the fifth. Too much, and not good enough. The olives were the best part of it, for me. The mixed salad, finely diced, was dressed with something lightly creamy, the celeriac not dressed with anything. The charcuterie platter was excellent, although the rabbit and prune terrine contained no prunes that we could see or taste.
It was followed by allegedly roast scallops in a broth with purple and orange carrots. Two scallops, tasting more poached than roast, in a light broth with a couple of small pieces of purple carrot and two slices of orange carrot. Purple carrot bleeds, so the light broth turned to an unappetising grey-purple. One of the group didn’t eat one of her scallops because it was undercooked. She pointed it out to the waiter (young and French) who considered it carefully, agreed that perhaps it should have been cooked more, and gleefully said it gave him a chance to set the chef right. It gave him a change to kick his arse….
Then came veal Marengo, a classic sautéed veal dish with mushrooms and tomatoes. This was served in large individual red casserole dishes, with long cooked onions and whole steamed unpeeled potatoes. The potatoes had been added at the point of serving, I’d say. I had more sauce than anyone else; someone else had giant potatoes. It was bad home cooking, as far as I was concerned. The veal was stringy, the presentation apparently attractive but far too difficult a way to eat a casserole. The onions were soft, melting, rather nice. But there were no spoons for the sauce, no extra bread provided, no salt or pepper on the table.
Two of us left at least half. The dishes were cleared without question.
We declined the pre-dessert, and left most of the dessert, described as his mother’s pudding. It was a kind of bread-and-butter pudding, sliced thinly, cold and clammy, served with a kind of compote of raspberries and a little meringue.
By this stage, we were keen to leave. We didn’t bother about coffee or tea. The wine list is quite small. A number of French wines were not available, we were told. We drank a bottle of Howard Park shiraz (always welcome).
The Trustee Bar and Bistro, 133 St Georges Terrace, Perth. Tel. (08) 6323 3000
Very smart and new, in the old Trustees building, and there’s good news and not so good. It looks like a big development investment, with large upstairs bar. The restaurant is downstairs: bare tables, and noisy. There are tables, and booths that seat four comfortably. We were five, snug in one of the booths. They may look nice, but they’re not really practical, because waiters have to stretch right across the table to deliver plates. The décor, with concrete walls, is a bit severe and blokey.
The food is essentially bistro, the wine list is a corker, put together, I’d say, by people who are mad about wine. I like it that in Perth wine lists feature lots of WA wines (it doesn’t always happen in Victoria, sadly), as well as a generous selection of French wines.
Essentially bistro means that many of the dishes are relatively uncomplicated, but prepared with good ingredients and some imagination. We began with the beetroot carpaccio and the vitello tonnato – both with similar presentation, overlapping rounds filling the plate. The veal, sliced very fine, came with a really good tuna mayo and some baby capers (nice touch). Diverse main courses: the steaks are the thing here, I’d say. There are less common cuts of meat, and a pie that includes beef cheek and oxtail. The braised beef cheek was excellent. The barramundi I ate was well cooked – that is to say, just cooked – and served with a cauliflower puree. I’m a bit tired of cauliflower puree, I have to say. I would have preferred something livelier – more Chinese in flavour than European winter.
The coffee is not special – rather too bitter a brew for my taste.
Beechworth: It’s a great old town, its gold wealth evident from the size of the buildings (check out the Post Office) and the width of the streets. I think it’s the coffee centre of regional Victoria. I’ve never seen so much good coffee! And a new place, Blynzz, at 43 Ford Street, does its own roasting. Snacks, too, to go with the coffee.
Beechworth also has a brewery. Bridge Road Brewers offers ten beers – to taste or by the glass. The top four for us:
Galaxy IPA is made with a single variety of hops called Galaxy. It’s aromatic, bitter, and very refreshing. IPA stands for India Pale Ale, an ale that was brewed in England for the troops in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. It uses more hops than other ales – the hops acted as a natural preservative.
Bling IPA , so called because they’re thrown the lot at it in making it, is a big beer. Huge aromatics, and very bitter, in the style of the beers brewed in Washington State and Oregon.
Celtic Red Ale has delicious roasted notes in the flavour, and is very easy drinking.
Pale Ale is a refreshing well-made ale. Not as aromatic as the IPAs, of course, which will suit some drinkers very well.
The Brewery also serves some food. Have a pretzels with the beer: they’re properly made, yeasted dough, shaped and baked, big salt crystals on top. The texture made me think of bagels (which are boiled and then baked), because it’s chewy.
A few days in Hobart during the International Cool Climate Symposium, hearing about cool climate wine issues and tasting lots of Tasmanian wine.
What a good food town Hobart is! If you’re planning a visit to Tasmania, make sure it includes a Saturday so you can go to the Salamanca markets. There’s some produce, prepared food, lots of craft, second-hand stalls, books… and all the bars, galleries and restaurants in Salamanca Place.
Recommended eating in Hobart: Remi de Provence, 252 Macquarie Street, Hobart. Tel. (03) 6223 3933 (www.remideprovence.com.au) Excellent wine selection, very good food. The atmosphere is informal. There is a small written wine list, and a much bigger selection to browse through. Go and choose your own wine from the racks, and pay a smallish corkage charge. Things to enjoy: daily specials on the menu (casssoulet on Wednesdays, for instance), the cured ham sliced to order, the selection of cheeses. Remi Bancal, who owns it, worked in Melbourne for some years and has been in Hobart for about 10 years.
Smolt, 2 Salamanca Square, Hobart. Tel. (03) 6224 2554 (www.smolt.com.au) has many advantages. It’s open every day, it has great views, it’s has attractive décor (all timber, stone, metal), and some of the best waiters I’ve encountered. The food wasn’t great (dishes tended to be too fussy in their composition of flavours), but everything else was spot on. To try: a glass (or bottle) of Chateau de Sours rose. Chateau de Sours, near Bordeaux, grows only merlot. It’s a terrific rose. Should you ever come across the sparkling wine, grab that, too. It’s an insight into how good merlot can be.
The New Sydney Hotel, 87 Bathurst St, Hobart. Tel. (03) 6234 4516 (www.newsydneyhotel.com.au) It’s scarcely new. It’s a great old-fashioned pub, and made me think that a good pub is Australia’s version of an Italian osteria - friendly and informal, with decent things to eat and drink. This place is probably the friendliest pub I’ve seen for ages, with a fair wine list, a better selection of beers, lovely people serving, and some pretty good food. Try the crispy shoulder of goat, which comes with chickpeas, spicy potatoes and a little pumpkin puree. The goat is dry and crisp, that is to say, it’s not in a sauce, but the meat is succulent and crisp on the outside. Don’t expect anything formal or fancy. There’s live music, too.
A friend had recommended Garagistes, 103 Murray St, Hobart Tel. (03) 6231 0558 (www.garagistes.com.au), but it wasn’t open on Monday or Tuesday night, and on a Friday night we found there was too long a queue. Tables are shared, and there are no bookings except for Sunday lunch, when they are essential. Next time….
Important to know: Wursthaus Kitchen, 1 Montpelier Retreat, Battery Point. Tel (03) 6224 0644 (www.wursthauskitchen.com.au) Wonderful food store, with everything you could want (except fresh fruit and vegetables). The meat and deli section is excellent; there are lots of Tasmanian foods available; there are ready-prepared foods; and a good wine selection as well. It was good enough to make us decide to eat in one night, rather than finding a restaurant. The meat range is outstanding, with some very fine sausages as well. Try the wagyu beef sausages, or the wagyu beef hamburgers, if they are available. Oh, there’s good bread, as well. And the final advantage is that it’s open daily.
Also Cool Wine in Criterion Street (www.coolwine.com.au) has an excellent range of Tasmania and other wines, and one of the best beer ranges I’ve ever come across. Knowledgeable people, too. It’s a big enough store to offer a broad range, but not so big as to be intimidating. A particularly nice range of Tasmanian pinot.
Let me count the ways I love Nelson (and surroundings): walnuts and walnut oil; hazelnuts and hazel nut oil; two kinds of cider (dessert apples and cider apples); sheep’s and goat’s milk cheese; cow’s milk cheese, butter, yoghurt, clotted cream and double cream; apples and pears and berries; outstanding potato crisps; mushrooms; great preserves including the best raspberry jam; olives and olive oil; lots of vegetables; king salmon; scallops; especially good bratwurst and ham; and – because this is New Zealand – excellent venison, lamb, and beef. Oh, and there’s wine, of course, and beer and remarkably pure water from Takaka springs. And I’ll talk about restaurants later…. This is really rich country. If you want to live on locally grown food, Nelson is the place to be. It even has two weekly markets!
Nelson is in the north of the South Island, and vies with Marlborough for the place with the most daylight hours. It’s sea and hills and rolling land, mountains and pasture and horticulture, and full of gastronomic life. I encountered it in early November, when I joined the NZ Guild of Food Writers at their conference in Nelson. I was the international judge for the food writing awards presented by the Guild, and so was able to join the conference.
We were introduced to the gastronomic life because growers came to meet us as the welcoming party, and on the last day, and because we divided into groups and were taken to visit producers large and small.
Most of the food producers are small, and many have settled in the area within the last eight or ten years. Take Joanne Costar, for example, from Moutere Gold, who established the business eight years ago. Moutere Gold existed as a brand for preserves, but the woman who got it all going had stopped. Joanne bought the recipes, and has a small store in what used to be the post office of Upper Moutere.
She makes small batch jams and preserves – usually 3kg at a time (much as I do) because she thinks that gives the best result. She buys fruit direct from local growers, and for the raspberry jam, for example, she has found a single grower and uses a single variety (Chilcotin). It is the BEST raspberry jam I have tasted – better than mine, which I think is pretty good, and better than Cunliffe and Waters Willamette raspberry jam. It costs only $5 for a biggish jar because Joanne says “I want to be affordable for the local community”.
Or there’s Neudorf mushrooms, where Hannes and Theres Krummenacher grow slippery jacks, birch boletus, saffron milk caps, and others. And Caroline Peckham’s outstanding cider, made from cider apples – clean and dry, none of the yeasty appley flavours I don’t like. Doris Faulhaber makes great hams and sausages, and has a stand at the twice-weekly Nelson Market – a bratwurst for breakfast at a market is a very good beginning to the day. Don’t forget Brent Ferretti, who’s also at the market, who took over his father’s market garden and grows small batches of many things, so there is always something available. The lettuces are wonderful. So are the beetroot. I’d go back for tomatoes and zucchini in season.
Where to eat:
KUSH, 5 Church St, Nelson. Andy Budd daily roasts coffee grown by small producers, and they make such good coffee here that it seemed as if everyone in town was having a cup. A nice place to be: tables and chairs, a nice bar area, armchairs, newspapers, and food, too.
SACHI, 19 New St, Nelson. A small Japanese restaurant with excellent sushi, and specials of the day. Whatever they are, have them. The agedashi tofu is so good (served with eggplant the night we ate there) that we re-ordered. Twice. A local wine list, and they offer flights of sake, too.
September/October 2011 I was on the road in France - in the air, on rails, on roads, in restaurants and vineyards. Where was I? Follow me!!
What I loved on the US West Coast in May/June 2011:
Bed and breakfasts in Willamette Valley, Oregon. This is great wine country, with places like Domaine Drouhin, Adelsheim, Bergstrom, WillaKenzie and Domaine Serene – among hundreds! I knew about Wiillamette through the Cunliffe and Waters excellent raspberry jam (Willamette is a variety of raspberry), but not about the extent of vineyards and wineries in the area, or the range of restaurants. Best places to stay are B&Bs.
My recommendations: Le Puy, just outside Newberg (www.lepuy-inn.com). Lea and Andy, both architects, transformed an old house into an eight-room B&B, large and modern, with huge common areas. They have a strong commitment to the local and regional, and to their environment. It’s still very new, only a few months old. The owners are wonderfully friendly and knowledgeable. Breakfasts are terrific, changing every day. My favourite: hot-smoked salmon with scrambled egg, wrapped in a crepe, served with crème fraiche and chives from the garden. And good coffee, which we found was a rarity.
Dundee Manor (www.dundeemanor.com) was the opposite in some ways. Le Puy is modern and uncluttered; Dundee Manor is a grand 1908 manor that has been furnished in keeping with its age. It has wonderful tended gardens, with places to wander, places to sit. Although the decorative styles are very different, they have in common a strong commitment to the area. Ask Brad or David about restaurants, wineries, other places to visit – and how to get there. (Another thing in common: Brad was an architect.) And a really good breakfast: the menu is posted on the front table the afternoon before, so if you want something else, you can ask ahead of time.
Best places to eat:
Dundee Bistro 100a SW Seventh Street, Dundee, OREGON. Tel. (503) 554 1650. www.dundeebistro.com It’s part of a complex that includes the Ponzi family cellar door, very smart but casual in atmosphere. Casual in this part of the world does not mean laid-back – this is extremely professional in its operation. The menu is regional (of course). We shared razor clam fritters, then had the best salmon we ate in any restaurant in the area (served with spring morels and various peas and pea shoots). The burger is outstanding: beef with excellent flavour, and generous amounts of grilled onion and just enough smoked cheddar and pickle. It was served with truffled fries, presented in a paper cone. The bun was a brioche dough bun, but not too sweet. The wine and beer selection is very fine, the wine service a model for every restaurant in Melbourne. (We had a half-glass of white to start, ordered two different reds to follow, and they were both poured immediately because “they’ll benefit from some air”. All this attention for a glass of wine. Bless them.) Open daily.
The Painted Lady 201 S College St, Newberg, OREGON. Tel. (503) 538 3850www.thepaintedladyrestaurant.com It’s a lovely old house turned into a rather formal restaurant, the fixed price menu (four courses $60) with optional wine pairing. Everyone in the area spoke highly of it, but the night we were there, it wasn’t at its best. It was a very busy night, perhaps the kitchen was stretched. Let’s be fair, though. The food was good – but the wine service wasn’t especially good, and after two courses we gave up their suggested pairings and asked to be able to choose our own wine. Not a problem – the mood here is obliging. The stand-out dishes were scallops and prawns with a bourride sauce, and the braised short ribs and New York cut of steak, served with an asparagus puree. If you don’t eat all the petits fours, they are packed up for you to take away. Dinner Wednesday-Monday.
Recipe: A neighborhood kitchen 115 N. Washington St, Newberg, OREGON. Tel. (503) 487 8653. www.recipeaneighborhoodkitchen.com In an old Victorian, furnished country-style, with timber floors and wooden tables. It’s warm and welcoming, and we liked it so much we went two nights in a row. The menu changes often because it depends on seasons and availability of produce. The salads are exceptional – both the green salad with salted ricotta, and the golden beetroot salad with goat’s cheese (a restaurant staple in Oregon and California). The warm onion tart is a stand-out, too. And we loved the duck – magret of, with a toasted farro salad. A good wine list, mainly local, some French, and fairly priced. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Tina’s 760 Hwy 99W, Dundee, OREGON. Tel. (503) 538 8880. www.tinasdundee.com. This has been a favoured place since it opened 20 years ago. It’s in an old house, its tables are set with cloths. We went for dinner – where the price of the main course includes soup or salad. Although it was highly recommended, this wasn’t our best eating experience. The Chinook salmon was overcooked, and the fennel, braised according to the menu, was charred. There were sugar snaps on the plate, too, overcooked. The roasted duck breast was fine, but the “rich chilli sauce” wasn’t rich, wasn’t very chilli, and a bit sparse. I asked for fresh strawberries with sugar and cream on the side. The strawberries came un-hulled: not a good look for withering stems. The wine list features local wines, of course. Go for any of the Bergstroms. Dinner nightly, lunch Tuesday-Friday.
Thistle 228 NE Evans Street, McMinnville. OREGON Tel. (503) 472 9623 www.thistlerestaurant.com This is almost an anti-restaurant. There are three interlocking rooms, variously furnished. On one wall there’s grand wallpaper featuring thistles (it looks like one of the illustrations from Gerard’s Hebal magnified and repeated.) The mood is casual. The menu is written daily, chalked on to a blackboard and in that spare noun-only style – “duckling breast, cabbage, bacon, black truffle”. The wine list is very good. The owner s also run Community Plate (315 NE Third St, McMinnville), a modern diner. Skip the farmers plate, have the roast chicken salad sandwich for lunch.
Jory at The Allison Inn & Spa, 2325 Allison Lane, Newberg, OREGON. Tel. (503) 554 2526 www.theallison.com The Allison is a grand resort – very much the exception to the B&Bs that are so common in the area. The dining room is generous in size, full of soft textures (carpets, linen overlays on the tables, upholstered chairs), and a certain formality. The wine list is one of the best I’ve seen – focussed on local wines, with an exceptional selection of French and other imported wines and lots of the local beers. Australia is represented, of course, with Pike’s Riesling ($35) as well as Clonakilla Shiraz (the only non-South Australian shiraz on the list). But as a showcase for Oregon wines, and those wines in a global context, this is unbeatable. The food? Oh, that was pretty good, and again, focussed on the local. Columbia River salmon with morels and asparagus (the salmon not overcooked), and a rare example of lamb in a US restaurant. This was local lamb, three ways (cutlet, shoulder, and cured lamb like bacon). Quite formal, but friendly.
Around Seattle Great travel buys: The tour of Redhook Brewery, in Woodinville, near Seattle. It costs one dollar, and would be the best tour dollar I ever spent. (The only tour dollar, come to think of it. Who gets a tour for a dollar?) It’s an hour-long introduction to Redhook and brewing, with five tastes of beer of different styles. There’s pilsner, ESB (Extra Special Bitter), India Pale Ale, Wit beer, and Copperhook (another ale), all accompanied by a very funny and faultlessly accurate account of beermaking and Redhook beers. There is a spittoon – “the bucket of shame” – and the view is that the advantage of tasting the beers is that even if you don’t like them, you still feel better afterwards. Five very good beers, and, yes, we all did feel better afterwards. Oh, and you get to keep your glass afterwards. Redhook, which began in the early 1980s, is classed as a craft brewery, although, in alliance with Widmer and Cona (The Craft Brewers Alliance), it’s the ninth largest brewery in the US. www.redhook.com
Redhook is within walking distance of Willows Lodge, a luxury resort hotel that downplays its luxuriousness. No obvious signs of luxury: much of the hotel is built from recycled timber, and, like everything is this area, there’s a concern for the environment (electric cars can be recharged here, the gardens are lush and low maintenance, there’s lots of wildlife around). The luxury is in the detail and the care – and the space. The rooms are huge, with their own terraces, and (gas-fired) fireplaces), the bathrooms are blessedly not full of marble and gilt (a granite benchtop, Molton & Brown toiletries from large format dispenser bottles, a separate bathtub). Everything well and thoughtfully designed. There’s tribal art in the hotel and the vast gardens, and an excellent restaurant. A spa, too, and a hydrotherapy pool. As well as the brewery, there are about 30 wineries within walking distance. Not vineyards, wineries - the grapes are grown eastwards of here, and it is cheaper to ship the grapes and make wine closer to the market.
This is the hotel that has changed my mind about hotels being places to sleep. I might as well say that any table will do for eating a meal, and food tastes as good from a tin plate. A stay here feels like a party for a significant birthday. We’ve just had dinner in the Barking Frog restaurant: Hudson river foie gras, Anderson Ranch (Oregon) rack of lamb with pearl couscous and slow cooked fennel, and a bowl of assorted berries for dessert (my request instead of a formal dessert), all accompanied by local wines. I did like the Stevens Yakama Valley 2008 syrah, rich and spicy, and the Ste Michelle Luxe 2004 sparkling wine. Copper River salmon was on the menu too – during its short season. (That’s a king salmon from the Copper River.) www.willowslodge.com
This is a city that takes its food seriously. Lots of restaurant menus have notes about using sustainable produce and healthy produce, a number of fast food places use recyclable materials. I wonder a bit about places like diners using words like healthy and sustainable, when they still have a great deal of the usual stuff in there. How sustainable is multi-national tomato sauce? Or mustard? Does anyone check that? How healthy are gargantuan serves?
A few recommendations: for burgers, it’s Gott’s, in the Ferry Building, which is terrific (SO much better than Pier 39 or Fisherman’s Wharf.) The Ferry Building is a nice piece of building recycling, (like Melbourne’s GPO) and has some very smart stores and eating places, including a great homewares store and the Cow Girl Creamery. That’s got the best of US cheesemaking and some pretty fine French cheeses as well, courtesy of Jean Alos, who is one of the best affineurs – or cheese maturers – in Bordeaux. They’re making some excellent goat’s, sheep and cow’s milk cheeses in California and Wisconsin. Also in the Ferry Building is a long-running organic grocery/greengrocery, offering lots of heirloom tomatoes, and, very sadly and unwisely for their reputation, some of the deadest looking peas I have ever encountered.
Back to Gott’s: hamburgers, salads, beers, and some wine. Place your order, find a table, and then the buzzer they give you rings when the food is ready. All food prepared to order by men working hard behind a counter. Sounds ordinary, but a really good hamburger is a rare thing, and a steam beer is always worth drinking. The meat was delicious and generous enough in quantity, the lettuce plentiful and fresh, the tomato thickly cut, the cheese with flavour and a good melting ability, all in a brioche-like bun. It’s lively, and for me shows how much fun fast food can be.
Masa’s, 648 Bush St, San Francisco. Tel. 989 7154.
It’s part of the Vintage Court Hotel (many restaurants seem to be attached to hotels), with an extremely modest frontage. Inside, it’s small, low-key and formal, with a dark carpet, upholstered banquettes, tables with long decorative cloths and white overlays, bowls on pink roses on every table, European cutlery, contemporary art on the walls, and jackets for gentlemen, please. The menu is small, with a choice of four courses, three courses, or the chef’s bigger selection. Four courses: $98, not including taxes. Well worth it.
It’s not the most expensive place in town, but the atmosphere is formal in a way that is unforgiving. Any false note is going to show up magnified. It was pretty well faultless in all ways – although they do some things differently here. Wines by the glass are not poured at the table, and bottles are usually not opened at table, either. And dishes are introduced, as if you have forgotten what you ordered: “Here you have….” It’s a practice I don’t care for much, but perhaps it’s the way of checking that was indeed what you ordered. And no salt or pepper on the tables (not needed, but their absence was noted).
The complimentary hors d’oeuvre at Masa’s was lobster, prawn and crab knuckle in a light buttery sauce. I ordered carrot soup – the bowl came with a quenelle of crème fraiche and some fresh peas, the soup poured over them. Beautifully intense, as if baby carrots had been cooked in carrot juice. Then came agnolotti filled with nettles, with a little tufts of green nettles, and some shavings of parmesan, with a few threads of olive oil poured at table.
We ordered a half bottle of Merry Edwards 09 sauvignon blanc, followed by a half bottle of Domaine Drouhin 2008 pinot noir from Oregon. Sauvignon blanc is quite different from the Australian/New Zealand style, with much riper fruit flavours and almost no green notes. The Merry Edwards was a lovely drink. The pinot had a gorgeous nose, the palate not quite so exciting, but still impressive.
My main course – or entrée as it is called here – was squab, roasted pink, intensely flavoured and tender. Dessert was the only false note: a peach tatin with peach sorbet, but the peach wasn’t caramelised, and it would have been better if it had been. The coffee was brilliant, and came with a trolley selection of little treats, including great fruit jellies and extremely good miniature caneles.
Flavour’s the thing here – and attention to detail. The place is heavily staffed, and everyone is knowledgeable about everything (or so it appeared),able to explain, discuss, and give information on everything from wine to the origin of the butter (“Californian, made by the Strauss family.”)
The waiters were quite extraordinarily good: light-footed, friendly, unobstrusive. Food came promptly, but without us being rushed. A really fine special occasion restaurant, highly recommended.
Michael Mina, 252 California Street, San Francisco. Tel. 397 9222.
Michael Mina is one of the State’s most highly regarded chefs, and now runs a stable of restaurants in California and elsewhere. The restaurant with his name is located where he made his name some time ago, in a place called Aqua. It has the advantage of being open every night for dinner.
It’s a restaurant with a pronounced aesthetic sense: a strong architectural feeling (with spaces, textures and curves), and plates that were commissioned from local ceramicists. The tables are bare, set only with a side plate and a candle. No salt or pepper here, either.
Some things were very fine, but a number of things went wrong. One may have been due to a misunderstanding: Alex’s first course didn’t appear at all, although mine (tartare of tuna, mixed by the waiter on my plate) was presented with a plate and cutlery for him “In case you want to share”. The red wine we ordered – Au Bon Climat 2008 pinot noir – smelled awful, like some bizarre cork taint. I asked the waiter to taste it, and he said it was fine and as it should be, “tobacco leaves and cinnamon”, but offered to bring us a different wine. We ordered Littorai Savoy vineyard 2008, rather elegant (and more expensive). The Au Bon Climat Michael Mina cuvee chardonnay, available only by the glass, is a ripper of a chardonnay, not over-oaked, lovely fruit, round palate, long finish.
The food? The hors d’oeuvre was a tiny cup of sweet corn soup served with a triangle of toasted cheese sandwich. Mains were a fabulous steak, and duck breast with fennel, pistachio and cumquat (the last two not evident). Both very fine, although the offer of a salad would have been very welcome. The duck, because it was a hefty serve, needed more vegetables than it got, to offset its flavour and to provide texture contrast.
A slice of toasted bread (each) was presented in a basket, with a pot of ricotta topped with honey. That was plain silly, to my palate. The bread was buttered or oiled, anyway, and slightly greasy to the touch. The ricotta with honey was like a dessert, and far too strongly flavoured.
We skipped dessert, but in any case were offered a rather savory pre-dessert of carrot sorbet and coriander sponge. It was nice that it was a small serve: that kind of edgy contrast of flavours and textures can only be managed in a few mouthfuls. Why didn’t we have dessert? Because it came as a selection of six tastes, which seemed rather too many.
Did I mention how good the waiters were? Again, light-footed and friendly, observant and unobstrusive. We had a good talk as we left, and were offered a couple of names of vineyards to visit in the Napa.
I want to go back before I recommend it whole-heartedly.
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