Eating my way through Copenhagen

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Amass herb garden

Ok, so I couldn’t get a table at Noma. I tried multiple times under multiple pseudonyms, using any number of different email addresses at ridiculously inconvenient times of the day – but all I got was older. So instead, I made do with a handful of Rene Redzepi’s many talented proteges who have all crisscrossed the Danish capital to create their own successful versions of New-Nordic cuisine.

 

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Turbot with toasted barley and lemon peel oil, Amass

For the unfamiliar, New Nordic principles include: Foraged or home-grown ultra-local, seasonal, organic ingredients that are sustainably raised by the chef’s own hands (or by the hands of those they trust). Gallons of bottling, pickling, fermenting, curing, smoking and preserving from bountiful seasons past, plus any number of animal, vegetable or mineral oils, not to mention a very staunch stance on repurposing any left-overs – even burned wood and coffee grinds. The good news: there’s no trash for anyone to throw out. The bad news: it’s up to the chefs to figure out how to repurpose it over and over.

 

And so, the main difference between the 4 restaurants below, is the extent to which their toques applied unique twists and turns to re-spin and re-jigger the identical ingredients in outrageously different ways. So, prepare yourself for a Danish version of Iron Chef played in very slow motion.

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Amass

Californian-born Matt Orlando spent 2 1/2 years as chef de cuisine at Noma before opening Amass in 2013. It took him less than an hour to catapult the mural adorned, cinder-block loft onto the World’s Best 50 list. The 20 tables are luxuriously scattered yards apart with views of the open kitchen below the staircase, and the prolific herb and vegetable garden out back. Thanks to the generous spring harvest, the majority of the staggering 13-course Amass Menu was green forward with a couple of seafood photo-bombs. Instead of waiters, each dish is presented by a different member of the cooking staff who sported accents that ranged from Sicily to Sydney to Singapore.

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Flame grilled green asparagus, Amass

The highlights included a flame grilled green asparagus in a deliciously creamy, salted lemon-skin sauce with lobster oil, which was covered by a what looked like a giant mushroom. As we smashed our way through, it turned out to be a cracker made from fermented “left-over herbs”. There was somewhat of a lengthy pause before we received a chilled, salty and savory curry-oil broth with magnificently crunchy young peas and sea snails, and without saying a word, the kitchen seamlessly adapted to our embarrassingly unbeatable pace, and shifted their prep and cooking into roaring high gear for the rest of the evening.

 

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Fermented potato bread with rocket lettuce spread, Amass

I lost count after we received the umteenth serving of untouchably hot, yet astonishingly morish fermented potato bread, paired with the most scrumptious onion, sunflower seed and rocket lettuce spread in the north.

 

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Danish mackerel, Amass

A fragrant slither of torched Danish mackerel arrived on a crisp cracker (yesterday’s potato bread, I’m told) with pickled borage flowers, yeasted citrus and a mere hint of heat from clementine chilies. Not just pretty – but pretty amazing too. There must have been at least 3 different twists on the turbot, but the one I still can’t quite get over, was a show-stoppingly flavorful horseradish-spiked turbot and mushroom broth. And what did they do with the fish bones, you might ask? Chef Orlando cooks them down for hours and hours, blends them into a mush and then somehow magically transforms them into ramen noodles. Same taste. Same texture. Brilliant execution.

 

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Milk ice-cream with rhubarb juice, Amass

Equally mystifying was how they candied the slimy “mother” from their home made kombucha into a sort of chewy, sweet-and-sour gummy-bear buried inside an almond sorbet with smoked malt. And a special mention for the ubiquitous and refreshing rhubarb juice which was infused into milk ice-cream, topped with a yummy crumble made from acidic yogurt and yesterday’s coffee grounds.

 

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108

32-year old Kristian Baumann worked his way up the Noma ladder from intern to business partner. And in 2016 the Korean-born protege opened a Michelin star winning kitchen at 108, sporting a surprisingly short menu in a design-ery casual-chic room with bulbous light fittings suspended from a concrete ceiling. One of many interesting aspects of the Copenhagen food scene is how each restaurateur dispenses silverware for each course. Baumann commissioned a gorgeous custom-leather pouch from one of Denmark’s foremost design schools – just snug enough to hold a couple of knives, forks and spoons, but just too large to become a pocketable souvenir.

 

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Monkfish with elderflower, 108

I came close to making an entire meal of their house-made crispy, fluffy, brown sourdough bread with salted cream – which has to be the frothiest, smoothest, most magnificently whipped butter you could ever stab a designer knife into. Being mid-season for white asparagus, Baumann served his 2 ways: thinly shaved and raw, covering a cooked version with a delectable sturgeon cream, pickled fennel and pumpkin seeds. More asparagus showed up with monkfish in a sumptuous sauce of elderflower, garlic and fennel.

 

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Lobster claw, 108

The only major miss for me was the highly recommended lobster claw, which despite having its subtle flavors bolstered with lobster oil and lobster sauce, was completely out-punched by a disc of Instagram-ably beautiful, but pungent raspberry vesicles, which felt a bit like trying to hear a violin solo during a hurricane.

 

 

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Ralae

Two Noma acolytes who decided to look further afield than Copenhagen’s backyard to augment their supply chain are Christian Puglisi and Jonathan Tam. Relae, their 9-year old team endeavor with its heavy “lean into green” tasting menus, incorporates Italian olive oils and other bespoke items from foreign soils, is also on the World’s 50 best list.

 

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Relae

Their unique utensil-dispensing system via a secret under-counter drawer within reach of each diner, snugly houses a napkin, menu and bottomless supply of silverware in adorably carved-out cubby’s. The slightly-below-street-level corner bistro space feels intimate and charming with brick and dark wooden accents and picturesque views of an inner courtyard garden. Perched at one end of the prep area, we had a good vista of the goings-on (and off) of the young, energetic and international line crew.

 

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Raw Kohlrabi, Ralae

First over the serving hatch was a deceptively tasty, crunchy, salty and refreshing raw kohlrabi, very simply marinated in lemon balm and olive oil.

 

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Lemon Soles marinated in Coriander oil, Relae

After staring at the raw food assembly line as countless lemon soles marinated in coriander oil were plated, we had a pretty good idea of what each savory and delicate layer would taste like, but the combination of just these few ingredients was where acidity meets sweetness in a heavenly marriage.

 

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New Potatoes with barley and coffee oil, Relae

Other magnificent highlights included a miniature cannonball stack of new potatoes cooked with barley and then topped with a yummy, creamy barley sauce, spiked with a highly unexpected (yet thoroughly sapid) dribble of coffee oil.

 

 

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Rhubarb compote, Relae

Rhubarb made a couple of anticipated appearances. First as a compote with a delectable mousse concocted from an almost hay-tasting woodruff and then topped with a rhubarb gelée. And in a Nordic twist on the Lisbon classic Pasteis de nata, it sat on top of the tartlet made with choux pastry for an extra flaky crunch and a splash of balsamic vinegar, which sent it into another dimension of the deliciousphere.

 

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Kadeau

Unlike his fellow Danish toques, Nicolai Nørregaard did not fall from the Noma family tree. In fact, he opened his first version of the now legendary and 2-star Michelin Kadeau on Borhnholm Island, about 100 miles off Copenhagen’s coastline. Having already set up a sustainable supply-chain of fresh and foraged ingredients on the island, he now ships them in to his very understated 10-table bistro in Christianshavn.

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Kadeau

The 2 ½ hour, 18-course tasting menu was as surprising as it was entertaining, where (once again) an attractive and cosmopolitan team of fastidious chefs presented bite after bite from the mundane to the exotic, mixing and matching seasonal meats, fruits and vegetables of the land and sea – a tribute to the smells, tastes and textures of his island heritage. To say that everything was perfection on a plate is an understatement (but at $325 a seat, it probably better be!)

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Danish squid and Lardo, Kadeau

Standout servings include two skewers of Danish squid and lardo, a duet I would never have matched on the same plate – let alone on the same twig.

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Porridge Pancake, Kadeau

Equally heavenly was something called a porridge pancake (think – Danish taco), smeared with beef fat and splinters of steamed king crab, sprinkled with aged goat cheese, toasted flowers and herbs which had to be rolled up and then gulped down.

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Horse mussel, Kadeau

In retrospect I wish I would have taken even more time to savor the monumentally flavorful 2-year old Horse mussel from Faroe Island, that had been brined in salt for 2 days, then smoked and fried in brown butter with cider vinegar before being decorated with dollops of preserved beets and pine fir. Both Michelin stars, right there.

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Roasted pork loin, Kadeau

Can’t not mention the 4-week aged slow-roasted pork loin with a magical pesto of black garlic and pumpkin and the most staggeringly delicate sauce from roasted chicken wings.

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Smoked wood-oil créme fraiche and raspberries, Kadeau

Of the 5 desserts, a thunderous applause for the smoked wood-oil crème-fraiche and raspberries laced with golden raspberry and gooseberry juices plus a few splashes of walnut Akvavit for the back of the throat, but a standing ovation for every crumbly bite of the warm honey cake served with acculturated butter. OK, and maybe the milk ice-cream in brown butter toffee too. So, don’t cry for me, Noma.

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Warm honey cake with acculturated butter, Kadeau

 

 

https://amassrestaurant.com/

https://www.restaurant-relae.dk/en/manifest/

https://108.dk/en/home/

https://www.kadeau.dk/

 

 

 

 

 

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Tokyo at (or below) street level

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Tempura on a stick, Mitzukoshi Ginza

Just because Tokyo has the most restaurants with the most Michelin stars in the world, the unknowing traveler might feel bullied into enduring a quizzically vexing and rather fruitless reservation maze in trying to secure high-brow, high-cost, high-demand tables – assuming that’s where the best food must be, right? Wrong! The overall standard and quality of Tokyo’s food is so high, that even low-brow options are quite simply and utterly magnificent. This includes street-side establishments and those several feet below.  For just a few Yen, you can enjoy the best meal you’ve never had.

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Ramen Alley, Tokyo Station

Subterranean food scares most people. And in most cities, it’s warranted. The carte blanche invitation for pigeons, rats and other vermin to indulge in the culinary trash of their choice so conveniently located next to the subway system is hard to ignore. But for Tokyo, not only do the spotless stations offer the freshest and best tasting options, the longest wait lines are actually one level below. Ramen Alley and Kitchen Street, both located beneath the train tracks of Tokyo’s main station are a hive of popularity from 11am to 11pm every day. Some of the countless establishments are so coveted that foreign travelers – still pasty and stale from an international flight – will endure the barrage of humanity to schlepp luggage down long corridors just for a bowlful of sheer deliciousness as their very first Japanese priority.

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Ramen vending machine, Abura Soba

If you’re in the mood for noodles, head down Ramen Alley. The line for each of the stalls ends at a giant ATM, where you insert cash, punch in your order and hand the ticket to the staff. Then, a steaming bowl finds its way to wherever you are sitting in under 4 minutes.

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Rokurinshu, Tokyo Station

After an eternity of inching forward in the longest line of them all, I finally noticed that I was standing on a large sticker that read: Rokurinshu Tsukemen30 minutes from this point!

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Tsukemen, Rokurinshu

Quick lesson: Ramen usually consists of noodles, meat and vegetables served in a clear or creamy meat or fish-based broth. Tsukemen, (a warm weather favorite) has slightly thicker, cold noodles served separately from the pork and chicken bone-based broth. The idea then is to dip the cold noodles into the hot broth, thereby warming them up as much or as little as you prefer, and then slurping them down with a symphony of surprisingly encouraged sound effects. Mouthful after mouthful of pure umami bliss.

 

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Shrimp, Cuttlefish and vegetable tempura, Tempura Keyaki

Kitchen Street on the other hand has a wider variety of Japanese (and some western) snacks. One of my favorites is Tempura Keyaki. The house-blend of sesame and vegetable oils gently cooks large shrimp, Japanese eggplant, beans, cuttlefish, eel and lotus root to a spectacularly crunchy and un-soggy, golden crisp right in front of you. After you baptize each steaming item into the dipping sauce, your taste buds get a delectable workout in contrasts between soft and crunchy, hot and cold, sweet and salty, yum and yummier.

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Bento Deli – Medium box, Tokyo Station

Still within the station campus but a little closer to the high-speed train platforms, are a warren of Bento Deli’s that produce the most ridiculously appetizing wooden lunchboxes of all shapes, colors and sizes that feature multiple geometric sections containing a bright and colorful smorgasbord of Japanese delights: Sashimi, pickles, edamame, omelet, sushi rolls, breaded meats…and an even more handsome variety of cookies and chocolates all smartly gift-wrapped for your upcoming voyage.

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Mixed Berry & Yuzu lemon vinegar toppings, Expre-su

After a veritable sampling session from east to west, we stumbled upon a rather peculiar dessert bar serving soft-serve ice-cream topped with your choice of something called Fruit vinegar. Expre-su offers a variety of sour dessert syrups including Yuzu lemon, Cocoa, Blueberry, Strawberry and something called Christmas. Talk about an explosive wake-up call for the taste buds when your sweet center recognizes (and appreciates) the ice-cream, but your sour center simultaneously goes into shock mode as the vinegar hits the back of your throat. Yet another sensory delight that had to be repeated. Daily.

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Chicken Yakitori, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Moving beyond the train station, but still well below ground level, are the food halls that anchor each of Tokyo’s major department stores. Daimaru, Isetan, Sogo, Matsuya and many others all compete for the most tantalizing display of fresh and cooked foods to lure the lunchtime crowd, but none are as opulent as the Mitzukoshi flagship in Ginza. Row after row of the most salivatingly cravable bites from abalone to yakitori and everything in between.

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Garlic and honey prawns, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Kimchi crabs, scallion crepes, Asian meatballs, petite sandwiches, beef salads, raw fish, cured fish, smoked fish, shellfish, designer chocolates and so, so, so much more. Our department-store picnic lunch took over an hour to select – but was gone in sixty seconds!

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Nonbei Alley, Shibuya

Just around the corner from the crush, noise and lights of Shibuya Crossing are a series of lantern-lit back alleyways called Yokocho, with 5-10 seat snack bars that date back to the second world war. Among them, the Golden Gai, Omoide, Harmonica and Sankaku Chitai often feature bars that only permit locals, but we ambled through Nonbei (drunkards) Alley to a room no larger than an elevator called Appre Yumiko Sasame.

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Fried rice dough with nori, Appre Yumiko Sasame

The two charming proprietors went to all sorts of trouble to try and translate the names of each dish of Kyoto style appetizers that included pickled Japanese carrots and sweet potatoes, the most delectable slither of fried rice-dough wedged between a strip of nori, and their house specialty – Pan fried duck with Japanese green peppercorn sauce. Fresh, flavorful, salty, umami and utterly amazing (even though we had to vie for some table space between all the pots, pans and other cooking utensils.)

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Abura Soba Shibuya

Aside from Ramen and Tsukemen, my all-time favorite noodle dish would have to be Buckwheat Soba, and no-one does it better than Abura Soba Shibuya. Instead of a broth, the noodles, veggies, shredded pork, scallions and bamboo shoots all sit on top of a thick, secret, spicy-soy sauce that you stir up after adding a few squirts of vinegar, a few squirts of chili oil, a few spoons of chopped onions and some black pepper. Suddenly the noise of the world disappears along with your manners, and you slurp up heavenly bite after heavenly bite of the most indulgent, unbridled food vacation your tongue has ever been on.

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Butagumi

While on the subject of indulgence, no trip to Tokyo would ever be complete without at least one slice of Tonkatsu (pork schnitzel), and the best place to find it is at Butagumi – a curious little wooden house with a moon-shaped window, that just so happens to be on every chef’s must-eat-when-in-Tokyo list. Don’t be fooled – while the building might look like a fairy tale, the Tonkatsu is more Superbowl than 3 little pigs. Here, in addition to picking a species of pig, or where it was raised, you can also select a particular cut (sirloin, tenderloin, shoulder etc.) and your preferred thickness and fat content as well.

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Pork Sirloin Tonkatsu, Butagumi

The result is a flaky, fluffy, crunchy panko crust (without a trace of oil), surrounding a few slices of the pinkest, juiciest, most tender cutlets you will ever encounter in your life. And that’s before you add the special sauce, mustard and slaw.

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Mille Crepe, Yoku Moku

So, never let it be said that only the best things come from above. Sometimes you might be standing right on top of them.

 

 

 

The Ying and Yang of Hong Kong

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Mott 32

Part of Hong Kong’s charm is the visceral contrast between a modern, vibrant and effervescent world city and its nostalgic heritage as a former British colony with ancient Chinese roots. It’s inescapable. Even as you gaze up at gravity-defying forests of steel and glass on streets named after British lords and ladies, you can’t escape the smell of fresh dumplings and steamed rice. And so to enjoy the total Hong Kong culinary experience, you have to spread your meals around as many influences as you can.

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Crispy Chicken, Fook Lam Moon

On the classic side, restaurants like Ho Lee Fook, Tim Ho Wan (who just opened a branch in New York) and The Chairman deliver the quintessential Chinese experience, but none more so than Fook Lam Moon. This city staple and a favorite among Chinese tycoons for over 75 years is more of an institution than merely a restaurant. Barricaded behind a shiny flotilla of Bentleys, Mercedes’ and Maybachs on a busy, neon-lit Wan Chai street, the nondescript access to a brief elevator ride plops you into a large, bright, windowless room dotted spaciously with square tables. An armada of firm (but friendly) white-aproned staff, whisks guests, wines, teas and trays laden with piping hot dishes around the room as if they were line dancers picking out and replacing partners in a hectic but inaudible ballet.

 

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Double sticks at Fook Lam Moon

Once landing at our white linen 4-top, I was vexed as to the need for the double set of silver handled chopsticks at each place setting. Turns out the white set are for grabbing portions from the strictly sharable dishes onto your plate, whereas the black set are for lifting eat morsel into your mouth. (Clearly taboo to employ the same chopsticks for both functions, which meant an evening of constant chopstick swap-a-roos.)

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Chargrilled Pork Belly, Fook Lam Moon

The first few pages of the elaborate menu proudly include some of the world’s most infamous restaurant no-no’s: Shark fin soup and Birds nest congee. (Oh dear!) Instead we selected a few equally famous – but more GreenPeace-acceptable options that all arrived inside of 9 minutes. Instead of that (often unpleasant) ¼ inch layer of unavoidable fat that normally surrounds any order of pork belly, this Chargrilled crispy pork belly had rendered its fat entirely during the process of becoming the most magically tender cut of crispy-skinned goodness, bathing in a maple syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. On the subject of impossibly crispy skins, no Oktoberfest rotisserie Brathändl could ever rival this deep red Crispy Chicken with eight succulent sections this side of a wish bone. On the blander side our order of Wok fried king prawns desperately needed that welcome side order of wild mushroom stew.

 

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Wok fried King Prawns, Fook Lam Moon

On the more modern restaurant front, my favorites include Yardbird and Duddell’s, but no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without at least trying to get a table at Mott 32. Named for the first ever Chinese convenience store dating back to 1851 at 32 Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, this deep, dark, glam and impressively modern space is housed three floors beneath the Standard Chartered Bank building in Central Hong Kong.

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Mott 32

As you descend from the ruckus of honking cabs and double-decker trams grinding along rusty tracks, the dark mirrored staircase sets the scene for a very special and decadent experience. It’s as if an exclusive modern nightclub and an opium den produced a child. On one end of the wrought-iron framed clubby lounge, a wall of bright blue windows reveals a glimpse of the fuss, steam and energy inside the frenetic kitchen, while solo spotlights illuminated the black and gold banquettes, booths and a lengthy marble communal table, providing the perfect hideout for the next hour or two.

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King Prawn Har Gow & Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork soup Dumplings, Mott 32

 

The cocktails are all home made delights and the menu offers a range of contemporary spins on some of the cuisine’s greatest hits, but the a la carte dim sum is what all the fuss is about.  Divided into six sections: Steamed, Siu Mai, Har Gow, Baked, Cheung Fun and Fried, chef Lee Man Sing reaches for ingredients far beyond the Asian peninsula.

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Assorted Dim Sum, Mott 32

 

The dark red Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork Soup Dumplings are an incredibly delicious mashup of salty umami. And nothing I have ever sampled in Chinatown can rival the taste and crisp texture of the King Prawn Har Gow, nor the wafer-thin fur-covered breadcrumb Chicken, Prawn and Toro Croquette. But I challenge any wonky dim sum wagon that ever rolled passed your table to muster the show-stopping brilliance of their signature item: The Crispy Sugar coated BBQ Iberico Pork bun. Adding a candy shell to an evolved pork ragout, transformed a one note ho-hum bun into a Chinese rock opera.

 

 

http://www.mott32.com/

http://fooklammoon-grp.com/en#home

http://www.thechairmangroup.com/index.php?lang=enus

http://www.duddells.co/home/en/

http://hk.dining.asiatatler.com/restaurants/ho-lee-fook-hong-kong

http://yardbirdrestaurant.com/info/

http://www.timhowan.com/

 

 

Truffle Hunting in Umbria

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a thing for truffles. Half of it must be their mystique and the other half – their incomparably subtle aroma and uniquely distinctive flavor. By definition, a truffle is a parasitic fungus that grows onto the roots of certain trees. They are fiendishly fussy about altitude, moisture, soil, foliage, wind and weather, and unless everything is as pedantically perfect as a banquet table at Buckingham Palace, they’ll refuse to grow. But to make matters trickier, even if they thrive, they are invisible to the human eye. So, for centuries, farmers in France and Italy enlisted the help of pigs to sniff them out of their subterranean hiding. But that’s not the worst of it. Turns out, pigs find them just as much of a delicacy as we do. And so after many a farmer lost many a finger trying to pry summer blacks or winter whites out of the throats of swine, they started training man’s best friend to do the work instead, with fewer casualties and more rewards.

That brings us to Umbria – the Italian capital of black truffle farming. In many of the forests along the olive-grove hilltops somewhere between Montefalco and Norcia lies a charming industry just a couple of inches below the dirt, (not to be confused with the truffle oil industry, which not only sells artificially flavored ersatz truffle infusions, but one that is also systematically wiping these farmers off the map).

Outside the tiny hamlet of Pettino, Mac, a farmer from the south island of New Zealand (I know, not exactly what one would expect in these parts), and his Umbrian wife Francesca welcomed us onto their 700 year old family farm – and when I say family, I mean the entire la famiglia (in-laws and outlaws) to spend the day finding, cooking, eating, enjoying and celebrating truffles.

One morning's harvest

One morning’s harvest

The first thing you notice as Mac releases the dogs from a cage on the back of his truck, is that while they might look like very ordinary farm dogs, they are trained to sniff, dig and retrieve the “black gold” from the forest floor in exchange for tiny treats. Mac had barely enough time to explain how important it is to keep these working dogs separated from regular domesticated pets for fear of them “becoming lazy” and loosing their hard-learned skills, when the first truffles are already discovered. For the next hour or so, the process repeated itself over and over. Run, run, sniff, sniff, dig, dig, arf, arf, wag, wag, chomp, chomp, bene, bene!

Next on the agenda was a ride up to the top of the hill with a spectacular view of the valley, just as the resident sheep family munched their way across our path. Our hosts quickly whipped up a snack of farm-fresh scrambled eggs and a few slithers of wondrously creamy, home made sheep’s milk cheese, all topped with shavings of our recently discovered harvest, plus a flute of Prosecco. (Sigh!)

Shaved truffles over Sheep's milk cheese

Shaved truffles over Sheep’s milk cheese

Meanwhile back at the farm, Nonna (Mac’s round-shouldered, smudge-bespectacled, hands-on-hips mother-in-law) stood hunched over a mound of flour and a few fresh eggs in the stone kitchen.

With nothing but years of practice, her bare hands and a long rolling pin, she transformed these two ingredients into heavenly ribbons of tortellini right before our eyes.

Francesca put the final touches on our lunch: her New Year’s Eve signature, red wine-infused Truffle Frittata; a deliciously tender Braised Guinea Fowl flavored with local tomatoes, sweet prunes and fresh herbs; a sublime Truffle Pesto to accompany the tortellini; a garden salad with home-fermented red wine vinegar; Garden Peach Tarts bursting with juice and begging for a scoop of gelato.

Fresh tortellini with truffle pesto

Fresh tortellini with truffle pesto

Then in a series of trips down to the long, wooden table under a shady pergola, we all sat down to an unforgettable lunch – farmers, dogs, hunters, tourists, cooks…and every member of la famiglia! Buckingham Palace, take note!

http://www.montefalcomob.com/wild-foods-adventure

Salumeria Roscioli, Rome – review

Rome is a city of many mysteries, but the biggest one has to be why it’s almost impossible to find a truly great meal here. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Roman food. Quite the contrary. But it’s easier to find a noodle in a quarry, than a lazy trattoria that doesn’t just throw some dry Barilla into a pot and stir it up with a few pieces of burnt garlic and cheap olive oil, and convince the tourists that it’s the best Aglio Olio in town. But I digress. Regardless of all those other suggestions on your list from colleagues, in-laws or tennis partners, no trip to Rome would be complete without at least one meal at the utterly sublime and completely unforgettable Salumeria Roscioli, which is like being invited to the wedding of simplicity and quality.

The establishment is principally a high-end purveyor of meats, cheeses and wines, but they also have 2 sittings of reservation-only tables for diners who promise (repeatedly) to arrive and leave on time. Once you get over the fact that you are sort of in the way of a bustling retail business that slices, weighs and sells hundreds of kilograms of antipasti and alimentari to Roman shoppers carrying babies, dogs and duffle bags, you realize two things: you are in very good company, and no-one gives a damn about anything except the food.

The menu rambles on for page after page of infinite preparations and combinations of many of the most famous local heroes: sardines, buffalo mozzarella, semi-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, carpaccio, crudo, artichokes, olives etc. By page 5, I became slightly concerned that all this time spent reading was going to cut into my strictly allotted 1 ½ hour time slot for eating. So I relinquished control to our curly-edged-moustache sporting waiter Salvatore. Sal personified your typical Roman, best represented by an Arancino – a hard, crusty, deep-fried shell with a soft, warm and creamy risotto center within. Our first confrontation involved his refusal to serve me the bottle of Amarone Valpolicella I had selected. (In my opinion a solid, fruit-forward wine with hints of raisins-in-the-sun that goes well with just about anything Italian.) “No. Not this one,” he snapped in his priceless accent. “Not good one. But this one…” he declared with a wry smile, pointing to a reasonably priced 2012 Barolo, “…this much better one. You trust me.” And that was that. He slammed the wine list shut and snatched it out of my mortified hands, disappearing behind a clutter of clients.

Salvatore

Salvatore

And so it turned into that kind of an evening, where our waiter clucked and scoffed at most of our suggestions – only to utterly charm, disarm and delight us like a magician with an endless litany of wondrous tricks that kept us ooh-ing and aah-ing in an Italian accent all night long.

Bruschetta with Cantabrian Sardines - Roscioli

Bruschetta with Cantabrian Sardines

We started off with a very traditional Bruschetta topped with the most deliciously briny Cantabrian Sea sardines and olives on toast, with a thick layer of vanilla flavored sweet butter from San Maló.

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Mozzarella “Hamburger”

This was followed with the incredible Mozzarella “Hamburger” – an all-time favorite with three thick slices of fresh and fluffy mozz separated by seared, sweet ham, tomato and a yummy sweet-and-sour balsamic glaze.

Pasta Cacia e Pepe - Roscioli

Pasta Cacia e Pepe

We knew we had to try the magnificently flavored and prolifically marketed Pasta Cacia e Pepe, which was as dreamy as any three-ingredient dish could ever hope to be.

Nebraska Beef Carpaccio - Roscioli

Nebraska Beef Carpaccio

The curiously labeled “Nebraska” Beef Carpaccio was another rare intersection where heaven meets earth in the form of a semi-transparent, chianti colored slither of citrusy smoke-cured meat, littered with dark orange curls of 24-month aged Mimolette cheese. The worst part of this dish was that it eventually came to an end.

We couldn’t help noticing a pair of hands (and from where we were sitting, we couldn’t see who they were attached to) repeatedly slicing a small slit into the top of a ping-pong ball sized boconcino, and then jamming it full with semi-dried Pachino tomatoes before finishing it off with a curled slither of anchovy. Before I could ask Sal why we didn’t order one, he surprised us with a couple of samples. Each bite burst with a sharp, salty jab, followed by a milky cream and finally a sweet, caramelized tang.

Parmesan with 20-year aged Balsamic vinegar - Roscioli

Parmesan with 20-year aged Balsamic vinegar

Our next course began with what looked like a virtually empty perfume bottle. “Don’t touch!” Sal commanded, before returning with a plate of cave-aged Parmesan chunks. He (ever so cautiously) splashed them with a few precious drops from the bottle – which turned out to be 20-year aged Balsamic. The utterly incredible combination of the salty, sharp cheese with the rich and tart vinegar left us breathless with wonder as to how something so simple could taste so incredible.

Tiramisu with Biscuits and Chocolate dip - Roscioli

Tiramisu with Biscuits and Chocolate dip

According to Sal, our first dessert was going to be the “…best Tiramisu in all over Rome,” and he might very well be right. The shorter than normal slice almost completely sacrificed the biscuit layer for an espresso flavored, twice as thick (and decadent) mascarpone cream topping, which felt like a five year vacation on a private island where an ocean breeze gently wakes you at around noon.

And just before we surrendered, a small dish of home made ring biscuits showed up with a warm, thick, sweet and lusciously creamy chocolate dip. We’re talking about an instance of bliss where the noise of the world suddenly goes quiet. The traffic, the tourists, the music, the stock-market, even old Italian grandmothers rolling fresh pasta in small apartments upstairs have to pause to appreciate this incredible, edible moment.

www.salumeriaroscioli.com

http://www.salumeriaroscioli.com/booking/

Dining in Cape Town

Having not dined in South Africa’s “mother city” for more than a dozen years, it came as no surprise that the local culinary scene has moved on – and then some. On one hand, I couldn’t help feeling a teeny bit nostalgic to notice bedrock establishments like La Perla, Ari’s Souvlaki, Panama Jack’s and Blues have all endured the 20 year arduous transition from apartheid to democracy, from economic isolation to destination envy, from world pariah to world cup – with unchanged menus and décor in tact (barring frequent electricity blackouts and currency devaluations), while on the other hand, exciting new bistros with eclectic chefs in gentrified neighborhoods with huge fan bases are all vying for a seat around table mountain.

Blues - Camps Bay

Blues Restaurant – Camps Bay

So regardless of whether you happen to find yourself at the most gorgeous tip of the continent for a short, medium or undetermined length of stay, there are (thankfully) a handful of adorable bistros well concealed from the camera-flashing, “is-the-meal included?” inquiring tourists oozing out of mega-coaches all over town.

Pot Luck Club - Woodstock

Pot Luck Club – Woodstock

For instance, when you exit the glass elevator at the top of the disused biscuit mill in an unlikely industrial part of Woodstock, Luke Dale-Roberts’ Pot Luck Club administers 10,000 volts of unbridled energy into the concrete, wood and window “room in the sky,”  like a cricket bat to the back of the head. The multi-award winning gastropub is obnoxiously popular for its Afro-Euro-LatAm-Asian-influenced tapas – divided into the 5 main taste groups of Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and Umami. Given the defiant lack of menu focus from the get-go, it’s hardly surprising that there are some misses among the hits – but the hits are certainly worth mentioning.

Calamari with Lentil curry - Pot Luck Club

Calamari with Lentil curry – Pot Luck Club

Who would think to reinvent Crispy Calamari with a velvety smooth and flavor forward bed of zesty Cape Malay lentil curry? And I would, without hesitation, add Roberts’ Smoked Beef Fillet to my final-meal-on-the-planet list. After the first morsel of the ultra-tender, marbled steak surrounded by the most unforgettably delicious, creamy pool of black pepper and truffle spiked “café au lait”, I secretly hoped for a “load shedding” event (the South African P.C. way of saying “rolling blackouts”) so that I could snatch the “sharing” plate away from my party, and gorge myself in total darkness.

Smoked Beef Fillet - Pot Luck Club

Smoked Beef Fillet – Pot Luck Club

The stiffly fried Beer battered Fish also took on a Malay flavor – thanks to the cardamom and saffron aioli and the green mango Atchar – which is a salty, mustardy, citrusy pickle used to spice up food and marriages, as well as grow hair on the chest.

Beer battered Fish with Atchar - Pot Luck Club

Beer battered Fish with Atchar – Pot Luck Club

The desserts were an equally disparate mix of cultures and influences starting with a Bunny Chow, which can best be described as an “interesting experiment” – where spicy white chocolate found its way inside a slice of banana bread, topped with fruit preserves and accompanied by the most formidably overbearing cucumber sorbet ever attempted. But all was instantly forgiven when the donut-hole shaped Tonka Bean Churros emerged with a finger licking, lip smacking, malted chocolate dipping sauce – which instantly time-warped me back 35 years!

Tonka Bean Churros - Pot Luck Club

Tonka Bean Churros – Pot Luck Club

As it happens, one of chef Roberts’ protégés, Frank Marks, recently opened his own fresh-ingredient-focused, concept bistro called Borage. I use the word “concept” because being located in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD, the gray bistro-in-a-box caters chiefly to high-octane power breakfasts and business lunches (before the downtown area pretty much empties out) with only two dinner services a week that conclude promptly at 9pm. Marks also hosts a monthly, invitation-only “Supper club”, featuring the multi-culti talents of young up-and-coming chefs. In fact all students currently attending the famous Silwood Culinary School get to spend a period of their academic education prepping, cooking and scrubbing at Borage, Pot Luck Club and (the impossible-to-get-into) Test Kitchen before they can graduate.

Borage Bistro

Borage Bistro

Marks’ modest menu features 4 starters for under $10, and 4 mains for under $18 plus a very limited, but hand-selected local wine list.

Beef Tartare - Borage

Beef Tartare – Borage

You realize when you bite into the quail egg topped, green parsley canopy shrouding a wonderful blend of Beef Tartare with gherkins and capers on wafer-thin ciabatta, that the emphasis is all about allowing the fresh combinations of the local produce do all the talking.

Chicken Liver and Foie Gras - Borage

Chicken Liver and Foie Gras – Borage

I have tasted swooshes and shmears of just about every liquid reduction on the planet, but just the very idea of a glühwein gelée to bolster an almost foamy domino stone of Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Parfait, opened a whole new lexicon of taste for me. I was also intrigued by how subtly Marks’ sauces complimented his mains; a rather simple but hearty red wine reduction for the Sirloin, a spicy au jus that was born from at least one Bordelaise parent for the Duck, and a magnificent pickled beetroot gel for the Kingklip. Given that our table was the only thing in the way of the crew’s quitting time, the service was remarkably and uncharacteristically swift.

Kingklip with beetroot gel - Borage

Kingklip with beetroot gel – Borage

In general terms, Cape Town’s cooking can range from hearty and decent to unique and inspired, but like a few obstinate lumps in an otherwise smooth gravy, South Africa’s omnipresent collision of 1st and 3rd worlds emerges when spotty service can unfairly tarnish a kitchen’s shine. It’s one thing to order a spectacularly described, farm-to-table-influenced, salivation-inducing item off the menu – but quite another to have it served!

Babylonstoren - Paarl Valley

Babylonstoren – Paarl Valley

Let’s take Babel as an example. The 45-minute drive inland, plants you firmly in the heart of the wine country – with roly-poly hillsides replete with vineyards, olive groves and Cape Dutch gabled, thatch-roofed structures dating back 300+ years. And one of the most impossibly beautiful estates between the historic towns of Paarl and Franschoek is “Babylonstoren” – the poster child for hand-raised, organic, fair trade, free range and bio-dynamic foods.

Gourd tunnel - Babylonstoren

Gourd tunnel – Babylonstoren

I am talking about 200 hectares of immaculately landscaped and symmetrical fruit orchards, prickly-pear mazes, herb and salad gardens, gourd tunnels, chicken runs, citrus groves, vegetable patches, fish ponds…all in the shade of an idyllic cookie-tin valley with mountains, streams, horses and of course the obligatory winery. On the premises of the estate – which also boasts a boutique hotel and spa, is a casual, airy restaurant called Babel, with a dozen tables in and outdoors. The menu looks like the centerfold of a well illustrated “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” popup book – and it reads like a shaman guru’s shopping list.

Babel

Babel

Appetizers are offered in three colors: Green, Red and Yellow. (Apologies for transcribing the menu here, but there is no better way to do justice to this cornucopia of ingredients, all freshly picked that morning.)

"Green" - Babel

“Green” – Babel

Green: Chilled Soup of cucumber, avocado, yoghurt, dill with fennel, granny smith apple, pear, kohlrabi, green pepper, green bushbeans, green tomato, pickled white Shimeji oyster mushroom and Suring.

"Red" - Babel

“Red” – Babel

Red: Carpaccio of pickled beetroot varieties, turnip and champion radish with pepperdews, hull blackberries, pomegranate, mission fig, vineyard grapes, black plums, purple beans and smoked salmon with black sesame. Dressing; Carob and mint-infused white balsamic.

"Yellow" - Babel

“Yellow” – Babel

Yellow: Tempura of ricotta stuffed zucchini blossom with butternut, dragon tongue bushbeans, yellow beans, Turkish granadilla, golden delicious apple, yellow pear tomato, tree melon, baby carrots, tiger figs, golden pickled beetroot, sungold plums, pineapple and mango. Dressing – Spicy coconut, coriander and mango.

With this many different (yet surprisingly well matched) ingredients, it’s hard not to be amazed at the restrained barrage of flavors, colors and textures. Every morsel, every bite yielded a whole new crunchy explosion of fresh sweet and sourness – like a fireworks display with different bursts of wonder and pleasure with every passing second.

Babel

Babel

I can tell you what main dishes we ordered, but unfortunately they have yet to be cooked, served or eaten. Instead of being fed on Lamb Cutlets with Greek basil and lemon sauce, or a Cauliflower Sandwich with gorgonzola and macadamia nuts, or Fresh Linefish with crab apple butter and salsa verde, we were fed to bursting with a 2-hour litany of explanations and apologies that ranged from “ your order is being plated now” to “the head chef didn’t show up for work today” to “it’s a new menu and no-one knows how to make it yet.” Oops!

Kloof Street House

Kloof Street House

And closer to town at the casual-chique, mostly Mediterranean Kloof Street House – an eclectic Victorian villa of interlinked dining rooms lined with fabric wall panels and bookcases filled to the pressed-steel ceilings with colonial tchotchkes and a noisy clientele of trust-fund babies with plenty of time on their hands, one of our orders didn’t quite make it to the kitchen, and so one of us watched – while two of us chewed. Oops!

Harbour House - Kalk Bay

Harbour House – Kalk Bay

But before you resign yourself to lowering your expectations, it is probably advisable to focus on the rest of the experience instead. Like sitting in front of one of the big windows at The Harbor House in Kalk Bay, perched on the very edge of a treacherous rocky cliff, while a ferocious Indian Ocean thrashes mercilessly below, as you calmly pick through a bowl of hearty West Coast Black Mussels in wine, garlic, thyme and cream, or tender Calamari sautéed in fragrant smoked paprika with olives, or even a plate of magnificently succulent Mozambique-style grilled Prawns in lemon and chili. Fresh, solid and reliably enjoyable.

Calamari with Smoked Paprika - Harbour House

Calamari with Smoked Paprika – Harbour House

And finally, no trip to Cape Town would be complete without a stop at Bizerca Bistrôt near Heritage Square. The French-influenced local fare is offered as evergreens on the printed menu, and an even longer list of daily specials on mobile chalk-boards. Highlights included the house-cured Raw Norwegian Salmon Salad with salty notes and a lively goat cheese, soy ginger and shallot dressing. Another crowd pleaser is the Butternut Gnocchi – which has a soft center protected by a crispy sautéed skin with melted Parmesan and roasted vegetables. The Seared Ostrich Fillet could have remained on the fire for another sixty seconds for my money, but the coin-sized medallions of fat-free steak always takes the top spot on the poultry family tree. Figs and beetroot with plum sauce were the perfect sweet and tangy contrast to the tender, umami delight.

Butternut Gnocchi - Bizerca

Butternut Gnocchi – Bizerca

Most of the ubiquitous sweet, sour and chocolate desserts are no match for the most earth-shatteringly delicious deconstructed Apple Pie ever to leave a kitchen. The 45-minute pre-order time faded into distant memory when our waiter lowered a flat, flaky, 4-inch square pastry tile, covered by a doyly of hot, caramelized apple relish with a single ball of the most decadently scrumptious crème fraiche ice-cream. Just one hot/cold/creamy/crunchy/toffee bite instantly blurred the lines between well-mannered human and greedy beast!

Apple Pie - Bizerca

Apple Pie – Bizerca

http://thepotluckclub.co.za/

http://www.borage.co.za/

http://www.babylonstoren.com/food/

http://www.kloofstreethouse.co.za/

http://www.harbourhouse.co.za/

http://bizerca.com/

http://www.capetown.travel/

Dining in Brussels

La Villette

La Villette

Belgium has always enjoyed a respectable (if somewhat unadventurous) culinary reputation, thanks to its border with the Netherlands and France. On one hand, some say that the local cuisine is classic French cooking served up in Dutch-sized potions, whereas for the vast majority of the chewing world, the only dishes that come to mind are Waffles, Beer, Moules Frîtes (mussels and fries) and of course my relentless weakness – chocolate. (More about that in a subsequent blog)

Delicatessen

Delicatessen

Not to be outdone by any other European city, Brussels has its fair share of serious eats, modern surprises and tourist traps. There isn’t a single visitor to the city who doesn’t arrive armed with the name Chez Leon as a recommendation from a cousin’s neighbor’s aunt’s sister’s hairdresser’s boyfriend’s therapist. Located on the awning-covered, light-bulb-string-illuminated, beggar-inhabited Rue de Bouchers, the only way to describe the Moules Frîtes at this Belgian institution – is institutional! If the boredom of the wait staff is any indication of how the cooks must feel every time a red-eyed, jet-lagged backpacker orders the exact same dish, it’s no surprise you’re left with a relentlessly lingering aftertaste of salty leaks. For a more pleasantly memorable Moules Frîtes experience, the delightful bistro on Sainte Catherine’s square called La Villette hits the spot. The menu is riddled with Belgian favorites from Grey shrimp to Sole to Entrecote steak.

Moules Frîtes with Belgian endives - La Villette

Moules Frîtes with Belgian endives – La Villette

Their Mussels with Belgian endives is flavored with white beer foam and cream, creating a rich, deep and buttery broth for the generous pot of fresh Zeeland bivalves, and for putting the hand-cut fries to good use.

Vol au Vent - La Villette

Vol au Vent – La Villette

The equally scrumptious Vol au Vent is best described as a deconstructed chicken pot-pie, with a very simple cream, beer and mushroom gravy. Desserts include the ubiquitous Pancakes and Profiteroles in some form or other, but the Crème Brulee made with Chamay beer is a true original.

Burratta - La Manufacture

Burratta – La Manufacture

Other classic restaurants in the city range from the 90 year old and multi Michelin star honoree Comme Chez Soi, to the hip, trendy locovore kitchens like Alexandre, Delicatessen, and the former suitcase factory La Manufacture – featuring a mind-blowing Burrata with external olive-oil infuser and a hot, crispy and sinfully delicious Goat Cheese Crème Brulee, but what the menu boasts in green olive and pistachio crusts or tarragon sauces is quickly diminished by the complete and abject lack of service.

Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Le Wine Bar de Sablon

My personal favorite has to be the neighborhood bistro Le Wine Bar de Sablon. The staggering menu features every part of every creature (snails, brains and sausages included) proudly produced by the tiniest of kitchens.

Sea bream Carpaccio - Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Sea bream Carpaccio

The Dorade Royale (sea bream) Carpaccio was spiked with red peppers and pickles, giving the fish a smooth, sour and spicy edge. The Rillettes were sinfully festooned in thick duck fat with pickled onions and stoneground mustard for a sharp contrast, but the runaway hit of the day was the Poêlée de Champignons.

Poêlée de Champignons - Le Wine Bar de Sablon

Poêlée de Champignons – Le Wine Bar de Sablon

A caramelized and sautéed trio of dark forest flavored and freshly plucked moist porcini, chanterelle and hedgehog mushrooms served with steaming hot polenta.

Lizzie's Wafels, Bruges

Lizzie’s Wafels, Bruges

And without doubt, the hands-down best Waffles in town – are actually located out of town. Just steps from the Grote Markt in nearby Bruges, Lizzie’s Wafels have conquered the hot, dimpled vanilla biscuit market. After years of being pestered by insistent tourists demanding waffles, Lizzie finally relented and took the popular all-day breakfast snack to a higher level. Serving nearly 150 super-sized crispy waffles per day with all the obvious (and some less obvious) toppings, Lizzie also created Chocolate “Roses”, which are peach-sized chocolate blooms in three flavors that are lowered into scalding milk for the most decadently wonderful melted hot-chocolate delight the world has ever tasted.

http://www.la-villette.be/reservation/

https://www.commechezsoi.be/Reservations/tabid/401/language/en-US/Default.aspx

http://www.lamanufacture.be/en/

http://www.winebarsablon.be/en

Hot Chocolate "Rose" - Lizzie's Wafels, Bruges

Hot Chocolate “Rose” – Lizzie’s Wafels, Bruges

Montreal re-tasted review

Joe Beef - Stone Crab Dip

Joe Beef’s Stone Crab Dip

I am happy to report that while Montreal’s foodie reputation is still intact, within the last few years the Quebecois landmark has welcomed a number of disruptive newcomers who have elevated the gastronomic landscape yet again.

There are still quite a few legends who cannot be denied a place on any Top 10 List, such as the grand dame of them all in a class of her own – Martin Picard’s decadent Au Pied de Cochon, and of course the untoppable Schwartz’s – the place where all Smoked Beef Sandwiches wished they were from.

Toqué - Duck Magret and Heart

Toqué’s Duck Magret and Heart

The always-excellent and never-pretentious L’Express who still serves the meanest Bouillabaisse and Pâtés in town. Not to mention (but I will anyway) Moishe’s, Tuck Shop and of course Chuck Hughes wondrous Garde Manger and Normand Laprise’s Toqué – both as formidable as ever.

My favorite newcomer for breakfast in old Montreal has to be the adorable French delicatessen and bakery hotspot La Cartet.

La Cartet

La Cartet

Beer benches stretch through the length of this narrow nook-and-cranny room lined with the most gorgeous-looking chocolates, pates and jams all screaming to be taken home at once. Claude Cyr’s kitchen lovingly puts together the most imaginative and indulgent breakfast treats like homemade organic Ginger Granola Parfaits or Poached Eggs and Goat Cheese on Pesto Toast or Raspberry Pancakes with whipped crème fraiche…all to be washed down with shaving-bowls of café au lait. Definitely worth the price and the 30+ minute wait on weekends.

La Cartet - Pancakes and Ginger Granola

Pancakes and Ginger Granola at La Cartet

But top of my list has to be Joe Beef. Judging by the name, you’d probably think (as did I) that it’s some massive, wooden house of carnivores. Wrong! It’s name honors an Irish-born tavern owner from the 19th century, and it’s a rather dainty 75-seat cluster of two dining rooms and patio surrounded by a sustainable vegetable garden. Chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin serve an eclectic collision of dishes that stretch the limits of many usual suspects. The all-French menu reads like a mix between a curious zoology lesson and a delicious heart attack. I can’t recall when I last saw (not 1) but 2 Horsemeat items on a menu – one cooked rare (blue) and the other not cooked at all!

The Stone Crab dip with semi-pickled pickles were surrounded by a bright lake of dreamy-flavored lobster-bisque mayo. The Double-Down Foie Gras (are you ready for this?) is a sandwich of smoked cheddar and bacon between a double layer of scrumptiously crumbed and fried foie gras, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing is then doused in maple syrup! OMG!

Joe Beef - Lobster Sausage with Fisherman's Stew

Lobster Sausage with Fisherman’s Stew

The signature Spaghetti with Lobster and Joe Beef Entrecote are less over-the-top than the impossibly sweet, tangy and ultra-tender Pork Shoulder with Fiddleheads accompanied by a strong French mustard, or the Lobster Sausage with Fisherman Stew served with clams and mussels in a shellfish-Cognac bouillon to keep them company.
If Joe Beef is David Chang’s favorite restaurant in the world (and I am a huge Momofuku-groupie) – then I guess it has to be one of mine too. Nothing wrong with that.

https://www.bookenda.com/joe-beef?PartnerNumber=1&IdClientApplication=1486&IdServiceOccurence=0&Language=English#Reservation

http://lecartet.com/

http://www.restaurant-toque.com/en/booking

https://www.bookenda.com/garde-manger?PartnerNumber=1&IdClientApplication=1535&IdServiceOccurence=0&Language=English#Reservation

http://restaurantlexpress.ca/

http://tuckshop.ca/tuckshop/index.html

http://www.aupieddecochon.ca/

Joe Beef - Sustainable vegetable garden

Sustainable vegetable garden at Joe Beef