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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Windsor (Barcelona)

The day: 4th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: Corsega 286, 08008 Barcelona, Spain (tel: 93 2377588)
The venue: Windsor
The food: Modern Catalan Cuisine
The drinks: Good list, very strong on Spanish.

As you may know, Windsor is in Spain. It sits in the middle of Barcelona’s elegant Eixample area. It advertises ‘cuina catalana’, and it is our second and completely casual choice for tonight, as on a friend’s strong recommendation (hello M) we wanted to try ‘Alkimia’, but it was booked up: next time…

We are lucky and with no booking we get in. The interior is striking: after crossing a vast lobby, you enter even more vast spaces, organised in several rooms and environments. There is high bourgeois elegance, with large mirrors, light colours, a veranda. Numerous sharply dressed room staff move around. The tables are comfortable and extremely well spaced (unfortunately not enough to prevent the booming voices of an American couple making us privy to their private lives).

The menu offers interesting proposals, such as Tataki of tuna with mango, fennel, broccoli puree and herb oil (€19) among the starters, the risotto of langostinos and artichokes (€20.50) in the rice section, and, among the meats/beef, attention is attracted by the Wagyu beef cutlet, served with ‘a little salt and nothing else’, at € 48. There are also two set menus, a ‘light menu’ at €55 and a tasting menu at €60.

The bread arrives: once in the while they allow us to choose from the tray (see our last experiences here and here).

As you know, it takes a lot to impress us with bread, so let’s say: OK (at €4 apiece, as we discover later, it’d better be at least OK!).

But here arrives an amuse-bouche:

It’s a vichyssoise with gambas (prawns) and onions. Extremely fresh and pleasant overall, the prawn lends a delicious sweet flavour, well accompanied by the equally concentrated flavour of the dehydrated onions. There is a fat texture which is exactly enough to add body without becoming unpleasant. If our theory that you can predict the entire chef performance from the amuse-bouche is correct, we are in for a great evening…

Our choice of starters is liquid:

- Cold soup of Montserrat tomatos (€17 NOTE: ALL PRICES DO NOT INCLUDE VAT)

- Special of the day soup (ajoblanco) (€17.50)

The tomato soup enthuses with three consistencies (ice, ice-cream, and liquid). The iced part is the watermelon, very sweet, combining harmoniously with the delicious basil flavoured ice-cream. This dish is quite something. Look at it: there are just three main ingredients (tomato, basil, watermelon), all of them humble: a perfect demonstration of how extreme goodness can emerge from extreme simplicity.

The special soup is an almond soup. It is as visually impressive as the previous one (the red you see here is watermelon), and it is sublime. The soup itself is light and thin, with a nice consistency provided by shards of grape flesh on the bottom; the ensemble is balanced, ravishingly cool, with absolutely top material (the crab is fantastic).

We come to the mains:

- Special of the day tuna (€26.50)

- Souquet de rape a la nostra manera (Monkfish ‘our style’) (€26)

Many gastronauts get impatient with seared tuna, they have had too much of it, everybody makes it, and they find it banal. Not us. When tuna is so, so good, and cooked so precisely, the fish lover can only be awed. Really one would not ask for anything more in the dish (and the portion looks generous indeed). But there is more! The combination with the cherry chutney works impressively, and the ‘ravioli’ filled with finely diced veggies (we note courgettes, tomato, aubergine) are tasty and sweet and wonderful (when we came back the following night –aehm- we tried the tuna tataki and we were equally ravished by the material and the preparation).

The monkfish is another large portion, and –more crucially- the quality of the material is immense, too. What fish, what cooking, what seafood (there are also clams and prawns). The intense reduction (saffron?) almost risks shading the fish. This dish is sheer bliss, and there is also the playful reinterpretation of 'souquet' (traditional Catalan seafood stew or soup).

And finally our desserts:

- Crema catalana ‘our style’ (€8)

- Biscocho music (€9)

The crema catalana: to our taste this is not a very balanced dessert (the cinnamom is too dominant), but the iceacream is good, and the main part of the dish is a quite airy interpretation of the catalan classic, very smooth, luscious, which still retains its ‘gluttony’ appeal.

The ‘biscuit’ is soft and pleasant, with dried fruit, the honey ‘tiles’ are good and so are the accompanying pistachios, but the ice cream, not well made, with ice crystals, is a real spoiler in this dish. Overall, these desserts, while still good, do not fly quite at the same stratospheric level of the rest of the dinner.

Well, finally finally, there are the excellent petit fours (orange peel, amaretto, and chocolate):

Including a litre of water (two half bottles) at a silly €8, bread at a silly €8, an excellent Albarino Terras Gauda Rias baixas 2007 (€23) suggested by the excellent sommelier, and VAT at 7%, the total comes to €153,01, near our £100 mark. These prices are reasonable for central Barcelona for a fish dinner with these portions and cuisine, only we are slightly irritated by the water and bread at unadvertisedly excessive prices: it would be far nicer to the customer to just hike the dish prices a bit.

The service at Windsor is really good. The sharp, smooth room manager is young and leads efficiently a mostly young and obviously well trained team. The sommelier is what you look for in a sommelier: pleasant, with a long, data filled, story to tell you on any wine you enquire about, and psychologically apt. The cuisine, as you might have guessed, is impressive. The foundation are raw materials of absolute excellence – with fish and seafood like that, it would take some effort to spoil a dish! But you have seen how even starting from humble ingredients great dishes were made. We liked the sharpness and freshness of flavours, the cooking precision, the balance between traditional/catalan and modern/international ideas (the following night we had a fantastic turbot and orange risotto), a certain restrained exuberance. Only the patisserie department was just good instead of stunning (on our return visit they were better, though). In the city of Adria’, where inane imitators probably abound, chefs like this who use modern techniques and concepts for a purpose, and not for their sake, are to be admired (mercifully we did not see a foam or a spherification in the whole dinner). There is an abyss between Windsor and our previous experience at Silvestre, yet according to Michelin only a fork separates them (Windsor has three), a situation that surely cannot persist: go to Windsor while it is still so affordable!


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Silvestre (Barcelona)

The day: 2nd July, Dinner.
The place: Santalo’ 101, Barcelona

The venue: Silvestre Restaurant

Closest airports:
Barcelona (BA),
Girona (Ryanair)
The food: Spanish

The drinks: Short list, mainly Spanish, quite ‘friendly’.

As happens relatively often, we are in Barcelona…you must have seen zillions of photos and critiques of El Bulli or the other celebrity restaurants, so we are going to show you something else - and we didn’t go to El Bulli anyway :-(.

What’s restaurant life in this great city just below the firmament, say at the 2-3 Michelin fork level? Come with us and see.

We begin this week with a neighbourhood restaurant (OK, a rather wealthy neighbourhood) near the Muntaner metro station, near the Eixample and Gracia, and especially near what must be the most expensive market in Barcelona, Mercat Galvany: we hope Silvestre Restaurant sources from there as the stuff is really sublime (more on this story in a few days…).

The interior is bright, soberly elegant (waiters in formal attire), with well-spaced tables and a calm atmosphere (sorry, no photo). Several mostly senior and obviously not too poor customers, all local, sit around us. We are always curious to see how the locals eat, so it looks like we are in the right place.

The menu looks, to be frank, a bit tatty, contrasting with the rest of the decore, and an aloof waitress serves us random bread from a tray.

Anonymous, but definitely on this side of acceptable.

The menu offers a few 'ensaladas' for about €12 (e.g. Tomato with tuna 'ventresca' and onion, or Spinach salad with small sardines, quail eggs and grilled tomatoes), first courses in the €11-14 range (e.g. Creamy 'risotto' of small vegetables and mushrooms), and several mains of fish and meat not far either side of €20 (Cod with chickpeas and pork feet form the fish list, and Boned shoulder of pork with rosemary and lemon gives a flavour of the cuisine style.).

Some complimentary croquettes arrive:

Unmemorable, one-dimensional. Mmh, not a sprinting start.

Our choice of first courses is:

- Bacalao ahumado (smoked cod) with avocado, green onion and tomato €12.50

- Arroz caliente (Warm rice) with squid, langostinos (squat lobster) and clams

The cod dish is nice looking but on the palate it feels a bit messy and amorphous, with the actual cod in reduced quantity. Nevertheless, it is tasty, with a gentle smoked flavour. The fats (oil, avocado) are slightly excessive and not too pleasing to our palate, but are well integrated with the acidic and the pungent onion and lemon. A smuttering of sesame is a good addition. Overall, no memorable flavour, but no unpleasant flavour either.

The rice (way overcooked for us Italians) is a strong dish, 'grandma style' with a very rich and reduced sauce and bold flavours coming from sea and land: alas, the langostinos and especially the clams probably do not come from Mercat Galvany, as they are not top notch and come across as a little subdued and exhausted. The pork is dominant. A rustically pleasant ensemble, to enjoy without thinking too much.

At breakneck service speed (do they want us out of here? Yet there’s plenty of space…), our mains are next:

- Monkfish fillet with tomato puree' and aubergines 'chips' €20.50

- Boned rabbit with langostinos €€17.50

The worst thing in the monkfish is the soggy aubergine, still dripping frying oil. Better to move on. The fish however this time is quite good, and also skilfully cooked, accompanied by an excellent tomato based sauce (probably with some sweet spice in it – reminiscent of romesco). Once again, this is robust cuisine of the traditional type, and within these confines, apart from the awful aubergine, it is definitely satisfying.

The rabbit, like the fish, is cooked very well indeed, with plenty of moisture. The sauce is too salty, too liquid, and the puree verges on the disaster. The langostinos with the rabbit are for us an interesting and unusual combination that works very well, with the langostinos themselves of reasonable quality. A mixed dish, which once again will reward focussing on the main ingredients without too much thought.

For desserts (all at €6) we are going to have

- Millefeuille of strawberries with crema pasticciera.

- Fillo pastry with cramelised pear and light cream

The millefeuille has a robust consistency. The raspberries are pleasant, with their sauce also quite intense, though it has a vaguely unnatural taste. The ‘pasticciera’ sauce is nice if a little bland, lacking punch, colour and density.

The fillo pastry is supremely light, as is the rest of the dish, but not at all insipid: most pleasant, in fact. The pears are cooked perfectly, just exactly sweet. A delicate offering which is most welcome after this type of dinner.

With a bottle of fresh and pleasant Cristiari Costers del Segre 2007 at €13.25, bread and cover charge at €3.80, 1 litre water at €3,10, and VAT at 7% (beware), we end up with a very reasonable bill of €93,48.

As we said, the service was too fast, and the waitress was not particularly lovable. What looked like the room manager/sommelier, however, was most helpful and kind. This is quite attractive as a neighbourhood restaurant, for the locals or for tourists like us staying nearby. It offers quite homely and tasty cooking, complete of homely mistakes and screw ups, using good even if not top materials, at prices that are very decent by central Barcelona standards. It does not deserve venturing far away from your location, however: so although we by no means regret the experience, we do not think we shall return except for convenience. But there is a place in Barcelona where we shall return...and you'll see it soon!


Thursday, July 17, 2008

A l'Agneau

The day: 28th June, Dinner.

The place: 185 Route de Lyon Illkirch Graffenstaden (Strasbourg, France)

The venue: Restaurant a l’Agneau

Closest airports: Strasbourg, Basel

The food: Fine modern French

The drinks: French, not too long but interesting,.

Oh well, we are falling into the habit of stopping by in Alsace on our way back to London. Our designated victim this time is Restaurant a l’Agneau, on the high street of the small village of Illkirch-Graffenstaden (how much history in these German sounding names), in the outskirts of Strasbourg. Again, a pretty line up of characteristic Alsatian houses, and there at the corner is our target, still shut:

Cute, isn’t it? We had got a written confirmation for a table on the terrace, perfect for the warm summer evening…but as we get in, we are told these tables have already been taken up. Our surprise and less than skilful mastery of French (and total absence of German) combined dissuaded us from pursueing this further, but stole a “forget about the tip” muttered with clenched teeth.

But the interior is nice too, with an interesting 'faux-crack' on the ceiling:

Uhm, is that a vacu-vin on top of that bottle? Tsk, tsk...The flatscreen above the range cooker (!) flares up with images of past dishes, and our initial smirk turns into some kind of trance as the beautiful dishes follow one another and we try to guess the ingredients…

Now for the menu: the set menu is five courses, and this would normally be too much for us (especially after a day of forced immobility while driving, and before one other long drive), yet the dishes seem so light, and then, well you know we like a bargain, this set menu is €33… so it is a done deal. Should you wish to go a la carte, the pricing structure is very simple: starters go for €13.50, foie gras dishes for €18.50, and mains for €22.50. The menu is short (three of everything, i.e. starters, foie gras, meat main and fish mains) but interesting; we were intrigued by Sweetbread with peanuts, toasted walnuts, almonds and pinenuts, and betterava sorbet from the starters, or the Turbot with Hibiscus flowers and vegetable pancakes.

Let us start.

First an unadvertised amouse bouche: olive tapenade with a pepper mousse:

Nice contrast in textures and flavours, with the aggressive and ‘bodily’ tapenade tamed by the almost ethereal peppers: this is looking promising.

Next, the bread, from a tray. The table next to us gets to choose after being exhaustively informed about the varieties of rolls on offer; we only get a random one put unceremoniously (but with a smile) on our dishes. Our initial mumbling must have promoted us to total dupes…there is obviously no point in explaining. Nice bread nonetheless:

Now, the first course of our menu:

- Meringue frosted in liquid nitrogen at your table

This is a Port mousse that is siphoned in front of you, then dropped into liquid nitrogen for a few seconds, then placed onto a cube of frozen melon jelly (or at least this is how it felt to us). You eat it in one bite – this much we deserved to be told ;-)

Besides the choreographic element (some would say the main point of the matter), the two worked quite well: the ‘meringue’ turns out slightly hollow (which is fine otherwise the whole would be too cold and simply shatter your teeth!), and smooth and sweet and fat, while the melon is so crisp and intense. Fun and pleasant.

Next up is:

- Marinated salmon with sesame symphony and dill sushi:

The rice in nori was the most forgettable part of the dish (says Woman); the salmon was simply superb, velvety, soft and luscious like the best we had e.g. at Latium or Havis or L’Ortica, and the dish overall was fresh and light. The leaves were also interesting, with some intriguing flavour that we could not recognise (no, neither sesame nor dill, we get that far).

The soup arrives:

- Cucumber duo with iced soup and chive yoghurt ice cream:

Imagine some kind of gazpacho variation: the ‘soup’ was mainly cucumber, salty and thin, with a piquant note, while the central ‘ice-cream’ was both salty and sweet and slightly cheesy. The squiggle you see is of sweet balsamic vinegar. So this might sound excessive, this combination of very sweet and salt, but it worked out remarkably well. An extremely accomplished and clean combination of flavours, balanced and again refreshing and light.

Time for the main dish: here we avoid choosing, and opt for one of each:

- Sea bream fillet on courgettes;

- Duck breast in currant sauce, confit tomato gratin and sweet peppers

The sea bream, which had been cooked perfectly, was fresh, plump, good. The courgettes were sitting on an unadvertised ‘cake’ of beans which constituted a very suitable base for the fish favour, with the whole taken higher by a great sauce, which we suspect must have been some sweet reduction. Very satisfying.

The duck was a rather complex combination: half of the dish was somewhat Northern’, with the honey glazing the duck and the currants. But the other half was ‘Mediterranean’, with the ‘brick’ of finely sliced potato soaked in egg and peppers, reminiscent of a Spanish tortilla. In spite of all this, the dish held together sumptuously, with the right equilibrium between acidity and sweetness, with much to intrigue your palate and your brain. Only one blemish: the duck could have been tenderer.

A pre-dessert of strawberries is what we need for a clean mouth:

Here you have strawberry ‘pearls’ in a strawberry ‘mousse’: the dish comes with the pearls on the bottom, then a strawberry thick liquor is poured on top. Really very pleasant, the only problem being that the ‘pearls’ may get stuck to the bottom of the glass, with the result that you either sigh at the sight of the poor abandoned things, or get sucked into some undignified and complicated fishing operation.

Finally, dessert:

- Cherry concert with morello cherry juice and 82% cocoa sorbet

Ok, it is hard to go wrong with chocolate and cherries, but here we were bordering on the divine: all components at the same time very light and very intense. Sublime.

And we even had room for one coffee (€3), simply because we had eyed the nice accompanying chocolates…

With a 0.5 litre bottle of water at €3 and a bottle of Gewrutztraminer (a choice strongly disapproved by our waitress, but damn good) at €39 the total bill came to €92.81 before VAT, or €111 after the 19,65 VAT (and by this time we were so pleased that all was forgotten and, in case you wonder, yes we reneged on our vow not to tip…). Yes, once again less than 100 quids.

Service is taken care of by a trio of efficient and courteous, if slightly distant, young ladies that are certainly not intrusive but take good care of you. The price is amazing for the quality of what we had. You might say, they have low running costs because you are in the middle of nowhere: but, besides there being several e.g. Italian restaurants lying in the middle of nowhere and charging €10 for a bottle of water, in fact in this case you are not: you are at the outskirts of a very busy business centre, and this is the living proof that you can get top notch fish even several hundred miles inland. As for the kitchen, you might have noticed that this time we omitted the French description of the dishes, as – to our uneducated ear, to be sure – they sound a little less pompous in English. But this is as far as our criticism can go. We had a dinner as light as the flavours were clean and intense, a dinner screaming for you to go back. The hand in the kitchen is very assured, the complex combinations of flavours and textures the obvious expression of thoughtful research, the menu is constructed with great intelligence, and this is yet again one of those establishments that make you wonder what else in France one must do to get a star in the red guide (at least these people are in the 2008 edition with three forks) – this chef puts to shame certain starred celebs in London…. And, another living proof that you can offer excellent cuisine at reasonable prices, one to add to our collection that spans different countries.

We’ve got the feeling we will just happen to stop by Illkirch-Graffenstaden again :-)


Monday, July 14, 2008

Apples in Val di Non, part II (Summer)

The early Summer is hot in the Val di Non (Non valley)

Remember last year, when roaming in the Val di Non in Winter we admired the tortuous shapes of the naked apple trees that fill this area?

What a different spectacle now:

Luscious, green, bursting with life,

the valley is only a few months away from the next picking. Apple trees, apple trees, apple trees all around, on the steeply sloping hills

The whole valley a giant appleyard barely interrupted by the road

The apples are already there but still small, an acerbic, still unconsumable temptation

These apples are DOP (protected denomination of origin), and the Melinda consortium - founded in 1989 to guarantee the quality and provenance of the Val di Non apples (before then, there were 3 times as many apples allegedly from the valley as the real production!)-, the Melinda consortium, we were saying,

(fees for this ad gratefully received by cheque) will distribute them to your local supplier – can’t wait for those juicy, sweet, tasty jewels!

Well...actually they have never ceased to be, and still are, available in the supermarkets: do you really mean to tell us, dear retailers, that you have stored the apples for all these months?! Naaah.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dishes by Chef Alessandro Gilmozzi

On one of the very last days of our Summer Trentino stay, back we are in El Molin in Cavalese, where the recently Michelin starred Chef Alessandro Gilmozzi continues to straddle creativity and tradition.

Among the many great dishes, this one impressed from the start:

It’s Ravioli with cipolla (onion) fondente parmesan cream and liquorice. The liquorice is wild, picked by the chef and his assistants on the surrounding mountains – they obviously need to keep in shape, with all the delicacies tempting them in the kitchen! This wild liquorice is very mild and confers the dish an aura, an atmosphere more than a decisive flavour, like an instrument accompanying the lead. In this case two leads, really, with parmesan and onion delicately competing for your attention.

How many times have we been disappointed by dishes advertised with this herb or that perfume, only to discover that the elusive herb flavour and perfume have forever escaped? Certainly Chef Gilmozzi knows a thing or two about the treatment of herbs and perfumes. Look at this:

Here we have (in an interesting feat of equilibrium) a lamb shank lacquered with rhododendrum honey and lavender. The tender lamb is lovingly enveloped with the aromatic honey, and the lavender here really holds centre stage. The presentation is wonderful as ever, with the colourful dried vegetables enlivening the dish in many dimensions.

Gilmozzi likes to encase perfumes and liberate them at the moment of serving, when they are still in their full vigour, as in the pigeon we had in a previous visit, and as this time:

Venison with extravergin olive oil, pink moscato sauce and small vegetables in a thyme perfumed pot (at the back in the photo).

But, as far as herbs are concerned, this was where a pinnacle was reached:

This variation of crème brulees’ with ‘perfumes from Lagorai’ (a mountain chain in the region), beside being technically perfect as far as the basic dessert is concerned, offers an admirable escalation of strong, clear flavours: lavender, mint, lemon balm (melissa officinalis) and mountain pine (pinus mugo), the last one really hitting your senses with its resinous punch. What a brilliant endpoint to a great dinner.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A dish (or a few more) by Chef Walter Miori

Well, yes, we do have a ‘private’ restaurant life that goes unreported in this blog. But sometimes…some meals are so good that a hem of the veil can be discreetly lifted!

At the moment of writing are nearing the end of our Trentino period, and among our fond recent memories…

Walter Miori is a chef who ‘caresses’ his dishes and your palate, as with this stunning John Dory:

Tantalizingly hidden under fine slivers of fennel, garnished with Taggiasche olives and pumpkin seeds, and finished with a superb olive oil, this dish has it all: flavour, bite, freshness, simplicity, precision.

And how about this interlude:

This must be the best ‘canederlo’ in the world, its (and the grana’s) sweetness and texture a sublime match for the truffle. A lesson on how to elevate a rustic regional classic to a ravishingly elegant delicacy.

Talking about regional classics:

This orzotto (‘barley-risotto’) with sweetbreads is as gratifying as the best risotto: you can feel the perfect creaminess just by looking at it.

And finally ('finally', that is, just for this post...) here's something that you really can only have at Locanda Margon:

This wonderful and dreamily presented duck dish is aromatised with Maso Grill, a Vendemmia tardiva (late ripened wine) produced by the vineyards just around the Locanda, and that you won’t find in the shops... What a dinner. Should you notice a second star falling, at long last, in the direction of Walter Miori, remember that -as usual!- you read it here first...


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