Archive for the ‘fine dining’Category

Le Moo nails the essentials of steak and bourbon

Steer on wall of Le Moo in Louisville

Every city needs an unrestrained steakhouse. From the fiberglass steer in the parking lot to the real taxidermied longhorn on the wall inside, it’s pretty clear that Le Moo (2300 Lexington Rd, Louisville, 502-458-8888, lemoorestaurant.com) does steak without restraint.

Le Moo is a major special-occasion restaurant, and like any good over-the-top place, it has one booth of truly over-the-top seating. The upholstery comes from 17 pieces of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage. There’s a $500 minimum to reserve it, but it does seat four to five people. And Wagyu steaks with top wines will meet the minimum handily. (Actually, the domestic prime Angus is maybe even beefier and friendlier to the wallet.)

Chef Chip Lawrence at Le Moo in LouisvilleWe were visiting with Mint Julep Tours (see the Harvest post), and since it was our second meal of an already young day, we prevailed on our server to split a small steak. Executive chef Chip Lawrence (that’s him on the right) had already planned to serve a four-ounce filet for the culinary tasting, even though the smallest steak on the usual menu weighs in at twice that. But a beef filet tapers from the broad Chateaubriand through the filet mignon down to a narrow tail. By cutting closer to the tail, Lawrence could still get a super-thick steak that was a bantamweight by comparison with the rest of the menu.

Steak and grits, oh my


Steak dinner at Le Moo

Our plate might have been modest, but Lawrence certainly made it special. It was the small-plate version of a Platonic steak dinner. The filet was grilled medium rare and came with brussel sprouts, popcorn grits, and a country ham demi glacé. The grits were cooked with cheese. The distinct popcorn flavor came from popped corn ground up in a blender and added to the grits. It’s a trick we’re going to try at home for sure.

Le Moo carries more than 100 bourbons. The bartenders can make anything you can think up, but we decided to honor the beef with a Central Kentucky classic, the Bluegrass Breeze. At Le Moo, they use a marvelous Austrian liqueur for the apricot flavor. It’s made with apricot eau-de-vie and fresh apricot juice.

BLUEGRASS BREEZE


2 ounces Basil Hayden Bourbon
1 1/2 ounces Rothman and Winter Orchard Apricot
3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Demerara sugar syrup
lemon peel

Add ingredients through sugar to cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into white wine glass. Twist lemon peel over drink and wipe lightly on rim of glass. Discard peel.

Cheers!

12

11 2017

Bon appétit, y’all! (At the English Grill)

Brown Hotel lobby bar

Louisville certainly has some nice new hotels, but for old-city ambience and sheer Southern comfort it’s hard to beat the Brown Hotel (335 West Broadway, Louisville, 502-583-1234, brownhotel.com). A bastion of hospitality since 1923, it’s a pillar of the New Old South. Its English Renaissance-inspired architecture has a polite reserve that reflects Louisville’s role as the epicenter of bourbon and thoroughbred racing.

If we were true barflies, it would be hard to pry us out of the Brown’s elegant sepia-toned lobby bar. The room opens at 3 p.m. and by late afternoon it begins to fill with Louisville’s business elite. As befits one of the city’s finest and most storied bars, it even has a bourbon steward. On our last stay, it was Troy Ritchie, and he definitely knew his way around the deep bourbon list.

We usually drink spirits neat or on the rocks, but cocktail history runs deep at the Brown and we couldn’t resist. The bartenders make the Brown Manhattan with two parts bourbon to one part Dolin Rouge Vermouth de Chambéry, which is more aromatic and less sugary than most vermouths. They use both orange and Angostura bitters (and a house-cured cherry) to produce a drink with precison and finesse. FYI, the bar also makes a mean Old Fashioned, Louisville’s official drink said to be invented in 1881 at the esteemed Pendennis Club.

English Grill captures art of dining


Dustin Willett with duck dish at English Grill in Brown HotelWe may not have the connections to rub elbows at the Pendennis Club, but the refined elegance of the Brown Hotel’s English Grill suited us just fine for dinner. The dark oak paneling, the equestrian paintings, and the leaded glass windows are all original to the hotel’s opening in 1923. But the kitchen is as contemporary as the room is traditional.

Chef de cuisine Dustin Willett is a graduate of Culinard in Birmingham, Alabama, with stints in New Orleans and in the Washington, D.C. branch of the Four Seasons on his resume. He describes his cooking as modern Southern cuisine with international flavors. “I like to look at things in a modern way,” he says. That’s Willett above on the left, presenting a delicious plate of sliced roasted duck breast accompanied by duck confit in an endive leaf garnished with watermelon radish.

Hot Brown in Brown Hotel's English GrillOf course, you can find a superb all-American steak on the menu. The prime ribeye Delmonico is served with asparagus, roasted garlic aioli, and killer fries sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The most homegrown dish of all—it never leaves the menu—is the Hot Brown, invented here in 1926. To quote the menu, it consists of “roasted turkey breast and toast points with Mornay sauce pecorino Romano cheese, baked golden brown, finished with bacon and tomatoes.” It’s shown here. To read the background story and get the recipe, see this post.

Sweet conclusion


Making Bananas Foster at Brown Hotel's English GrillAs befits a special-occasion dining venue, the English Grill even does dessert with panache. The staff prepares the venerable Bananas Foster tableside. But this isn’t the original Bananas Foster created at Brennan’s in New Orleans in 1951. No-siree-bob. It would be heresy in Louisville to use any brown spirit other than bourbon. The steps are pretty much the same for so-called Bananas Foster Kentucky Style. Caramelize some brown sugar and cinnamon in a generous pool of butter, add banana liqueur, some Four Roses bourbon, and squeezes of lemon and orange. Cook until the alcohol burns off. Add freshly peeled bananas and cook until warm. Then pour on more Four Roses and tilt the pan until the alcohol catches fire with a snazzy blue flame. Once the flame dies, serve with vanilla ice cream.

Backhouse realizes Niagara’s great potential

Ryan Campbell of Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Too bad the great French gourmand Christian Millau didn’t live long enough to visit Ryan and Bev Campbell’s Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake (242 Mary St.; 289-272-1242; backhouse.xyz). In 1968, Millau revolutionized the way the French (and, given the era, the world) regarded haute cuisine when he announced that he had discovered “the best restaurant in the world” in the provincial town of Roanne. He might have said something similar had he discovered this grill-centric, hyper-locavore restaurant in a shopping strip at the edge of this Lake Ontario resort village.

“Best restaurant in the world” is hyperbole, of course. But the comparison to Les Frères Troisgros is more than fair. Backhouse serves brilliant food far from the metropolitan restaurant scene. Asador Etxebarri in the small village of Atxondo in Spain’s Basque country might be an even closer comparison. Etxebarri’s chef Bittor Arguinzoniz cooks everything with open flame and coals. So does Ryan Campbell, one of the most talented and obsessive chefs we’ve ever met. He uses the trimmings from local peach and cherry orchards that would otherwise be burned as slash.

Light my fire


Campbell knows the appeal of the grill, and he places the five-foot cooking box front and center in the restaurant. Diners can opt to sit at conventional tables—or line up in seats along the bar facing the fire. We chose the bar for a tasting menu. We wanted to watch Campbell work the apparatus and poke the logs while wearing his heavy leather blacksmith’s apron. He is so organized and calm that his motions seemed almost meditative.

chicken liver purses at BackhouseThat’s probably because so much of the menu is prepared ahead. Locavore cooking in a cold climate means lots of smoking, drying, pickling, and even freezing products during their seasonal glut. Most of us associate open-fire cookery with quick roasting. Not Campbell. The chickens hanging in the back of the fireplace are cooking ahead for the first step in his “bird on a wire” dish. For our opener, we ate these pastry purses filled with chicken liver mousse and tomatillo chutney. He paired the dish with barrel-fermented sparkling hard cider.

As soon as we finished this earthy combination, we found ourselves looking at a small bowl of fresh curds and whey with just a dash of maple syrup and a beautiful viola flower floating on top. The milk came from Sheldon Creek Farms, a single-herd microdairy. The combination was ethereal and a bright counterpoint to the chicken liver starter. We thought we’d caught our breath, but immediately Campbell set out a tiny ramekin of fried egg white mousse with a confit egg yolk topped with trout caviar. We couldn’t help but think of the pintxos creativos of Spain’s San Sebastian. In effect, the liver purses, curds and whey, and “Meg’s Egg,” as Campbell calls it, formed a trio of canapes that hinted at the restaurant’s range.

Bread and veggies


After a short pause, another trio of dishes appeared in a sudden flurry. Campbell treats his sourdough breads with house-cultured butter as a course unto itself, as well he should. His sourdough starter, affectionately known as “Roxane,” has been with him for years. The bread and butter clean the palate for the intense vegetable dishes that follow.

wild leek and potato soup from BackhouseThe first was a wild leek and potato soup, thick and green, served with a sourdough brioche toast float, a dab of crème fraiche, and thin matchsticks of homemade prosciutto. (Campbell buys only whole animals and does his own butchering. Nothing goes to waste.) Since local asparagus was still in season, he completed the trio with a plate of wood-roasted Niagara asparagus, a smear of black garlic aioli and another smear of garlic mustard. (He makes his own condiments, of course.)

The meat of the matter


First Ontario shrimp at BackhouseWithout getting too precious about it, Campbell treats animal proteins with an almost religious regard for the creatures. He said it took him two years to rise to the top of the wait list to be allowed to buy First Ontario farmed shrimp. The farm only produces about 300 pounds per week, and Campbell gives each Pacific white shrimp a place of honor atop local grits in this small bowl.

bird on a wire from BackhouseOur tasting menu moved on to a variation of the “bird on a wire” dish—so called because Campbell slow roasts heritage chickens strung on a wire in the back of a firebox. He then picks the meat and presses the smoky flesh into a tubular sausage. Thick slices are quickly grilled over the open fire before he plates them with a chicken leg, wood-roasted locally foraged wild mushrooms, and homemade gnocchi. The dish might be the apotheosis of poultry. The glass of Gamay Noir from a local virtual winery (13th Street) didn’t hurt either.

Desserts at Backhouse are seasonally inspired. We were dining in late spring, and maple was Campbell’s inspiration. (We never asked if he uses sugar, but we suspect that maple is his sweetener of choice because it’s local.) He presented a sweet potato custard, a melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, and a crumbly spice cake—all scented and sweetened with maple. Alas, we were too sated to try the plate of Ontario cheeses.


For an overview of attractions, restaurants, and lodging on the Niagara Peninsula, see Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Realizing a 150-year dream: Ravine Vineyard Estate

bottles at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Norma Jean Lowery Harber’s family has farmed the 34 acres of Ravine Vineyard Estate (ravinevineyard.com) in St. Davids since 1867. Indeed, her great-grandfather planted the Niagara region’s first commercial vineyard here in 1869 and the land was in orchards for many decades. Norma Jean and her husband Blair Harber bought the farm from the rest of the family in 2004. They set about creating organic vineyards and an organic winery. Norma Jean’s father had grown wine grapes, and the couple replanted vineyards to focus on the three classic Bordeaux reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc) along with Chardonnay, Riesling, and small amounts of Gewürtztraminer.

Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantThe wines are reason enough reason to visit Ravine. As luck had it, we missed the tasting room hours. But we had dinner in the farm restaurant looking out on the kitchen garden and down to some of the vineyards. And, naturally, we drank Ravine wines with dinner. The Harbers practice biodynamic principles in their restaurant gardens as well as in their vineyards. The restaurant focuses on highly local products—including the Berkshire hogs raised on the farm. A smokehouse on the property allows executive chef Ross Midgley to feature dishes with cured pork. The chef also preserves local bounty to extend locavore dining into the less fecund seasons.

Charcuterie and Merlot


Ravine charcuterie plate

In fact, we started dinner with the chef’s charcuterie platter. The meaty anchors were honey ham, sliced coppa, and sausage—all cured downstairs in the charcuterie closet. A pot of heavenly chicken liver parfait was great for spreading on the country French baguette, and the pork country pâté en croute was just unctuous enough to benefit from the tangy pickled fennel and shallots and homemade coarse mustard.

On our server’s recommendation, we drank Ravine Merlot with the dish. Merlot is the most round-heeled of the Bordeaux grapes, ripening to voluptuous fullness even in Niagara’s short season. Ravine’s version is soft and round, but it’s not sloppy. Nine months in French barrique disciplines the fruit.

Carrot soup and Riesling


Carrot ginger soup at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantRavine’s restaurant has a nice touch with its soup of the day. It serves each bowl with a savory sour cream and chive muffin. That was especially nice with a bowl of carrot-ginger soup topped with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. The accompanying wine was the house Riesling. Like the Merlot, it is a fruit-forward wine with a good acidity that brings out the brightness of the grape. Characteristic of the Mosel clones, the aromatics are lightly floral.

Scallop and pasta with Sauvignon Blanc


Scallop and pasta at Ravine Vineyard Estate restaurantChef Midgley’s sense of food balance paired especially well with winemaker Martin Werner’s rendering of Sauvignon Blanc. The pasta of the day was a delightful tangle of homemade spaghetti with lovage and arugula, a butter sauce, and asparagus. Perched on top was a perfectly seared scallop. The range of textures and flavors in a small dish was striking.

The Sauvignon Blanc was even more striking. Werner treats it like Sancerre, fermenting with both wild yeast and a controlled inoculation, then barrel-aging on the lees. It has pronounced white grapefruit and lemon notes with a surprising creaminess. The crisp acidity cut through the butter sauce and highlighted the herbal notes of the vegetables in the dish.

Chardonnay for the main dishes


entrees at Ravine Vineyard restaurant
Ravine ages its standard Chardonnay in small barrels of an assertive French oak. That produces a French-inflected wine with distinctively New World fruit. It is creamy and lightly oaky, lush with the apple and pear notes characteristic of cold-climate Chard. Those properties make it a good all-purpose white to pair with food—much as the Ravine Merlot is a good all-purpose red. We had a brined and smoked heritage half-chicken and a mixed-grains “risotto” made with shiitake mushrooms and an Ontario gouda-style cheese. The Chardonnay’s oakiness was a nice complement to the smoke in the chicken, and its broad acidity counterbalanced the richness of the cheese in the “risotto,” which had intense cereal flavors of its own from the wheat berries and barley.

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca) or Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Ontario food rivals the view at Elements on the Falls

Canada 150 at Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, ON
A big “CANADA 150” sculpture celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary of Confederation had just been installed when we settled into a window table at Elements on the Falls Restaurant (niagaraparks.com/visit/culinary/elements-on-the-falls-restaurant/). People were having so much fun climbing on the sculpture and posing for photos that we were almost distracted from the glorious view of Horseshoe Falls.

The restaurant is one of five owned and managed by Niagara Parks. The agency was established in 1885 to preserve and protect the natural resources of Niagara Falls and the Niagara River. Niagara Parks also ensures a good time for all in this legendary natural setting. They oversee everything from cruises and zipline tours of the falls to gardens, golf courses, historic sites, and the Niagara River Recreation Trail. Their guests also eat well at the Niagara Parks restaurants.

We’re often leery of restaurants with great views. Restaurateurs sometimes think that the scenery will lead diners to overlook less than stellar food or that people will pay a premium for the view alone. But we needn’t have worried at Elements on the Falls. Our meal was every bit as good as the view.

Chef Elbert Wiersema, Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

Elements participates in the Feast ON program (ontarioculinary.com), which promotes fresh food from Ontario province. Chef Elbert Wiersema (above) knows how to make the most of that local produce, fish, and meat. The Dutch-born chef cooked in Paris, London, and Bermuda before landing in Ontario about 15 years ago. He has cultivated a deep appreciation for the foods and wines of his adopted home.

An Ontario feast


Our first dish featured a small fillet of lake perch, fried very crisp and served with a side dish of local wild rice, farmers cheese, and fruit salsa. The mild fish matched the soft flavors of the rice and cheese, while the small cubed fruits gave a piquant counterpart to the crisp skin.

Lamb mixed grill at Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

Chef Wiersema’s unique version of lamb mixed grill (above) had its own built-in drama. We were each served on a piece of slate where a roasted merguez sausage sat atop roasted heirloom potatoes, green onion, and asparagus. A saskatoon berry sauce made with reduced Baco Noir wine provided a sweet-tart counterpart.

As the plate was served, we were cautioned that the stone sitting on one end was very hot. Indeed it was. Chef Wiersema had selected flat-sided stones from the banks of the Niagara River, then heated them blazingly hot in the oven. The hot stone on each plate was an individual grill where we could cook our lamb sirloin steaks to taste.

The meal concluded with a salute to Canadian cuisine that evoked the very symbol of the country in this celebratory year. A crispy maple tart sat in a swash of reduced ice-cider and was garnished with tart and citrusy sea buckthorn berries. Chef kindly shared his tart recipe. We’re looking forward to trying it during New England maple season.

Maple tart at Elements on the Falls, Niagara Falls, ON

MAPLE BUTTER TARTS

Ingredients

6 sheets frozen phyllo pastry, thawed
3 Tablespoons (45 ml) melted butter

For filling
1 egg
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (125 ml) Maple syrup
2 Tablespoons (30 ml) melted butter
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
1 teaspoon (5 ml) fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup (85 ml) coarsely chopped pecans

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Place the phyllo pastry between two sheets of waxed paper and cover with a damp tea towel. Place one sheet on a work surface, keeping the remaining sheets covered.

Brush the phyllo with some of the melted butter; top with a second sheet. Continue stacking the sheets of phyllo, brushing each with melted butter, until you have a stack of 6. Brush the top sheet well with butter. Cut into 12 even squares.

Press the squares evenly into 12 muffin cups.

In a bowl, beat the egg well with a whisk, then whisk in the sugar, maple syrup, butter, vanilla and lemon juice. Stir in the nuts.

Spoon the filling evenly into the prepared phyllo cups, being careful not to let the filling come up above the pastry. (They will appear about half full.)

Bake in the bottom third of the oven until the pastry is golden, about 15 minutes. Place the pan on a rack to cool completely.

Courtesy Chef Elbert Wiersema, Elements on the Falls, Niagara Parks

07

08 2017

Vineland Estates Winery: a clone of one’s own

Tasting room at Vineland in Niagara

“These trees are the beginnings of Canada,” David Hulley told us as he welcomed us to the cathedral-like log barn that serves as the tasting room of Vineland Estates Winery (vineland.com). “Trees were being cut down for warships. Some of them weren’t needed, so they were used for this barn.”

The 1877 structure and the landmark stone tower are among several practical and handsome buildings remaining from a 19th century Mennonite homestead. They perch on an elevated slope along the Twenty Mile Bench of the Niagara escarpment. The chinked log-cabin barn certainly makes the region’s most dramatic tasting room. The winery’s setting atop the rise among vineyards makes it among the most picturesque estates in the Niagara region.

The buildings anchor 42 acres of vineyards, including the initial 1979 plantings of the Weis 21 Riesling clone. Vineland founder Hermann Weis hails from Germany’s Mosel wine region and brought the clone that bears his family’s name to Canada. The winemaker and nurseryman was convinced that Riesling would thrive in this particular slice of the Niagara peninsula. The heat sink of Lake Ontario keeps the vineyards cool in summer and warm into the fall. The limestone soils have good drainage, and the slope between the Twenty Mile Bench and the lake encourages good air circulation. After tasting the wines in the rustic barn, we were convinced that Weis was on to something.

At the tasting bar


Pouring at Vineland in NiagaraThe Elevation Riesling is Vineland’s signature wine. It is crafted with grapes from old vines in the St. Urban vineyard surrounding the winery. The 2015 ($20) is an outstanding example of the Mosel clone flourishing in the Niagara setting. The vines are in their fourth decade and produce grapes with impressive intensity, a citrus zing, and luscious fruit with overtones of ripe peach and apricot. Fermented fairly dry, it’s a very food-friendly wine. We also tried the 2008 ($30), which was made in a sweet German auslese style. The same stone fruits are present in the mouth, and the intense acids balance the residual sugars very well. It would be perfect with a game bird stuffing with chestnut dressing.

And now the reds…


Riesling may have been the founder’s passion, but Vineland also found its niche red early on. “In Niagara, Cabernet Franc is king,” Hulley told us. “There are very few places in the world that can make pure Cabernet Franc.”

bottles in tasting room at Vineland in NiagaraBefore trying a reserve Cab Franc, we sampled the 2014 Elevation Cabernet ($28). This elegant wine is a blend of two-thirds Cabernet Franc, one-third Cabernet Sauvignon. It was aged for 15 months in French oak with a light toast. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes powerfully to the cedar and elderberry nose, but Cabernet Franc and its vegetative tannins dominate the mouth. It needs a few more years in the bottle—or a salty piece of meat—to show at its best. A fully mature 2009 Elevation Cabernet ($75) demonstrates a more harmonious marriage of the grapes. The tannins have softened and the fruit flavors have overtaken the vegetative flavors. The lush wine lingers on the palate like a sunset’s afterglow.

Perhaps the best middle ground is the 2012 Vineland Estate Cabernet Franc Reserve ($50). It’s mostly (89%) Cabernet Franc with a mellowing touch of Merlot (9%) and just a hint of Cabernet Sauvignon. In a tasting, it shows leather and coffee on the nose and rich black fruits with bittersweet chocolate in the mouth. It makes you hungry for a steak.

At the table


Vineland also opened one of the first winery-based fine dining restaurants in the area. Simply called “The Restaurant,” it occupies an 1845 farmhouse (above) with expansive views across the vineyards. Executive chef Justin Downes grew up in the town of Vineland and studied at Niagara College. Like many Niagara chefs, he has a firm commitment to local products. After the teaser of the wine tasting, we were eager to pair some of the estate’s wines with Downes’ food.

charcuterie at Vineland restaurant in NiagaraThe flagship 2015 Vineland Riesling proved its versatility with our first two courses. The lemon-lime zestiness of the wine balanced nicely with a plate of briny Nova Scotia oysters on the half shell. With that wine, a mignonette was superfluous. Then Downes surprised us with a stunning platter that was almost a study in the branches of charcuterie. It included a marvelously mellow pâté de campagne with just a touch of brandy, an unctuous medallion of pork rillettes, thin slices of duck prosciutto, cured pork loin, and a chorizo with a healthy dose of black peppercorns. The pickled onions and green beans provided an acid counterpart. Once again, the Riesling more than held its own.

Every course was carefully thought out and meticulously executed. One pairing that surprised us was roasted quail with a kale pesto, wild spring mushrooms, a sunnyside-up quail egg, and a dab of ricotta. Downes served it with the 2014 Elevation Cabernet—the same wine we found too closed in the tasting. The salty little quail brought the wine alive. Because the meat had such a concentrated flavor from the browning, it stood up just fine to the wine. Below is the dish—beautiful and rustic at the same time.

quail at Vineland restaurant in Niagara

Overviews

For an overview of Niagara wineries, see the web site of the Vintner’s Quality Alliance of Ontario (vqaontario.ca) or Visit Niagara (visitniagaracanada.com).

Natalie’s celebrates lobster on its home waters

Shelby Stevens and Chris Long, co-chefs of Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn
Natalie’s co-chef Shelby Stevens is a Mainer, but she’s not from lobster country. She grew up in Farmington, an inland town where mountain timber meets upcountry lakes. But perched on the hillside over picturesque Camden harbor, Natalie’s occupies a prominent spot on the Times Square of Lobster Land. Roughly half of the state’s annual lobster catch—130 million pounds in 2016—is landed at Penobscot Bay ports. Stevens and her husband, co-chef Chris Long (pictured above in their official portrait), naturally developed an extensive repertoire of lobster fine-dining dishes to wow the guests at the tony Camden Harbour Inn (camdenharbourinn.com). When the crustacean is in season, Natalie’s offers a five-course tasting menu of four lobster dishes and a dessert as one of its menu options.

When we visited the Danforth Inn in Portland for the Natalie’s popup in March, David ordered the lobster tasting. It’s easy to go gaga for lobster, as it’s a luxury ingredient. But many years ago, David was a Maine lobsterman and, as it will, familiarity bred contempt. We figured that any chefs who could overcome David’s blasé attitude about lobster were doing something right.

Stevens and Long won a convert. They have put a lot of thought into their lobster dishes. Many are classics of European fine dining given a modern presentation. Others are true originals in the spirit of the classics.

Drawing from the nearby sea and woods


As they enter their fifth season at the Camden Harbour Inn, Stevens and Long have set down culinary roots. Their menus speak with a local accent because many of the ingredients are either caught or foraged in the immediate environment.

“Our next-door neighbor is a lobsterman,” Stevens says. He also brings them a lot of his bycatch—mostly sweet Atlantic rock crab, aka “peeky-toe crab”—that they cook at home. “He’s really proud of his shellfish,” Stevens notes. Maine lobster is in season, even now, thanks to the Monhegan Island lobstermen. Finding ingredients to complement the crustaceans is more challenging, but the Natalie’s chefs were up to it.

lobster beet salad at Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn

Lobster and golden beet salad


Clever presentation made the first salvo in the lobster tasting menu a genuine surprise attack. The elegant salad was served with the crisp half round of bread (on the left) laid over it like a lobster shell . Smile one. Alternating wedges of red and golden beets and pieces of lobster claw created another visual joke. Smile two. Liberal use of Urfa pepper elevated the usually earthy beetroot into something more complex. Urfa is a moderately hot Turkish pepper with overtones of chocolate and a touch of smoke. It also produces a slightly rasping, puckery mouth feel like the tannins in red wine. That helps open up the otherwise unctuous quality of the fatty lobster claws and sweet beets. Smile three. Pairing beets and lobster isn’t common, but U.K. and Scandinavian chefs do it on occasion—usually in a heavier presentation. Kudos to Stevens and Long for keeping it light.

deconstructed lobster chowder from Natalie's at the Camden Harbor Inn

Deconstructed lobster chowder


There’s something inherently funny about chowder. Maybe it’s the look of the word, or the way we say it—as if we were already chewing the dish. Philosophically, deconstructed chowder is the ghost of that joke—an ironic rendering of what is typically the most straightforward food in the lexicon of New England eating. The biggest complaint about lobster chowder in most restaurants is that there’s too much chowder and not enough lobster.

As befits a deconstructed version, Natalie’s turns that upside down with a heap of claw and knuckle meat atop the fine dice of onion, celery, and (we think) parsnip. The decorative squid rings on top are a nice nod to the other seafood that usually finds its way into chowder. The actual “chowder” was more a velouté based on shellfish stock and thickened with butter and cream. If there had not been more courses coming, we might have asked for more chowder.

poached lobster bisque at Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn

Poached lobster bisque


Any restaurant that serves a lot of composed lobster dishes has mounds of lobster carcasses and bits and pieces of shell left over from the prep process. The classic French response to all this chitinous material kicking around is to throw it in a stew pot with a mirepoix of onions, celery, and carrots. Simmer for hours, and strain, strain, strain to get a gorgeous lobster stock. Add heavy cream, sherry, and some cooked lobster, and Voila! You have lobster bisque. This version is a little more complex, and we suspect Madeira pinch-hit for sherry. (Several other dishes used Madeira as well.) It was also laced with spicy Urfa chile pepper. The ultra-rich bisque with a side of shredded lobster, some greens, and paper-thin slices of pickled Jerusalem artichoke made a nice interlude.

Lobster with fennel and seaweed at Natalie's at the Camden Harbor Inn

Butter-poached and grilled lobster


After three dishes with claw and knuckle meat, it was time for the tail. The meat was simultaneously buttery and smoky, so we’re guessing it might have been first grilled, then removed from the shell and poached in butter. Judging by their recipes, Stevens and Long sometimes cook lobster in pieces. It’s a logistical nightmare in the kitchen but allows them to cook the tails less than the claws or body. That keeps the proteins in these long-fiber muscles from overcooking. In other words, they stay tender.

Lobster heated in butter is always good, but to make it into a fine-dining dish, the chefs pulled out all the stops. It was paired with finely shaved raw fennel, placed on a cooked fennel purée, topped with a piece of salty-cracker crisped seaweed, and arranged in peekaboo fashion beneath a cloud of seaweed foam. All that made for a great visual presentation. Better yet, the elements came together nicely in the mouth.

One final note: We enjoyed some terrific wine pairings by the new sommelier at the Danforth Inn, Ryan Eberlein. Working with a wine cellar built for Southeast Asian and Indonesian cuisine, he plucked some amazing, often obscure wines that complemented dishes perfectly. Perhaps observing the chefs’ fondness for Madeira, he paired the final lobster dish with a Verdelho—the principle grape of Madeira. It happens to make amazingly complex, zesty white table wine when grown in Australia. The Mollydooker 2016 Violinist had a crisp lemon and lime palate followed by the flavors of ripe pineapple and lychee. It couldn’t have been better if it had been grown for the dish.

08

04 2017

Popping into Portland’s Danforth for Natalie’s popup

Danforth Inn exterior in Portland, Maine
With nine handsome rooms in an 1823 Federal mansion, Portland’s Danforth Inn (danforthinn.com) is a nifty hideaway in Maine’s biggest city. That’s what hoteliers Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, owners of the Camden Harbour Inn (camdenharbourinn.com), had in mind when they purchased the Danforth in 2014. Their extensive upgrades included creating Tempo Dulu (tempodulu.restaurant), a fine-dining restaurant focused on Southeast Asian, Indonesian, and Malaysian cuisines. Chef Michael McDonnell recently got a few days off from riffing on rijsttafel. At the end of March, Tempo Dulu hosted a popup of Natalie’s (nataliesrestaurant.com), the Camden Harbour Inn’s gastronomic showcase. It was a homecoming of sorts. Natalie’s co-chefs Shelby Stevens and Chris Long were married at the Danforth last year. (That’s a picture of the dining room below.)

Stevens and Long serve a thoroughly modern New England cuisine. Their dishes are very seasonal and rely heavily on local ingredients. Both chefs trained at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. Stevens also worked under Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel in New York. And Long was a kitchen leader under perfectionist Charlie Trotter at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. A stretch in San Francisco (“nothing beats the San Francisco farmer’s markets,” says Stevens) rounded out their fine dining influences. Both joined Natalie’s in 2013. In their first season, Long’s inventive treatment of the state’s signature crustacean won him the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year title. (We’ll post that recipe in a few days.)

Since we’re usually to be found eating at Waterman’s Beach Lobster when we’re anywhere near Camden, we thought we’d take advantage of the late March popup to sample Midcoast Maine’s fine dining leader. In summer, the chefs draw extensively from the Camden Harbour Inn’s kitchen garden. They also rely heavily on local foragers, and we wondered they would do in mud season.

Dining room in Danforth Inn, in Portland, Maine

What’s local in Maine right now?


Maine overflows with corn, blueberries, tomatoes, and heaps of lobster in the summer. In late March, not so much. Part of the fun of eating the Natalie’s dishes was seeing how the chefs used the current provender and found ways to incorporate preserved provisions. To that end, one of us ate the tasting menu described below. We’ll talk about the lobster tasting menu in the next post.

Razor clams as hors d'oeuvres from Natalie'sBut we shared a plate of hors d’oevres that included two revelatory mini-dishes. Dark, lumpen roasted Jerusalem artichokes initially seemed unpromising, a kind of seasonal vegetable consolation prize. But they were stuffed with sweet foie gras that played perfectly against the earthiness of the tubers. The delicate razor clams were an even bigger surprise. Once relegated to the category of “bait” by most denizens of the Penobscot Bay, the Atlantic jackknife clam (to keep from confusing it with the Pacific razor clam) has been making a culinary comeback in recent years. It is milder and more tender than a quahog. Finely sliced and drenched with yuzu juice, it made a ceviche that was a great palate opener for both tasting menus.

fried Maine oyster from Natalie'si

Fried Maine oyster with osetra caviar


The seven course tasting menu started off with a real bite of Maine. The chefs served a plump local oyster (Damariscotta, we’re guessing) with all its flavor sealed inside a crisp crust. Little black pearls of osetra caviar tumbled off the top from beneath fronds of microgreens. The rich mouthful swam in a pool of buttery oyster velouté almost rich enough to be a bisque.

Two more plates followed—truffle-scented panna cottas on a purée of caramelized onion and a rather traditional French flounder-wrapped crab with grapefruit and lobster bisque.

frilled maitake from Natalie's

Grilled maitake evokes taste of the woods


Serving a trio of “entrée” dishes was a nice touch in a tasting menu. The triplet began with the flounder-crab dish and ended with a perfectly grilled piece of farm-raised ribeye steak with a black garlic demiglace.

The surprise came in between. “Maitake,” as Japanese mushroom farmers call it, has become all the rage in fine-dining restaurants. Mainers know it as “hen of the woods,” so-called because it looks like a chicken with all its feathers fluffed up. The clumping mushroom grows on decaying main roots of hardwoods like oak, maple, beech, and birch. It’s widely distributed in northern New England and clumps can reach up to 30 pounds. Its “leaves” have no gills (it spreads its white spores through tiny pores), so they are very meaty and perfect for grilling.

The grilled mushroom perched atop a mushroom risotto. It was drizzled with a Madeira emulsion. Shavings of P’tit Basque ewe’s milk cheese played up the earthiness of the hen of the woods—one of the rare mushrooms that keeps very well in the freezer for cooking all winter.

The table was too dark to capture an image, but the Natalie’s cheese course was another unexpected surprise. Rather than just another plate of cheese, it consisted of an open-faced caramelized onion tart oozing with melted Vermont raclette cheese. It was described as a tarte tatin, but the crust was more bread than pastry and apples were nowhere to be seen. It was closer to an Alsatian flammeküche. By whatever name, it was a great way to present a cheese course.

orange blossom panna cotta from Natalie's

Something sweet (and complex)


The tasting menu dessert was big and complex, incorporating roasted butternut squash and chocolate ice creams along with candied pecans. After six other courses and assorted intermezzos, we wished we could have saved the big finish for another night. The perfect ending for a large meal was the dish presented as a pre-dessert (pictured above). The small jiggle of orange blossom panna cotta, pictured above, was flecked with ground black pepper and topped with a tart dot of lemon curd. It sat on a rhubarb sauce with small bits of citrusy Buddha’s hand fruit and itty-bitty but peppery nasturtium leaves on top.

And it tasted every bit as good as it looks.

05

04 2017

Eat, drink, and be merry in New Orleans at the holidays

New Orleans is always ready for the holidays
As a New Englander, I always secretly pitied people who had to celebrate Christmas in a warm climate. But after one day in New Orleans, I realized the error of my ways. Even in December, potted trees and ferns flourish on wrought iron balconies and poinsettias and camellias bloom profusely. All it takes are a few red bows and some twinkling white lights to deck the city for the holidays.

With decorating out of the way, New Orleanians can spend more time at the table. Great food is a city birthright and I can’t think of another place where you can eat better—or at a more reasonable price—than New Orleans at Christmas.

Until the Civil War, Creole families enjoyed lavish feasts after Mass on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve. Today’s chefs have improved on that tradition. Now more than 50 restaurants—including many of the city’s best—offer four-course, fixed-price Reveillon menus throughout the holiday season. (See holiday.neworleansonline.com for a full list.) The term “Reveillon” refers to a late night meal. But today’s diners don’t have to wait until after midnight to feast. Moreover, they can choose between contemporary cooking or the city’s signature Creole cuisine, which blends French technique, African tradition, and Spanish spices. Reveillon menus are almost evenly divided between the two.

Tujague's is the second oldest restaurant in New Orleans

Celebrate at venerable Tujague’s

For tradition, it’s hard to beat Tujague’s (823 Decatur Street, 504-525-8676, www.tujaguesrestaurant.com). Founded in 1856 by immigrants from Bordeaux, Tujague’s is the second oldest restaurant in the city. The long wooden bar in the front room was brought from France that same year. The bar is a lively place for a drink, but the dining room with historic photos on the walls is a better choice for a leisurely meal. The Reveillon menu hits on many of the city’s classics. Fresh local seafood finds its way into bacon-wrapped oysters en brochette or crawfish and goat cheese crepes. One of the entree choices is Chicken Pontalba, a city favorite featuring a chicken breast on a bed of crunchy fried potato cubes, ham, and mushrooms—all topped with Béarnaise sauce, that piquant daughter of Hollandaise.

Making Café Brûlot at Arnaud's

Drink to the season at Arnaud’s

Tujague’s was into its seventh decade when Arnaud’s (813 Bienville Street, 504-523-5433, www.arnaudsrestaurant.com) was founded in 1918 by a French wine salesman. An attention to fine libations has always been part of the Arnaud’s experience. The best way to start a Reveillon dinner is with a French 75 cocktail: cognac and lemon juice topped with champagne. Menu choices usually include a version of Arnaud’s signature dish of shrimp in remoulade sauce. (Made with mayonnaise, Creole mustard, paprika, chopped pickle, and a slew of spices, Arnaud’s remoulade is the standard by which all Creole versions of the French sauce are measured.) The most satisfying and dramatic way to end a meal is with a cup of Café Brûlot. The mix of black coffee, lemon and orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, and orange Curaçao is prepared tableside and flamed with brandy (above).

Filet Wellington at Broussard's

Broussard’s strikes French pose

Broussard’s (819 Conti Street, 504-581-3866, broussards.com) was founded in 1920 by chef Joseph Broussard, who merged his classical Parisian training with the flavors and flair of Creole cuisine. Still located in a mansion owned by his wife’s family, Broussard’s is formal enough to make a meal feel special and casual enough to make diners relax. The Reveillon menu includes such classics as Creole Turtle Soup—a rich, almost gumbo-like soup always topped with sherry—and such celebratory dishes as Filet Wellington accompanied by blue cheese puff pastry and wild mushrooms. Broussard’s also served my favorite dessert of my Reveillon dining: peppermint stick panna cotta topped with chocolate ganache, a few raspberries and a dab of whipped cream. (Next post will have a recipe!)

appetizer sampler at Tableau

Tableau makes holiday stage set

The latest venture from Dickie Brennan (a scion of New Orleans’ dominant restaurant family) is Tableau (616 St. Peter Street, 504-934-3463, www.tableaufrenchquarter.com). Brennan purchased part of the Jackson Square property of the historic Le Petit Theatre (www.lepetittheatre.com), renovated the building and created a contemporary restaurant with an open kitchen in the main dining room. The renovated theater space presents all manner of performing events. Tableau is a great spot for a pre-theater dinner or for dining on a balcony overlooking Jackson Square on a warm evening. It’s also a perfect place to enjoy a contemporary interpretation of time-honored Creole cuisine.

Chef John Martin makes the most of local products. His rich Gulf Oyster Stew, which gets a sassy anise hit from Pernod, comes topped with a Southern black pepper biscuit. His mixed grill of Gulf pompano and Gulf shrimp (with a side of roasted root vegetables) pops to life on a base of citrus gastrique and satsuma gazpacho.

The inventive pairings certainly give diners a lot to talk about. In fact, wherever you choose to eat, expect to be drawn into conversation with diners at neighboring tables. The holiday season only enhances New Orleanians’ gregarious nature and the Reveillon menus are such a good deal that many locals dine out as often as possible in December.

Belfast holidays close out Year of Food and Drink

Belfast City Hall at holidays

With no Thanksgiving to break up the autumn, folks in Northern Ireland start looking ahead to Christmas as soon as Halloween is over. That doesn’t mean that Belfast lacks for reasons to give thanks. With all its occasional rough spots, Northern Ireland has enjoyed nearly a generation of peace since the Good Friday Peace Accord of 1998. The Peace Wall (below) has become a huge tourist attraction.

At the Peace Wall in Belfast Belfast has blossomed as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated city proud of its Irish roots. Nowhere is the renaissance more obvious than on the gastronomic front. Ireland north and south spent 2016 celebrating the island’s great provender, amazing farmers, and legendary fishermen during the Year of Food and Drink.

fish supplier in BelfastBelfast’s chefs have broadly embraced that renewed local pride, and menus across the city proclaim the provenance of every meal’s raw materials. That focus on fresh and local has meant an auspicious year for Belfast’s food and drink scene, including stronger international recognition. Walk through the restaurant neighborhoods early in the morning, and you encounter vans delivering sides of dry-aged beef, huge sacks of newly dug potatoes, or some of the world’s prettiest salmon.

Great dining bargains

Bread and soup at Vin Cafe in Belfast When the Michelin stars were announced last spring, Belfast gained a second starred restaurant, Ox, to complement Michael Deane’s Eipic. Many of the city’s best chefs, Deane included, have complemented their fine dining with more casual spots where it’s possible to get a bargain lunch or pre-theater dinner. For example, the parsnip soup and wheaten bread lunch here was a weekday special at Deane’s Vin Cafe (44 Bedford St., 028 9024 8830, www.michaeldeane.co.uk/vin-cafe). It cost a measly £5. (The glass of rosé was £5.50, but it was worth it.) As visiting Americans, we enjoyed the additional advantage of a weak post-Brexit-vote pound—about $1.25 to £1.

As Belfast celebrates its local foods, many of the city’s best restaurants are also drawing up special holiday menus for the Christmas season. It’s a great time to eat in Northern Ireland’s capital city. In the upcoming posts, we’ll be outlining some places to go and tastes to enjoy. To explore a little online, be sure to see www.ireland.com.

19

11 2016