Joanne and I are out of town. We’ll be back soon with more great content!
Joanne and I are out of town. We’ll be back soon with more great content!
In 2017 the Catalonian Parliament declared its independence from Spain, granting the region considerable autonomy in political, economic, educational, environmental, and cultural affairs. They are now, with eight million people, perhaps the strongest economy among all the seventeen “autonomous communities” that make up the country of Spain.
The only problem is that the Spanish Central Government said “NO” to their independence. To this day, despite multiple protests, marches, civil disruption and disobedience, the issue remains unresolved.
One thing isn’t in dispute, however: Catalonian cuisine’s stature as an ICON of Spanish gastronomy.
Consider Ferran Adria and his now-closed Michelin three-star restaurant EL BULLI, in the town of Roses just north of Barcelona. For five consecutive years, it held the title of “BEST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD.”
That should come as no surprise as Catalonia, in the northeastern corner of Spain, is blessed not only with a grand, productive and generous Mediterranean coast line, but also fields and mountains where pigs, cattle and sheep forage, frolic and fatten up beautifully, giving chefs like Adria all the ingredients they need to practice their art.
Now here in the United States, the proliferation of nominally Spanish restaurants has diluted the idea of what constitutes a true Catalan dining experience. What we tend to have here are Spanish-American, Latin-Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban, and Dominican restaurants…all Spanish-influenced, but not actually Spanish or for that matter Catalonian.
Since Joanne and I are heading off on a Parasole culinary exploration to Barcelona next week, you can imagine our delight a few weeks ago, to discover a real “pure-play” Catalonian-leaning restaurant right here in the U.S.: DEL MAR, in Washington, DC.
Located in the wharf district, a new and magnificent $2 billion development along the Potomac, Del Mar is the real deal. The owners are Spanish, from Mallorca, and our accomplished server hailed from Barcelona.
We began, of course, with a broad selection of tapas. There were seven of us, and right off the bat our table was hit with three orders of Pan Con Tomate (tomato bread) – toasted bread, vigorously rubbed with garlic cloves and topped with crushed ripe tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and a generous dose of sea salt flakes only to be toasted once again under a hot broiler…10 bucks an order.
Pork abounds in Spain and also at DEL MAR, where you can enjoy whole suckling pig roasted as a special order. What does not need to be special-ordered, but is indeed very special, is the Iberico Ham.
Similar to Prosciutto from Italy and Serrano ham in Spain, Iberico is one of the world’s great meats, with qualities all its own. The pigs that give us prosciutto are fed whey by the bucket (whey being a bi-product of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production). Serrano is not aged as long as Iberico and comes from a different breed of hog. Iberico comes from heritage black-hoofed pigs that have been raised on acorns, and is aged anywhere from two to five years.
Del Mar has its own Iberico slicing station right by the entrance. Here the ham is thinly sliced with surgical precision and painstakingly arranged on what’s called a “mountain”: a porcelain dome-shaped vessel that houses a votive candle to gently warm the surface and allow the fats from the paper-thin slices to soften and give up its full-flavored porky goodness.
Croquettas, a common small plate of deep-fried mashed potato balls, are uncommonly good here. Our two selections were filled with bits of Iberico ham and salt cod brandade ($16 for three). The ham-filled croquettas were perched atop dollops of garlicky aioli and crowned with black truffles.
A parade of shrimp platters, grilled octopus, fresh oysters and Spanish cheeses followed, along with an offering known as Sobrasada, a smooth Mallorcan sopresatta-like sausage bread spread laced with hot smoked red peppers. Patatas Bravas, another popular offering, consists of new baby potatoes topped with tomato sauce or, in our case, spicy Romesco sauce, made from hot red peppers, garlic, almonds and olive oil.
The whole pan-fried fresh flounder was impressive, as was the grilled black sea bass that Joanne chose.
Grilled Lamb Chops with a Manchego cheese sauce was my selection…$38.
I have to tell you that all – and I mean ALL – our selections were hits. But first among them were the Paellas. The two we ordered were finished and served tableside in the traditional shallow pans, each a breathtaking presentation.
As Del Mar’s menu reads, “Paellas are the pillar of Spanish gastronomy…part of the Spanish soul and its people.” Del Mar offers paellas in a number of sizes, all meant to be shared. The two we ordered for the table were both show stoppers.
CHOICE #1: PAELLA DE PESCADO, redolent of the sea and loaded with tiger shrimp, lobster, mussels and calamari; made with Spanish grown Bomba rice and pungent garlic aioli ($98).
CHOICE #2: ARROZ NEGRO DE CALAMARES, harmoniously and abundantly prepared with grilled wild calamari rings and charred cuttlefish, all with black, squid ink-infused Bomba rice and aioli ($65).
We were all stuffed – satisfied pigs we were – but in the spirit of wretched excess, we dove right into the dessert selections, which included Churros filled with chocolate and hazelnuts, Flan (of course), and a delicious Galacian Almond Cake (all $13).
But the most curious thing on the menu was a dish we encountered earlier. I’m not even certain it was Spanish, and it didn’t exactly have appetite appeal, but I must admit it was intriguing: A squid burger garnished with salted anchovies and green olives, served on a black squid ink bun. I’d have expected something like this at a Burger King or McDonald’s in Tokyo, but at a “classy joint” like Del Mar, it came as a surprise.
But what do I know? Maybe Squid Burgers abound in Barcelona and I’ll have an opportunity to try them there. If so, I’ll report back to you with my verdict. Work, work, work!!!
Part of the pleasure of following French cuisine is that French chefs debate almost everything …whether ingredients, methods, technique, tricks, texture, flavor or mouth-feel.
It’s a shame that Marie-Antoine Carême, probably France’s first celebrity chef, and Auguste Escoffier, the “king of haute cuisine,” didn’t live at the same time, because they’d have gone to the mat with each other over sauces.
Among his other achievements, Carême pioneered the concept of the MOTHER SAUCES – the sauces from which all other sauces are made (all the ones that counted, in his view). Carême reached his peak of influence in the early 1800s, shortly before Escoffier was born.
The principal point of contention between the two of them: Carême believed there were six mother sauces. Escoffier said five. Escoffier prevailed (maybe because Carême wasn’t around to argue with him), but as you’ll see, five could be six. But it could also be 10, 20 or however many.
Let’s start with the five:
BÉCHAMEL. This rich, creamy and smooth white sauce is made from butter, flour and milk. It’s often used in lasagna, gratin dauphinois and right here in Minneapolis in the Creamed Spinach at MANNY’S.
But you can’t be a mother without children, and Béchamel has spawned a number of “daughter sauces.” Add cheese, cream and butter, and you have MORNAY SAUCE. Think Mac & Cheese or Croque Monsieur, or my favorite: The Hot Brown, created at the famous Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.
VELOUTÉ. By thickening chicken, veal or fish stock with roux, you arrive at this smooth, ivory-colored sauce. Crank it up with fish stock, white wine, shallots and butter, and voila: you have just birthed Velouté’s daughter, BERCY SAUCE – delicious spooned on a pan-fried fish filet. Its sibling, ALLEMANDE SAUCE, contains veal stock, egg yolk, cream and squeeze of lemon (If there’s a heaven, this is it). Drizzle it on veal medallions. Don’t eat veal? Then amp up your velouté by introducing heavy cream, chicken stock and mushrooms, then nap your new daughter sauce generously over a roasted chicken breast. Her name? SUPREME (I still remember the Chicken Supreme we served at Muffuletta back in the ‘70s.)
ESPAGNOLE. This is the mother of all brown sauces – made from a brown stock to which dark brown roux, puréed tomatoes and mirepoix (sautéed chopped onions, carrots and celery) are added. It’s rarely used by itself, however. The daughters do the heavy lifting here. Add red wine, shallots, brown stock and dark brown roux to make BORDELAISE SAUCE, a deep and rich daughter that’s meant for roast beef. She has a sister called CHAUSSER SAUCE (AKA HUNTER SAUCE), made with mushrooms, tomatoes, white wine and shallots. She beguiles on braised chicken…on a nasty day.
Espagnole on steroids creates a lusty, full-flavored, potent and heady daughter called DEMI-GLACE. She’s made by combining equal parts brown stock to Espagnole sauce and patiently simmering for hours, ‘til it becomes like jelly. Check out the image of the braised short ribs and mushrooms over mashed potatoes. It almost makes you wish for November.
TOMATO SAUCE. The French call it “sauce de tomate.” In Italian, it’s “salsa di Pomodoro” (think Pasta Pomodoro, tossed with spaghetti, Parmesan and basil). I cannot think of a better use of a Sunday afternoon than making BOLOGNESE SAUCE – lovingly stirred with one hand, a glass or two or three of red wine in the other. My go-to recipe is the one I was taught by Marcella Hazan in Bologna, Italy when Pete and I attended her cooking school. Hands down, the BEST BOLOGNESE! What makes it so good? I’ll give you a hint: it might involve heavy cream.
HOLLANDAISE SAUCE. Velvety smooth and silky, this pale-yellow mother sauce is simply crafted with butter, egg yolks, and a few drops of lemon juice. That’s it. But what a wonderful topping it makes for Eggs Benedict or steamed broccoli at a steakhouse! And since we’re speaking of steakhouses, who on this planet would turn down a medium rare, two-inch-thick steak capped with a generous dollop of her daughter sauce, BERNAISE – a Hollandaise to which tarragon, shallots and a tiny splash of vinegar has been added. Add heavy cream and tomato paste to it, and you have what might be a “granddaughter” sauce: CHORON. Not enough calories yet? Then MOUSSELINE might be to your liking. She’s made by combining Hollandaise and whipped cream. Try it on white asparagus.
So those are the five. But wait a minute, what about the sixth? What about BUERRE BLANC, made with shallots, butter, white wine and vinegar – so fantastic on fish or chicken? And what of the PAN SAUCES, made after sauteeing by scraping up the bits stuck to the bottom of the skillet (called “fond”)? Think Steak au Poivre, whose sauce is made with Cognac with a little heavy cream. Or Sole Meuniere, with butter, lemon and parsley, blended after the sole is removed.
This can all get carried away. What about REMOULADE SAUCE? CHIMICHURRI SAUCE? Chinese – or is it American? – SWEET & SOUR SAUCE? Oh, well, we might as well include TABASCO and BARBEQUE SAUCE.
I’m too confused to continue. Just remember the MOTHER and DAUGHTER sauces.
And remember also what the French say: “With the right sauce, you can eat your father.”
Early this summer, Joanne and I will embark on a culinary hunt in the south of France and Barcelona as well.
But as much as we explore relevant culinary regions around the globe in pursuit of new ideas, plating innovations, recipes and products for our PARASOLE family of restaurants, we often find ourselves returning to Paris and London. Both cities are target-rich with restaurants, markets, chefs, innovation and culinary vitality.
I’d say that we are equally fond of both cities…but for different reasons. London has more variety and over the past fifteen years or so has experienced a stunning restaurant awakening. New and wonderful, creative and witty new spots…innovative and inventive chefs, and an immense diversity of ethnic venues…just damn fun.
Paris, on the other hand, tends to be more serious and slavish to French tradition…especially the offerings in the bistros and brasseries. Plus, I find that the restaurants in France are more democratic and approachable, probably because demanding good food is a way of life and not the sort of middle-class hobby that it is here or in London.
As a posting by the blog, Cake and Fine Wine, puts it:
In France…“If you go to the market on Saturday morning, it is because that is where the cheapest and freshest produce is to be found, not as some kind of validating leisure activity…If you go to the bakery every day, which you most certainly do, it’s because you wouldn’t want anything but the freshest bread with your evening meal.”
Now let me tell you, do not assume that everyone in France eats fresh, locally-sourced, unprocessed, meticulously prepared food all the time. Joanne and I can tell you from experience that there are a lot of “not too good” restaurants in Paris, just as there are brilliant ones.
What do the two cities have in common? Fine and fancy chef-driven restaurants are hellishly expensive (Joanne and I don’t go there because they are not relevant to anything we do here at PARASOLE), but good restaurants in both cities are expensive as well – owing to rent factors, unfavorable exchange rates etc.
Which brings us to today’s topic…
BRASSERIE ZEDEL in London.
Zedel is a grand Parisian-style brasserie, and I do mean grand. It’s big, it’s stunning, opulent, lavish…and subterranean – out of site, so hidden that not many tourists even know it’s there, even though it’s just steps from the congested nightmare of Piccadilly Circus.
On each of the three occasions Joanne and I have dined there, our meals have been delicious and perfectly prepared. Service was professional, knowledgeable and discreet, and as A.A. Gill stated in the London Times, “Servers are slightly brusque and crisscross Zedel’s floor like a swarm of worker ants.” That there is exceptional food and service should come as no surprise…as the restaurant is owned by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, who also own the Wolseley nearby…one of our favorite London restaurants.
What is a surprise is this: Despite the beautiful, over-the-top Belle Epoch, marble-clad dining room, Zedel is cheap. Not inexpensive – CHEAP! On our last trip to London, Joanne and I ordered the three-course prix fixe lunch and paid just 13.75 pounds each. Had we done the two-course version, it would have been 10.75 pounds. And wine begins at just 16 pounds per bottle.
Lunch can cost less than a sandwich at other places.
I think what the owners have done here is pure genius…
They’ve taken a third-tier location – actually, a fourth-tier basement space (CHEAP rent) – right in the heart of the city, dressed up to the nines, staffed it up with proven talent, and consequently are able to put out great food and great service at roughly half the price of similar restaurants in their segment.
If you’re planning a trip to London, this is valuable information. Here’s a sampling of the dishes Joanne and I have enjoyed over the past few visits (all prices in pounds).
Appetizers: Raw oysters…pristinely fresh, fat and briny at 2.75 each…Shrimp Cocktail with Remoulade Sauce (7.50)…Smoked Salmon with Brioche Toast and Chicken Liver Mousse and Pork Paté en Croute (both 7.25).
Chilled English Pea Soup with Crème Fraiche (2.75).
See what I mean? And keep in mind, this is LONDON.
Their best sellers? Steak Haché au Poivre will run you just 9.75 – and that includes fries or salad. Fancy the Sunday Roast of Beef Brisket in Red Wine? That’s just 15.75! There’s also Lamb Rump Steak (17.75) and Pork or Smoked Seafood Choucroute (both 16.25). The Smoked Seafood Choucroute was my favorite, but it has been removed from the menu since my last visit. Must not have sold).
There are fresh seafood choices as well, including Dorade and Trout Amandine – both delicious, both 16.75. And a generous bowl of fish stew with serious chunks of shellfish costs 19.75.
Saturday night special: Lapin a la Moutarde (yeah, that’s Thumper) with mustard sauce is 15.75.
Table-sized side dishes run about 3.75 and desserts clock in between 4.50 and 6.75. But do not miss the Cheese Trolley, wheeled up tableside. Full-flavored offerings include unpasteurized selections, not all of them French. Definitely get the Stilton.
Remember, these are LONDON PRICES. You can dine in a beautiful space, feel good about yourself and enjoy a two-hour leisurely dinner, all at an unbelievable value.
What you’ve got here is a SAFE HARBOR in London – for lunch, for a meal before the theater, or after the theater – or, hell, instead of the theater.
I’m generally suspicious of restaurants that boast a great view… be it on the top floor of a high-rise, revolving on a space needle or on the waterfront. With a spectacular view under their command, how hard will the operators try to produce really good food? And how much will their clientele even care about it?
But occasionally… (frequently?)…I’m wrong. Such was the case recently, with friends, family and colleagues on a Parasole culinary hunt in Washington D.C., where we dined at SALT LINE, a seafood restaurant poised along the banks of the Anacostia River near the Washington Nationals baseball park.
A celebration and marriage of New England and Chesapeake seafood traditions, this Navy Yard hotspot really hit the mark.
SALT LINE’s large outdoor dining area and bar serve up unobstructed vistas of the river. But, alas, it was pouring rain when we dined there, so we were relegated to a booth inside. That was just fine because we still had a view of the river…and we were dry. Plus, there is something about a lazy, rainy and cozy late Sunday afternoon…downing fresh oysters and other good stuff with a bottle or two of white Burgundy.
And so it began…
…with four warm, comforting, pillowy Parker House rolls (like we serve at PITTSBURGH BLUE) with ramekins of herb butter and black olive tapenade. Only they charge for ‘em… 4 bucks an order.
Joanne ordered a cold and crisp Romaine lettuce wedge with green goddess dressing, heirloom tomato wedges and toasted hazelnuts. Another member of our party had a salad of farro and crunchy lovage, crowned with a deep-fried soft-cooked egg.
We all shared a platter of just-harvested briny Chesapeake Bay oysters and razor clams filled with ceviche. I love razor clams. We couldn’t help ourselves and marched on with two plates of Salt Cod “Coddies” set in place atop a dollop of yellow mustard. Each golf ball-sized croquette rested on a single Saltine cracker. Deep-fried Ipswich Clam Bellies (not the cheap strips) also found their place on our table, along with two orders of “Stuffies” – fist-sized Quahog clam shells filled with chopped clams, lemony buttery bread crumbs and spicy Portuguese “linguica” sausage. In a nod to the Deep South, a Pimento Cheese Crab Dip rounds out the appetizers.
SALT LINE puts out serious main courses as well. One of us had the monkfish, served in a pool of green Romesco sauce. She pronounced it quite good, but to my mind it was just a little too precious for the surroundings. I prefer the less tricked-out dishes.
Two kinds of lobster rolls are offered – both loaded up with tail & claw meat ONLY. The “Connecticut-style” lobster role is topped with a hefty sprinkle of white Maldon salt flakes and comes with melted butter. I’ve never heard of Connecticut-style lobster rolls; they’re certainly not a pure play, but I’m sure they’re delicious. We, however, opted for the more traditional Maine-style version, heaped with fresh chunks of lobster tossed in homemade mayo with shallots, tarragon and cracked black pepper. Both iterations come with a choice of Old Bay Fries or a small green salad, and both were authentically served on Pepperidge Farm lobster roll buns.
On this cold and rainy late afternoon, the Portuguese Stew was a wise choice – and a hearty one, featuring clams, mussels, and bluefish in a powerfully smoky broth with fennel, cilantro, new potatoes and coin-sized pieces of chorizo. It was accompanied by garlicky slices of toasted sopping bread.
Salt Line also offers a couple pastas. One seemed a bit contrived and forced: Bucatini with lump crab, English peas, crab fat aioli, fennel and sweet corn ($25). The other pasta, while unusual, had more focus and turned out to be really good. It was Uni Carbonara (uni is sea urchin; a sorta headless porcupine). It hit all the right buttons…salty, briny, with sweet and umami notes. I thought about testing it in one of our restaurants, but I just don’t know if Minnesotans will eat sea urchin.
Desserts were headlined by a wonderful Blueberry Ice Box Cake as well as a giant three-scoop Banana Split.
But I have to say that, as good as all this stuff was – and it was good…very good – I hit the mother lode with my selection. Soft Shell Crabs were in season and they arrived at the table piping hot, crispy and crunchy, bathed in a fiery hot sauce with housemade bread-and-butter pickles, and set on two slices of white Wonder Bread toast. The dish was a clever riff on the iconic Tennessee dish, Nashville Hot Chicken. And HOT it was. It burned sooooo good…TWICE.
Those of us fortunate enough to have achieved some measure of success as restaurateurs are here to tell you: This is a great business. You get to eat out all the time, and you can travel the world for inspiration. And I love doing that, but one of my keenest pleasures comes from reading critical, and not-so-critical, reviews of restaurants from world culinary capitals.
Although I never followed Craig Claiborne, I think I started following Bryan Miller of the New York Times in the early nineties and have continued on with William Grimes, Frank Bruni, and Sam Sifton, right through to Pete Wells.
I also like Adam Platt of New York magazine, Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post and Jay Rayner of the Guardian in London. Our own Rick Nelson of the Star-Tribune also belongs in their company.
And while these are all entertaining and accomplished, knowledgeable writers, the one who made me laugh out loud was A.A. GILL, the revered and feared critic…. from the London Sunday Times – “the witty wielder of the hatchet.”
Gill died a little over two years ago. But a few days ago I came upon one of his pieces and laughed ‘til I cried. So, I thought I would share some of his dazzling and fearless writing.
First I’ll share the positive reviews. Not surprisingly, with one exception, his favorite restaurants match up with mine.
THE WOLSELEY, London: ”…a cross between the traditional robustness of the Parisian brasserie and the gloriously grand, but cozy, Viennese café.”
ELYSTAN STREET, Chelsea, London: ”Pure food joy.”
CLUB GASCON, London: ”Frankly, I cannot think of a higher recommend.”
BRASSERIE ZEDEL, Piccadilly, London: “Along with the Brasserie, the Grande Café combines an opulent setting exclusively for everyman. Zedel is such a place.”
CHUTNEY MARY, St. James Street, London: “Chutney isn’t a verb or an adjective. Maybe we should make one up. Cat got your chutney? It’s the dog’s chutnies. It’s a red card! He was chutnied!!!!”
Then there’s GAUTHIER in Soho, London. Joanne and I LOVED it; Gill HATED it, and wrote, ”We ate everything…including beans arranged around a mash of something that might have been peas, but also might have been GOAT’S EARWAX.”
The Atlantic magazine said of Gill, “He was willing to say that something tastes like crap, no matter who the chef or what the price.”
So here goes….
Gordon Ramsey’s AUBERGINE in Chelsea (where he and Joan Collins were thrown out): ”The Gruyere and goat cheese toasted sandwich boasted more grease than a lube job.”…“The frogs legs tasted like something sour and slimy that had been fished out of a heron’s throat.”
At an unknown restaurant, he wrote, “I had a jelly that involved Campari and fennel. It was a pretty color, but tasted exactly as I’ve always imagined suicide capsules would – fantastically bitter and fraudulently medicinal.”
Unrepentant, he was reported for violations on two occasions to England’s Commission on Racial Equality.
Describing the Welsh, he wrote, “Loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly pugnacious little trolls…WAIT A SEC!…I’M PART WELSH!”
Offering his view of The Isle of Man: “Citizens fall into two types – hopeless inbred mouth-breathers and retired small-arms dealers and accountants who deal in rainforest futures.”
Celebrity chef Jean-George Vongorichten opened a “Chinese-ish” spot a few years back on Church in New York, called simply 66. Joanne and I ate there and didn’t hate it, but didn’t like it enough to return.
Gill, on the other hand…well, read on:
Upon his arrival, “We were treated at the door like social scurvy with contagious halitosis…The greet and seat procedure is modeled on the aliens line at Immigration, just after the Friday-night flight from Khartoum has landed.”
He was further annoyed by the server at 66 who said, “Do you know how this works?” Gill replied, “WHAT? I order. You serve. I eat. I pay. You give me my coat back.” To which the server replied, ”NO, NO, NO, we bring the food when and in the order it’s prepared.” To which Gill wrote in his column, “The rest of the meal slid into a long, bland, watery compost that could barely incite flatulence.”
There’s more. He wrote that the Shrimp-Foie Gras dumplings were “properly vile, and tasted like fishy, liver-filled condoms with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as a swab in an animal hospital.”
And finally, “We spit in your soy sauce. And the dim sum is incubated in our chef’s jock strap.”
Probably not a good idea to piss him off…
Gill did not confine his acrimony to restaurateurs and the Welsh…..and did not spare the singer, musician and songwriter….Morrisey. “Morrisey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whining, self-martyred human being whoever took a breath. And those are just his good qualities.”
And lastly, the Anglophile Mecca in Paris…the bistro that screws over Americans…the grotesquely overpriced restaurant where Joanne and I were treated rudely (really rudely) yet for all those abuses remains a magnet to Americans….
L’AMI LOUIS..in the 3rd on Rue du Vertbois.
Gill begins his piece. “It feels like a 2nd class railway station…painted in a shiny, distressed dung brown and staffed by paunchy, combative surly men who exude a pantomime insolence, an existential…Le ‘FUG YOUSE.’”
“The crowded tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be the suppository”…and “In the middle there is a stubby little stove that looks vaguely proctotorial…”
And we’re just now getting to the food…
Foie Gras: “…comes as a pair of intimidatingly gross flabs of chilly paté, with a slight coating of pustular yellow fat that tastes faintly of gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction.”
“Veal Kidneys en Brochette: “…could be the result of an accident involving rat babies in a nuclear reactor.”
He concludes the disemboweling of L’Ami Louis with, “It’s undeniable that L’Ami Louis is really special and apart. It has earned an epic accolade. It is, all things considered, entre nous, THE WORST RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD.”
A.A. GILL, was, in my opinion…the BEST RESTAURANT CRITIC IN THE WORLD.
In his Sunday column, shortly before he died, he summed up his career as follows: “Somebody said, ‘Why don’t you watch television, eat good food and travel and then write about it?’ Gill responded, “As lives go, that’s pretty good.”
Several years ago, while opening the OCEANAIRE in Washington D.C., Joanne and I occasionally splurged and went to our favorite D.C. steakhouse, right downtown on K Street: THE PRIME RIB. It had a different feel than the other D.C. steakhouses like The Palm, Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, The Capital Grille, and the now-defunct Sam & Harry’s.
The Prime Rib had a sense of luxury and sophistication that evoked a different era. This place was “Old School” the day it opened. Think New York supper clubs of the 1940s, with dark polished walls, grand floral arrangements, plush leopard patterned carpet, and a tuxedoed staff of ADULT, POLISHED WAITERS. Guests are treated to live music from a bassist and pianist softly teasing out De-Lovely Cole Porter tunes from a Steinway grand piano. Tables are adorned with crisp white linen tablecloths, and the place is typically packed with politicians, powerful lobbyists and the moneyed elite.
First, let me clear up a potential point of confusion. The Prime Rib has nothing to do with “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants. There are three Prime Rib locations. The first opened in 1965 in Baltimore. D.C. followed in 1976, and Philadelphia came sometime later. “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants have locations in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas.
On a steakhouse fact finding trip last week, we revisited The Prime Rib. I started to worry that it wouldn’t be quite the same. What if they’d changed the décor? Or replaced the musicians with a DJ? Or, God forbid, added Avocado Toast to the menu?
How “Old School” is The Prime Rib? Well, men are still required to wear a dinner jacket. Hell, I don’t even own a suit. Walking in wearing my Duluth Trading Company “free swingin’” flannel shirt and faded jeans, I thought I might be in trouble. But no worries: I was immediately stopped in the vestibule and politely guided to a small room stocked with about 50 black dinner jackets in all sizes. My 13-year-old grandson was also fitted with one.
Well, we couldn’t have been more pleased. Other than the prices, nothing – and I mean, NOTHING – had changed. It still felt as we remembered it. In its heart and soul, The Prime Rib is still a steakhouse, and as swanky as ever. STEAKS are STEAKS here, and MARTINIS are MARTINIS.
Here’s what is remarkable about The Prime Rib: While it’s definitely a time capsule, it doesn’t feel dated. Despite the fact that you have to wear a dinner jacket, the restaurant doesn’t feel frumpy (maybe because it’s meticulously maintained. Nothing is worn, nothing frayed). And though our waiter had worked there for several DECADES (he’d told us he’d been with the company since 1973), service was hardly fossilized.
This is the kind of restaurant where the service is utterly attentive and absolutely unobtrusive. Want your cocktail refreshed? Here’s what you do. Catch your waiter’s eye (easy to do because he’ll be watching your table from a discreet distance). Look down to your empty glass. And look back at the server. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a fresh martini.
Yeah, dinner here can empty your wallet, but with service like that, you don’t even care.
Tom Seitsema, restaurant critic of the Washington Post, wrote, “No matter your age, you are likely to be the youngest diner in the place.” That’s not quite true, but guests certainly skew older. The advantage of that: You can actually carry on a conversation here. Not only that, we dined in a room adjacent to the one with the pianist, and we could still hear the music.
Okay, great retro vibe, fantastic service…but what about the food? ZAGAT rates it a whopping 4.6!!!!!
Our server told us that the menu is virtually unchanged since they opened, with the exception of a rotating list of nightly specials and market offerings. Which means they’ve had 50 years to get the prime rib right, to perfect the Oysters Rockefeller, and cook your steak precisely to order.
Get the bone-in filet, like I did, and it will be seared to a perfect caramelized finish. Masterfully sourced, pristinely fresh, perfectly prepared seafood (Dover Sole, of course) always delights. And naturally, your 2½-inch thick slab of roasted, medium rare Prime Rib – served with a “nest” of sinus-clearing freshly grated horseradish – is as good as it gets.
Let’s move on…
No surprises; nothing tricked up among the appetizers. My oyster-loving 13-year-old grandson started with a platter of eight big, briny, fat raw oysters – and when I say, big, I mean the largest Blue Points I’ve ever seen, so enormous he had to cut them in half to eat them. Not be outdone, our 11-year-old granddaughter wolfed down her own platter of 4 hot gigantic. cheesy and gooey Oysters Rockefeller. (My grandkids don’t look a lot like me, but boy can they eat like me.)
Clams Casino? Check. Escargot? Yup. And, of course, Lump Crab Cakes, held together only by love, not bread crumbs.
Salads are crisp and freshly made, not overly dressed, and served up on ice-cold plates with nary a spec of brown lettuce in sight.
Classic baked Lump Crab Imperial, as well as the crusty deep-fried Soft Shell Crab could have been either apps or mains. We shared both as appetizers.
On to the main event……Check out the Flintstonian hunk of Prime Rib that my friend, John, ate. He’s 6’ 4” and took half home. By the way, they’ll also grill your Prime Rib as a steak if you wish.
My filet was as simple and delicious as I’ve ever had at MANNY’S. But you can “Oscar” it as well. It’ll come topped with grilled asparagus, lump crab meat (not snow crab or Jonah crab, LUMP crab), drizzled with Hollandaise. Wretched excess? You bet!
Our friend and Parasole colleague, Tim, being Greek, couldn’t help himself and had to have the Baby Lamb Chops. Check out the supper club ramekin of Smucker’s Mint Jelly that accompanied them…right out of the jar.
Sides, while not quite Manny’s-sized (but then, whose are?), were equally good and large enough to share.
I guess that I did notice one change, after all. The Seafood classification section on the menu seems to occupy more real estate than I recall. And I’m glad that it does, as my daughter and Joanne both raved about the classic preparation of their buttery Dover Sole à la Meuniere. Grandson John attacked and devoured his Flounder stuffed with Lump Crab.
Desserts were best-of-breed renditions of the classics – Crème Brulée, Pecan Pie, Blueberry Pie, Key Lime Pie and Hot Fudge Sundaes.
From the food to the service and ambiance, the Prime Rib shows no signs of slowing down, but you have to wonder, Will its clientele age out of existence? Will a new generation of owners try to update the concept and instead just screw it up? Do yourself a favor and visit The Prime Rib while you can – because it’s at the top of its game: both a spectacular steakhouse by contemporary standards and a thrilling journey back in time.
Like Esquire Magazine says, “At The Prime Rib, it’s always 1965.”
Although Barcelona is a travel hot-spot these days, it has always been one of Joanne’s and my very favorite destinations, and we’re planning to return once again this coming June. Of course, the climate is a huge draw, and the architecture, but it’s also the CATALAN CUISINE – especially the abundance and pristine quality of their seafood – that keeps us coming back.
Our favorite seafood restaurant by far is BOTAFUMERIO on Gran de Garcia, in the heart of the city. In fact, Botafumerio had a profound influence on me when I created the Oceanaire Seafood Room. And on this upcoming trip we are privileged to bring along our adventurous dining grandkids to indulge in Botafumerio’s razor clams and sea urchins.
We’ll see how that goes.
So I got to thinking about the word “Botafumerio,” figuring it probably has something to do with smoke. But where does it come from? What does it mean?
My inquiry took me to Galacia in the northwest of Spain and to the SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA CATHEDRAL. It all begins with a spiritual journey called the “walk of Saint James” that the apostle is said to have taken. There are several paths from Europe to the cathedral and to the Shrine of Saint James. I think the most traveled route is from the region around Pamplona in eastern Spain (think the running of the bulls) and roughly 800 kilometers from Santiago.
The long journey, called THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, is taken by tens of thousands of believers every year. Joanne and I have two friends that have recently made the long trip.
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is home to a famous thurible, a huge metal censer used to burn incense. The one here is suspended from the ceiling by a pulley mechanism and it’s called the Botafumerio (Galician for “smoke expeller.”)
I have no idea why in 1975 the owners chose to name their restaurant Botafumerio, but I do know that its chefs are on site at the fish market first thing every morning for the daily auction. Preparations are perfectly executed with just the right amount of flame and impeccably served by fleets of waiters in crisp, white coats.
Our evening began with chef Jose Ramon “Moncho” Neira wheeling to our table a trolley loaded to the brim with the daily catch and patiently explaining the species and preparation of each creature. Once again, I was inspired (think MANNY’S steak trolley).
Immediately a complimentary plate of thinly sliced Iberico Ham was placed on our table along with some toasty slices of the traditional “pan con tomate” – tomato bread. A little explanation here: Iberico Ham is Spain’s answer to Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma. The Spanish heritage pigs are fed a diet of acorns, and the ham they produce is incredibly expensive – about 30 euros per pound. Pan con tomate is a ciabatta-like Catalan bread that’s sliced, then vigorously rubbed with fresh tomatoes and garlic cloves, and topped with sea salt and olive oil. At tapas bars, tomato bread serves as sort of a “glue” that holds the flavors and textures of the tapas together.
Our dinner was a parade of fresh, briny crustaceans that had been swimming less than 24 hours earlier.
We started with our first bottle of Rioja blanco along with Steamed Clams, then moved on to Razor Clams, and then to garlicky, buttery cockles. From there, we graduated to a platter of sea urchin and finished our appetizer indulgence with a gratin of spider crab (Who says that cheese and seafood don’t go together? That’s a bunch of hooey).
Then I spotted snails on the menu. Unable to stop myself, thinking they were probably like the escargot at SALUT, I placed an order only to learn that they were Sea Snails, loaded with butter and garlic and a thick slice of “sopping bread.” Loved ‘em.
We didn’t order the Lobster Paella, but lots of folks did, and it looked really good – chock full of lobster parts. It came in three sizes: a giant two-and-a-half-foot diameter paella pan that would serve a table of six to eight; a smaller version meant for two to share; and finally an individual platter.
I passed on the filet (the only steak on the menu), but on another visit opted for the “flame grilled suckling kid goat”) and ate it all!
Desserts are beautiful but we have never indulged…too full.
But at the end of the day, shellfish rule at Botafumerio. Check out the three-foot-long platters that filled at least a third of the tables.
Note: Botafumerio is expensive – but that’s not to say you won’t get your money’s worth here. After all, “good fish isn’t cheap, and cheap fish isn’t good.” (Not sure who said that. Maybe St. James?).
By the way, I read that church attendance in Spain, like elsewhere in Europe, has steadily dropped. Maybe if their incense burners – their “botafumeria” – pumped out the aroma of a good lobster paella, the crowds might return.