Little Italy simmers with many new tastes

Different food approaches in Little Italy in Toronto
There are certainly fancier coffee shops than Café Diplomatico (594 College St., 416-534-4637,, but few that so consistently screen European soccer matches on the TVs. Since 1968, it’s been one of the principal landmarks of Toronto’s Little Italy. Ironically, that’s just about the time that the neighborhood was beginning to lose its accent.

We met Kevin Dupree, owner of the Culinary Adventure Co. (647-955-8357,, in front of “The Dip” for a walk around the neighborhood along College Street between Euclid Avenue and Shaw Street. Dupree’s company offers a full menu of neighborhood sampling tours and a number of other gastronomic activities—including a summertime canoe trip to the Toronto islands with a master chef who prepares a picnic.

But this particular evening, we concentrated on Little Italy. He explained that Italian immigration to Toronto began around 1880 and slowed to a trickle after 1930. The residential part of the neighborhood remained Italian into the 1960s, and it’s still full of Italian bars, coffee shops, and restaurants.

P.G. Clucks in Little Italy in Toronto That preponderance of eating and drinking establishments made this stretch of College Street a nightlife destination, and other cuisines have moved in to create a dynamic multicultural mix. We ducked into a streetfront stall—P.G. Clucks—selling “Nashville-style” fried chicken sandwiches. (They’re fiery hot with spices.) And we spent a while at Hapa Izakaya (602 College St., 647-748-4272,, a Toronto offshoot of the Vancouver-based chain of hip Japanese bar-restaurants. Dark and loud, our area was bathed in the blue glow of UV lamps—which made the white menus glow in the dark. The sake sampler was eye-opening, and the whole mackerel warmed up with blowtorch blast (see top image) was delicate and delicious.

entrance to Sotto Voce in Little Italy in Toronto But we really felt the soul of Little Italy in the spot across the street from the Dip. Sotto Voce Wine and Pasta Bar (595 College St., 416-536-4564, has been around for about 20 years, and it’s still serving the recipes of the Sicilian grandmother of one of the owners. The wine list is strongest on southern Italian wines, and the pasta plates feature red sauce without shame. We enjoyed some superb Sicilian meatballs made with pine nuts and currants and a bowl of gnocchi with wild boar ragu. The “fanciest” dish of the night was Gamberoni a la Puttanesca—spaghetti with tiger shrimp in a tomato sauce redolent of anchovies, garlic, black olives, and capers. It’s actually a modern Neapolitan dish that’s taken hold on both sides of the Atlantic.

The recipe below is not from Sotto Voce. It’s our own adaptation of many different approaches to puttanesca, but it has the same kind of umami punch as the one we enjoyed in Toronto.


Serves 4 Shrimp puttanesca at Sotto Voce in Toronto's Little Italy

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
pinch of salt
can of anchovies (2 ounces)
1 head of garlic, cloves separated, peeled, and minced
6 ounce can of tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
26-ounce can or box of crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup capers (drained)
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
12 ounces spaghetti
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces tiger shrimp tails with shells

In large pot, heat olive oil. Add chopped onions and pinch of salt. Cook at medium heat until onion begins to soften (about 5 minutes). Add anchovies and garlic, mashing up the anchovies with a spatula. Continue cooking about 3 minutes until garlic has softened. Add tomato paste, wine, and pepper flakes and stir well to mix. Add tomatoes, capers, and olives. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook gently with occasional stirring for about a half hour. It will become thick and saucy.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil to cook spaghetti. When pasta goes into the water, add the lemon zest and juice to the slowly bubbling sauce. Add the shrimp and raise heat until the pot just barely bubbles.

When spaghetti is al dente (7-8 minutes), drain it, reserving some cooking liquid. Add drained spaghetti to shrimp puttanesca sauce and mix well. Add reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin.

Serve hot in bowls.


10 2016

Indulge at Rashers with all bacon, all the time

Rashers in Toronto's Leslieville neighborhood
There’s something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. Rashers opened in Toronto’s Leslieville neighborhood in 2012 with a laser focus on the bacon sandwich. Owners John Clark and Richard Mulley firmly believe that bacon is more than a trendy garnish or a handy meat for foodie experimentation. In the Rashers universe, bacon is a culinary building block. Not just for BLTs anymore, bacon is the foundation for a whole range of sandwiches. It is a new standard under which hand-held cuisine can march forward into a gastronomic future.

Assembling bacon sandwiches at Rashers in Toronto The Leslieville storefront (948 Queen St. East, 416-710-8220, is as minimal as the menu. Hardly more than 20 feet wide at the street, it consists of a few high stools lined up along a window counter. The grill dominates the back of the room, and when you walk in, it smells like heaven. Or breakfast. Actually, it smells like bacon, and it’s not uncommon for a certain amount of smoke to be rising from the sizzling grill. (There’s a second location in Little Portugal at 182 Ossington Ave., 647-346-8230.)

This being Toronto, peameal bacon appears in several of the sandwich choices. Perth Pork Products, a Slow Food farm a few hours west of Toronto that specializes in heritage breeds, brines the bacon for Rashers. The Hogtown grilled cheese, for example, features peameal bacon with cheddar cheese and ale mustard on multigrain bread. For a buck more, you can add a fried egg. In fact, Rashers encourages clients to mix up the offerings to build their own bacon sandwiches.

A world of bacon

Beer BLT at Rashers in Toronto Rashers actually embraces bacon in all its forms. In addition to peameal, the shop also builds sandwiches with strip bacon (“streaky bacon” to the Irish and Brits) and English bacon. That last is cured in a similar fashion to peameal bacon but is cut from the back of the loin so that the medallion of meat is surrounded by a nice ring of fat.

When we stopped in for an afternoon snack (so to speak), many of the folks ordering takeout seemed to be partial to the brie and bacon sandwich. It contains a heap of bacon strips, a generous slice of brie, and a topping of caramelized onions. The cooks slather the warm bun with garlic aioli. That all seemed a bit much for 4 p.m., so we went with the Rashers version of a classic BLT. The shop’s twist on tradition is to serve it on a ciabatta bun spread with beer mayo.

We were in Hogtown heaven.


10 2016

Peameal bacon shows the salty side of Hogtown

Carousel Bakery in St. Lawrence Market in Toronto
“The peameal bacon sandwich is Toronto’s most unique food,” says Robert Biancolin, who runs Carousel Bakery at the St. Lawrence Market with his brother Maurice. “It’s like what the Philly cheesesteak is to Philadelphia.”

The Biancolin brothers’ bakery is one of the busiest spots in the bustling market. Most customers wait patiently in line to place their orders and then walk away with peameal bacon sandwiches wrapped in shiny silver foil. Those with big appetites might also order one of Carousel’s melt-in-your mouth butter tarts, another Toronto specialty.

peameal-bacon-robert-biancolin Robert and Maurice have been serving peameal bacon sandwiches in the market for 40 years. During a lull in business, Robert (at right) enthusiastically relates some of the history of Toronto’s signature style of back bacon. He draws a rough diagram of a pig, then shows us where the loin is cut. The entire loin is immersed in a sweet pickle brine. That’s a mix of brown sugar, spices, and a very concentrated salt solution. After curing, the loin is rolled in cornmeal.

It wasn’t always done that way. English immigrant William Davies invented the treatment back in the days when the market was held in the open air. Brining the bacon preserved it. So successful was the sweet and salty back bacon that Davies grew his operation into one of the largest pork processors in Canada. He made “Hogtown” a nickname for Toronto that persists to this day. Davies’ contribution to Torontonian cuisine has also had staying power, but with a few modifications. Davies rolled his pork loins in crushed dried yellow peas. But peas go rancid, so cornmeal replaced the original peameal by the end of the 19th century.

Not just for breakfast

Peameal bacon is known in the U.S. as “Canadian bacon.” When both English and Canadian back bacon was being shipped to the U.S. in the 19th century, an importer of the English variety (which is cured differently) insisted on calling the other product “Canadian bacon.” It was supposed to be an insult, but it’s actually stuck as a badge of honor.

Peameal bacon sandwich from Carousel Bakery in Toronto Far less fatty than strip bacon (made from pork belly), peameal bacon satisfies the urge for sweet and salty meat. Although it sometimes appears on breakfast menus, most Torontonians devour it as a sandwich of several grilled slices on a naked soft bun. It’s intensely salty and full of umami — sort of like getting a bacon rush.

Robert declines to comment on how much bacon the bakery goes through in a day. “It’s a popular sandwich,” he concedes, smiling.

Best of all, the peameal bacon sandwich is a Toronto original in a city that has enthusiastically embraced food from all over the rest of the world.

For more about Carousel Bakery, see the vendor description at St. Lawrence Market.


10 2016

Toronto fills its larder at St. Lawrence Market

Banner outside St. Lawrence Market in Toronto
Toronto is like the grandmother who always wants to feed you. In fact, banners hanging from Old Town light poles actually exhort visitors to bring their appetites. After a whirlwind visit to Canada’s biggest city just before Canadian Thanksgiving, we have to conclude that Toronto is a good place to “come on an empty stomach.” Torontonians have cultivated a sophisticated contemporary gastronomic scene that draws on foodways from all over Europe and Asia. Great little ethnic restaurants dot the streets of the neighborhoods. At the same time, many of the best restaurants feature market-driven contemporary cuisine that showcases the best products from Canadian farms and orchards.

Historic market continues to thrive

exterior of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto Toronto has had a permanent central food market since 1830—four years before the town was even called Toronto. Today’s St. Lawrence Market was built around Old City Hall and opened in 1902. The facade of Old City Hall is still visible inside the market, and the former offices were converted into meeting and display space in the 1970s.

The bustling food market, with its main entrance on Front Street at the corner of Jarvis, continues to flourish. The busiest day is Saturday, when both the main market and the adjacent farmers’ market open at 5 a.m. Closed on Sunday and Monday, St. Lawrence Market opens at 8 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, and closes late in the afternoon. (For full details on hours and special events, see

Interior of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto We always like to check out fresh food markets wherever we visit. It tells us volumes about local specialties and about what might be in season. We visited on our first afternoon in town to get a preview of what might be on the menus during our stay. A quick perusal of the butcher stalls suggests that Torontonians are keen on “tomahawk” steaks (a very large ribeye), filet mignon wrapped in bacon (on sale at six for $35), racks of Ontario beef back ribs, Ontario lamb, and (of course) peameal bacon. (More about that in the next post.)

market-eaters-300 The produce aisles had plenty of exotic vegetables from South America, California, and Asia. But even in October, Ontario growers were still harvesting strawberries and currants along with seasonal apples. Bakeries also abound in the market, and some of them make sandwiches. Many shoppers were also diners, sitting on stools at narrow shelves to enjoy their meals. Some take their food outdoors to the picnic tables outside the market’s lower level.

Farmers’ market dominates Saturday

apples at Farmers Market at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto Nothing beats the Saturday farmers’ market for getting a reading on local products. With the old North Market building torn down and the site under construction, a voluminous white tent south of St. Lawrence Market on Esplanade houses the farmers’ market. When the weather cooperates, many vendors set up on surrounding sidewalks, and fall offerings included big bouquets of flowers and heaps of pumpkins, squashes, and gourds. Growers come to the market from a considerable distance. Shop for chicken or duck eggs, and you’ll likely buy from a woman wearing the long print dress and simple lace bonnet associated with some of the Mennonite and Amish sects.


10 2016

Vermont’s Crowley Cheese an American original

Crowley Cheese factory in Healdville, Vermont
Cheesemakers always seem like magicians, using a straightforward process and a few ingredients to transform perishable milk into tasty blocks that improve with age. Here in the U.S., the folks at Crowley Cheese in Vermont (802-259-2340, have been doing it longer than anyone else on record, or so they say.

Dipping cheese at Crowley Cheese in Healdville, Vermont The Crowley family started selling their own cheese in 1824. In 1882, Winfield Crowley built the current factory to expand on his family’s farmhouse kitchen cheesemaking operation that used milk from their dairy herd. The factory still produces cheese with raw milk from several local herds.

In the world of cheeseheads, Crowley is an “American Original.” It is a cheese with a North American pedigree that owes nothing to the old country. Never big on the fine points of taste, the Food and Drug Administration disregarded the Crowley history when it classified Crowley as a “Colby.” The Colby category was “invented” in Wisconsin in 1885, six decades after the Crowley family started making their washed-curd cheese.

The factory and sales room is open daily to visitors. It’s on Healdville Road in Healdville, a village of Mt. Holly. Fortunately, Google Maps and most GPS systems have it in their databases. The workers only make cheese a few days a week—sometimes Tuesday through Thursday, sometimes Wednesday through Friday. It’s not a process to be rushed, and takes most of the day. However, much of the time is devoted to standing around and waiting.

Making the cheese

Raking curd at Crowley Cheese in Healdville, Vermont Early in the morning, workers pump 5,000 pounds of whole raw milk into stainless steel tubs. The cheesemaker adds lactobacillus culture (the same microbe that turns milk into yogurt) to convert the milk sugar into lactic acid. After more heating, the cheesemaker stirs in rennet. This separates cheese curds from the watery whey. As the cheese sets up, the workers cut the curd into small pieces. When it looks like popcorn and has the resiliency of a pencil eraser, they start scooping the curds into a second sink. The staff—usually the cheesemaker and two or three assistants—knead the curd while running water on it to wash away the residual acidity. After salting, the curds are packed into molds and placed in a press. By the next morning, whole wheels of cheese are formed. They are ready to be dipped in wax and aged to varying degrees of sharpness. Because Crowley lacks the acid of a cheddar, it ages much more quickly. At two years, it is as ripe as a five-year-old cheddar.

The sales room has lots of samples, including several flavored cheeses. (The Crowley family used to give sage-infused blocks as Christmas presents.) One of the more recent flavor additions is “muffaletta,” which contains a chopped mix of various olives. Most folks opt for the medium sharp. Those with a hankering for old-fashioned general store cheese choose the two-year-old sharp. It can be pretty tangy, but lacks the back-of-the-throat bite of a cheddar. On our last visit in September, we stumbled on a rare cache of extra-sharp. It was spectacular for the grilled cheese, chopped tomato, and crumbled bacon sandwich below. (The filling is the same as a BLT that we posted last year:
Grilled cheese, bacon, and tomato sandwich made with Crowley Cheese


10 2016

Valori wines show strong organic backbone

Luigi Valori at Boston tasting
“When you grow completely organically,” says Luigi Valori of Azienda Valori in Abruzzo, “an interesting thing happens to the grapes. The skins become very thick.” That’s more than an obscure botanical fact. It completely changes the potential of the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grape.

Color, tannin, and polyphenols all dwell in the skins of red wine grapes. More of those things make up for the shortcomings of mass-produced wine. Like many Italian wines, the reputation of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo suffers from a tradition of overproduction. Wines can still meet DOC standards while being grown at weights up to 10 kilograms per vine. Since the grape has naturally sweet and soft tannins, overproduction creates wines that are soft, flabby and don’t age well. But properly grown with a limited yield and vinted with care for its peculiarities, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo can be an elegant, structured, and noble. It is one of my personal favorites.

Valori Sant'AngeloA former professional footballer for Ascoli Calcio, Valori is a botanist by training. His vineyards in the commune of Teramo in northern Abruzzo near the Marche border are certified 100 percent organic. He has been producing wine on the estate since 1996. His yield is aaround 1.5-2 kilograms of grapes per vine/ In keeping with organic regulations, he treats the vines only with copper and sulfur. But he notes that grapevines find the copper mildly toxic. They react to it by forming slightly smaller berries with much thicker walls. By growing organic grapes with skins packed with tannins and polyphenols, Valori gives himself a leg up in the quest to make a great wine from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

He was in Boston recently for an industry tasting of wines distributed by Masciarelli Wine Co. Masciarelli’s property in Abruzzo adjoins Valori’s vineyards. When the American branch of the family began their outstanding boutique distribution of fine wines, Valori was happy to sign on. He would rather grow grapes and make wine rather than make sales calls.

Valori keeps striving for an ever better synthesis of the vineyard and the winery. He speaks of the temperature gradient of the Teramo hills that sweep down to the Adriatic just 30 kilometers away. The wind flows down the hill, then it flows up the hill,” he says. That ventilation eases the job of the organic grower. Late in the growing season (Montepulciano ripens late), he prunes away leaves to expose the berries. “My goal is to grow perfect grapes.”

Taste of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder—or the palate of the taster. Valori harvests entirely based on his subjective taste of the grapes. “You need all the science and stainless steel to make clean wine,” he says. “But you need the human senses to make great wine.”

I’d argue that he does that. His traditional Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is a bargain red with great fruit extraction and enough structure to stand up to light meats and most pastas. It’s about $10.

Valori calls his riserva Vigna Sant’Angelo. The grapes come from a 3-hectare plot of vines that are more than 50 years old. He macerates for an entire month for maximum extraction of color and polyphenols. (“The skins are almost white when it’s done,” he says.) The wine spends 18 months in new French oak barrique, where it undergoes a malolactic fermentation.

The result is one of the truly great Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines at about $30 a bottle. With an almost inky color in the glass, it exudes dry dark fruits, tobacco, hints of vanilla—all complemented by a bright note of tart cherry.


09 2016

Vegetable Butcher puts an edge on the harvest

Cara Mangini demonstrates techniques from her new book, The Vegetable Butcher
The vegetables that announce each season “give us little moments to celebrate,” says Cara Mangini, the author of The Vegetable Butcher, published earlier this year by Workman Publishing.

The Vegetable Butcher cover Mangini is proprietor of the “produce-inspired” restaurant Little Eater and its companion Little Eater Produce and Provisions in Columbus, Ohio. They are located in the historic North Market (59 Spruce St.; restaurant 614-670-4375, grocery 614-947-7483; Mangini describes herself as on a mission to honor and support the work of farmers by “putting vegetables at the center of the plate.”

She certainly made a good case during a recent meal at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts (44 Brattle St.; 617-868-2255;, where she collaborated with Harvest executive chef Tyler Kinnett. The meal featured recipes from her book and demonstrations of the thoughtful preparation—and cutting—that goes into making something more complex than steamed vegetables and tossed salad.

Smashed beets from The Vegetable Butcher We had already been enjoying some of the last of the tomatoes and corn of the summer growing season. Mangini and Kinnett gave those summer staples a fresh flavor with a course of heirloom tomato panzanella with walnut-basil pesto and stracciatella. A course of corn fritters topped with mixed bean ragout followed. Even as we were lamenting the end of summer, Mangini and Kinnett anticipated the earthy fall flavors to come with a beautiful plate of smashed and seared beets with chimichurri, goat cheese crema, and arugula (above).

Each dish was a revelation of how delicious and satisfying vegetables can be with just a little extra thought and care. The Vegetable Butcher is organized alphabetically by vegetable, making it a quick reference when you get home from the market or farm stand. Mangini was kind enough to share her recipe for Turkish Carrot Yogurt Dip. It was served as a starter at the Harvest dinner and everyone at our table loved it.


Turkish Yogurt Carrot Dip from The Vegetable Butcher Ingredients

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for finishing
3 medium to large carrots (10 to 12 ounces total), peeled, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
1/3 cup pine nuts (or 1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts)
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus extra as needed
2 cups low-fat or full-fat plain Greek yogurt
1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely grated on a Microplane, pressed, or crushed into a paste


Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a pinch of the carrots to the oil to test it: The oil is ready if the carrots sizzle. Add the remaining carrots and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, about 6 minutes.

Add the pine nuts and salt. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are completely soft and browning and the pine nuts are golden, another 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until it is incorporated and fragrant, another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Let cool briefly to warm.

Place the yogurt in a medium-size bowl. Stir in the warm carrot mixture, and season with salt to taste.

Transfer the dip to a serving bowl, and drizzle the top with olive oil. The dip will keep, in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days.

Serve with triangles of pita bread or with pita chips seasoned with sea salt.


09 2016

Lincoln Inn emerges as Vermont’s gourmet destination

Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont
The Lincoln Inn in Woodstock is among the most European of the little inns in Vermont, and not just because chef Jevgenija Saromova hails from Latvia. She and innkeeper partner Mara Mehlman describe the property as a “restaurant with rooms.” That’s a model common in the European countryside, and often signals great dining. Think, for example, of Maison Troisgros, one of the pioneers of modern French cuisine.

Woodstock isn’t Roanne, of course, and Jevgenija Saromova (or Chef Saromova, as she prefers) isn’t Jean or Pierre Troisgros. Not yet, anyway. But she has impressive classical culinary credentials and a personal style unique in northern New England. She worked in top restaurants in Italy, France, and England before joining Mehlman in Vermont. The two women have applied the model of the French “auberge” to an 1875 farmhouse with six charming, carefully decorated rooms and green lawns that roll down to the Ottauquechee River.

Innkeeper Mara Mehlman of the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont A native Californian, Mara first dreamed of living in Vermont when she took a Vermont foliage bicycle tour. Years later, she purchased the property, thoroughly renovated the building, and re-opened the inn rooms in July 2014. It became a gastronomic destination when Chef Saromova arrived from England a few months later. The women clearly love Vermont—skiing in the winter, kayaking in the summer—but they have no intention of replicating traditional New England fare.

“We’re not about maple syrup and cheddar cheese,” says Mara. “This is fine dining.”

Chef Saromova explains. “I don’t like boring food plates,” she says. “I like to combine textures and flavors.”

Refined Dining

Chef Jevgenija Saromova of the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, VermontChef Saromova spent nearly two decades as a member or leader of a kitchen brigade, but she works alone in the Lincoln Inn kitchen. Every dish is created to her taste and executed precisely as she envisions it. In effect, every diner gets the personal attention of the master chef. During most of the year, the restaurant serves a four-course prix fixe dinner Thursday through Sunday, with a more casual tavern night on Wednesdays. During foliage season, nights for dinner increase and tavern night goes on hiatus. The four-course meals—$55 per person—are gourmet pleasures. The menu changes daily. True to Chef Saromova’s word, it’s anything but boring. The Inn at Woodstock and other area lodgings send their foodie guests here for the full-blown fine-dining experience—complete with an excellent and surprising wine list.

Paul Newman Dining Room at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont In addition to the main dining room tables, one party per evening can book the Chef’s Table for a seven- or twelve-course tasting menu. Some of the plates are variations of those on the four-course menu, while others include specialized or especially precious ingredients. The Chef’s Table is served in the Paul Newman dining room (left). Newman and his family used to vacation here and a previous owner enclosed a side porch as their private dining room. One diner at the table faces a photograph of Newman in his prime, and some ladies have been known to fantasize that they were having dinner with the actor. We enjoyed a seven-course meal that ranks as one of the most memorable we’ve eaten stateside in a long time. Each course demonstrated another aspect of the chef’s ability to exploit taste and texture combinations for yet another striking composition.

Gazpacho served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Chilled Gazpacho and Olive Tapenade Crostini

Chef Saromova grows her own kitchen garden in the river bottom land behind the inn. Despite this year’s drought, she had good crops of tomatoes. Her take on chilled gazpacho is especially sweet from both the tomatoes and the roasted red peppers. It also has just a hint of red onion. The saltiness of methodically hand-pitted ripe olives (Kalamata and Niçoise by the taste) in the tapenade brings out the fresh vegetable flavors, while the paper-thin crostini give visual interest to the composition of the dish and a satisfying crunch. The dish was reveille for the taste buds: Fall in and stand at attention.

Lobster served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Lobster and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo

Butter-poached lobster tail is a classic of French haute cuisine. The technique demands a low temperature to keep the butter from browning. Lobster cooked this way is more tender than boiled or steamed. Orzo and chopped mild greens mixed with a judicious bit of mascarpone form a presentation base for the lobster meat. The sweetness of the cheese calls the lobster’s sweetness to the fore.

Sea bass and scallop served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Sea Bass and Seared Scallops

Neither sea bass nor scallops strike any diner as unusual, but Chef Saromova’s approach to serving them together as a fish course speaks volumes about her classical training and her command of technique. The sea bass—striped bass, in this case, rather than more conventional farmed sea bass—is roasted in a persillade. Traditionally, persillade is a chopped parsley and garlic preparation that most chefs use throughout a meal. This version was light on the garlic and included enough mustard and breadcrumbs that it sealed in juices of this sometimes dry fish. The scallop was perfectly seared—just barely cooked through. For contrast, the sea bass came with stewed black-eyed peas. The legumes emphasize the meatiness of the fish. The scallop sat on a pasta-like salad of thin strips of cucumber and white radish lightly dressed with champagne vinegar—sharp flavors that highlight the scallop’s delicacy.

beet and goat cheese salad served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Beet, Goat Cheese, Granita Salad

The photo above doesn’t really do justice to this inventive salad where so many things were happening on the plate. The slices of red and yellow beet (left side) were sweet and delicious. They paired nicely with fresh lettuce leaves and a slice of soft goat cheese. The pomegranate-orange granita, however, elevated everything with a tart punch. The pickled cherry was, well, the cherry on top. The “dust” on the plate was dehydrated beet that had been pulverized in a blender. It was a pretty touch. The salad completely refreshed our palates before the meat courses began.

Filet and escargot served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Filet Mignon, Ravioli, and Escargot/Oyster Fricasee

This dish is an embarrassment of riches. Fortunately, each of the premium ingredients was restricted to a small portion. The raviolo atop the small piece of perfectly cooked, perfectly salted filet mignon was filled with an explosive mix of truffle and foie gras—pretty much an orgy of umami. Surprisingly, the oyster shell filled with a fricassee of escargot and oyster was equally dark, savory, and garlicky. Even more surprising, the snails were juicy and tender. (Face it—snails are usually rubbery.) The sweet potato purée provided a contrast of smooth and sweet to chewy and meaty. It was a brilliant dish.

Lamb two ways served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Lamb Chop and Smoked Lamb Breast

Lamb two ways is another Escoffier classic, but Chef Saromova’s variant is pure Vermont country. The lamb chop here is cut from a roasted rack. It was perfect. The second lamb dish was the breast—or brisket. She boned, rolled, and tied it up with string. After brining it for 20 hours, she cold-smoked with cherry chips for two hours, and braised it six hours until it was falling apart. As if the meats weren’t unctuous enough, Chef Saromova served them with figs poached in port wine. The little “berries” are actually balsamic glaze mixed with agar-agar and olive oil, then frozen so that they form little beads of explosive flavor. It’s just proof that such touches predate so-called molecular cuisine.

Chocolate delice served at the Lincoln Inn in Woodstock, Vermont

Chocolate and Fruit

Chef Saromova clearly favors creamy desserts. The chocolate delice—essentially a chocolate terrine with cookie crumb base and chocolate icing—is the ostensible star of this plate. The “bars” are a champagne and strawberry terrine. The flavor favors the wine over the fruit. By contrast, the strawberry sorbet tastes more intensely of strawberry than most fresh strawberries do. Capping it all off, the sweetened vanilla yogurt has a skin that makes it explode in the mouth.

Coffee, anyone?

Lincoln Inn & Restaurant at the Covered Bridge, 2709 W. Woodstock Rd., Woodstock, VT 05091; 802-457-7052;

Kitchen 324 bakery cafe nails breakfast

Green tomato Benedict at Kitchen 324 in Oklahoma City
If Kitchen 324 were in Paris, it would be a patisserie. Sweet-shop bakeries in the City of Lights often offer some of the best deals on breakfast, lunch, and even supper at a counter. (Quiche and salad can cost less than a drink at an outdoor cafe.) Kitchen 324, of course, is emphatically American. What else could you call the fried green tomato Benedict shown above? (Well, you could call it Southern, we suppose.)

The snazzy room in the classic 1923 limestone and brick Braniff building in downtown OKC has the bright white and stainless look that practically screams “clean!” (Yes, it was the headquarters of Braniff Airways, the airline that once linked the Midwest and Southwest to Latin America.) Its central location makes it popular for breakfast meetings, take-out coffee, and office worker lunches. We can’t speak to lunch or dinner, but we did grab breakfast here twice and were very impressed both times.

Sweet starts to the day

The pastry kitchen starts around 4 a.m. and morning pastries are big and luscious. The scones echo the biscuits of the savory menu, and there are always a few muffins. But Kitchen 324’s real forte is yeast-raised pastry. The house specialty is the “Joenut,” which we thought was a reference to pastry to go with coffee. (Don’t blame us—we hail from the homeland of Dunkin’ Donuts.) But we were told it was named after a pastry cook named Joe.

In general, the Joenut is a large raised bun cooked in hot fat like any yeast donut. The kitchen then pumps it full of some variety of cream or jelly, ladles a generous amount of glaze or ganache over the top, and decorates with anything from a sprig of mint or a candied slice of fruit to crumbled bacon. The Maple Bacon Joenut (below) is filled with custard, glazed with maple, and studded with bacon. We think it’s a true American original. Since this is OKC instead of NYC, it blessedly arrives without a calorie count.

Kitchen 324 (324 N. Robinson St., Oklahoma City; 405-763-5911; is open daily from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Maple bacon Joenut at Kitchen 324 in Oklahoma City


09 2016

Oklahoma onion burger an institution

Interior of Tucker's Onion Burgers in Oklahoma City
During the Dust Bowl years that made many Okies into migrants (see John Steinbeck), Oklahoma grill cooks began serving onion burgers. El Reno, about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City, claims to be the birthplace. According to legend, cook Ross Davis invented the onion burger at the Hamburger Inn on Rte. 66 in downtown El Reno. He piled half a shredded onion on top of a nickel meat patty and smashed them together with a spatula. Presto! The onions transformed the wafer-thin patty into a substantial meal. Three diners in El Reno—Sid’s Diner, Johnnies Grill, and Robert’s Grill—specialize in the dish. The town also holds a Burger Day Festival in May.

happy diner at Tucker's Onion Burger in Oklahoma City The dust storms are gone, but a taste for onion burgers remains. In fact, one of the hottest chains in Oklahoma City is Tucker’s Onion Burgers (, with three outlets. Tucker’s brings diner food into the 21st century with its polished modern settings that evoke the mythical malt shop past of the “Happy Days” era. That’s a familiar meme—think of the Sonic or Johnny Rocket chains.

Tucker’s is big on corporate responsibility. The beef is “ethically produced by regional growers” and the potatoes are hand-cut every morning and fried in peanut oil. The company goes to great lengths to reduce water use and electricity and recycles everything. The best modern twist is that every order slip is a paper bag. When the order is ready, the cooks slip it into the bag to go. Although Tucker’s does offer a salad and a turkey burger, most customers choose between single or double burgers, with cheese or without. Drinks include homemade lemonade and canned local craft beer. The burgers are delicious enough to live up to the hype.

Thrill of the grill

Tucker Onion Burger in Oklahoma City In fact, they were so good that when we got home we decided to adapt the onion burger idea to the charcoal grill, since meat always tastes better with a little smoke. Smashing thin-cut raw onions into burger on a hot grate was a non-starter. So we tried something different. We sliced a Bermuda onion 1/8” thick with an adjustable chef’s mandoline. Then we sweated the sliced onion with a little bit of oil and salt in a cast iron skillet until the pieces were soft. We drained them on a paper towel. When the onions were cool, we folded them into 12 ounces of ground beef (85 percent lean) and made two patties.

The onion made the burger a little “loose,” so we cooked them well on one side before flipping. A slice of cheese melted on top for the last 30 seconds helped to hold the burgers together to lift them onto buns. On balance, the onion was more distributed through the meat, and therefore a little more subtle than in a traditional onion burger. Those Dustbowl Okie grill guys were clearly onto something.


09 2016