ON THE TAPAS TRAIL IN BARCELONA

It was back in the Figlio days when tapas first got on my radar screen, and small plates have been a fixture at our restaurants ever since. So it was that on our most recent trip to Europe, we included Barcelona on the itinerary. The fact that we had grandkids in tow made the destination all the more compelling. They’d never been to Spain, and I wanted to be the one to introduce them to its most vibrant city.

Naturally we took in the significant sights, particularly the Antonio Gaudi masterpieces, including the still-unfinished LA SAGRADA FAMILIA (under construction for 137 years; latest projected completion date 2032), and CASA BATTLO, with its façade of undulating, vine-like shapes punctuated with pieces of colorful glass and broken ceramic tiles.  Visits to the Picasso Museum and the Joan Miro Museums filled our culture quota so that we could focus on the real reason for the trip: Barcelona’s incredible food.

First things first: A visit to LA BOUQUERIA, perhaps the most impressive food market on the planet. Joanne and I have strolled many wonderful markets and marveled at the stunning colors, presentations, mouth-watering displays and presentations from the vendors.   And the sights here are almost in a category of their own. Still, I always walk away with a small sense of dissatisfaction, borne of being unable to buy any of the offerings for a scrumptious dinner. No kitchens in our hotel rooms.

On occasion, I’ve also felt somewhat unwelcome by the vendors, who have to deal with throngs of tourists invading their domain, taking pictures, crowding the aisles, and then NOT BUYING ANYTHING.

Well, I have to tell you that since I last visited the Bouqueria, the vendors have figured out how to take advantage of visitors like me.

Fish mongers who sell whole turbot, flounder and lobsters to the locals now offer busloads of tourists fresh oysters by the piece as well as handheld little paper cones filled with everything from shrimp to calamari. The meat and sausage merchants offer cups of salamis and paper-thin slices of black-hoof Iberico ham, all at about $6 – $7. The fruit and produce folks sell eye-popping cups of fresh fruit. It was oppressively hot and humid the day we visited, and Joanne and I both fell for the chilled watermelon.

Since this was just before lunch, I got thinking, Hmmm, today these are my TAPAS.

And tapas we did….all week long, all along LA RAMBLA (a major pedestrian thoroughfare), for lunch and dinner.

One thing to note: La Rambla isn’t the only street of its kind. You can escape the crowds by heading a few blocks north to the RAMBLA DE CATALUNYA. It’s cleaner and less crowded than La Rambla, but still offers endless blocks of restaurants, each with a tapas menu. Plus, the shopping is better.

We dined at many of the restaurants and tapas bars that are known specifically for their creativity, frisky sauces and varieties of tapas, and discovered that there is a sort of hierarchy among tapas.

At the base you’ll find the workhorse offerings, which populate nearly every menu, from dives to fine dining establishments. Among them:

PAN CON TOMATE:  toasted bread, garlic, olive oil, salt and crusted tomatoes.

PATATAS BRAVAS: roasted potatoes, always with mayo and spicy, smoky tomato sauce.

SAUSAGES: Including Butifarra, a mild white pork sausage, often served with garlicky white beans in olive oil; Morcilla, a blood sausage invigorated with sautéed onions; and of course Chorizo, fermented, cured and smoked, often bathed in honey and red wine.

ENSALADA RUSA: Russian potato salad with peas, carrots, capers and beets, sometimes with tuna.

CROQUETTAS: Small mashed potato balls loaded with ham, smoked cod, cheese or lobster, deep fried.

MONTADITOS: Little sandwiches (often open-face). Anything goes here.

GARLIC SHRIMP: Garlic, olive oil, hot peppers, garlic and more garlic.

GILDAS: Anchovies, olives and peppers impaled on a toothpick.

GRILLED OCTOPUS: Available in many wonderful versions.

CHIPIRONES: Deep-fried squid and baby cuttlefish, frequently accompanied with squid ink.

ALBONDIGAS: Little meatballs; could be beef, pork or veal, or a combo of all three.

TORTILLA DE PATATAS: Omelet with potatoes, most always served in wedges.

PAELLA: A tapas for sharing. Our favorite was the seafood version with clams, mussels and head-on shrimp. Be sure to ask your server for the SOCARRAT: the scorched rice crust that forms on the bottom of the paella pan.

There are undoubtedly many more dishes that fit in the workhorse category. And beyond those offerings is an entire universe of more creative tapas – thinking person’s tapas, big-flavored sometimes lyrical, often witty, never bland.

So I’ll stop here for now and ask you simply to stroll through the images. Read the captions and salivate as appropriate.

And some with ingredients that we probably should not talk about. That universe is so grand that your overfed blog writer cannot cope.

WTF,

Phil

A STEAK IN THE HEART OF PARIS

Among the many joys of dining in France is that every decent bistro or brasserie can be counted on to offer simple, but profound pleasures: local red wines by the carafe; perhaps a small slab of foie gras and onion jam; a garlicky order of escargot with proper French bread to sop up the garlic butter; and of course the popular, ubiquitous Steak Frites. Each restaurant will put its own spin on this classic dish, but generally they’re distinctions without a difference.

Most all the meat cuts are what the French call “Butcher’s Steaks” – steaks that do not come from the pricey upper middle part of the steer (the short loin, home of filets, porterhouses, and sirloins), but instead are cut from the more affordable front and hind quarters that give us the muscle meats.

The steaks typically weigh in at 250kg, or around 8 ounces. They go by various names – bavette, coulotte, flank, teres major and, the most prevalent, the “onglet.” We know it as the hanger steak in America, and that’s what we use at SALUT. Moreover, we do the fries the same way the French do – double frying, first at a lower temperature, and then at a higher temperature.

Now, not to be unkind, but the grass-fed French cuts tend not to be overly tender. They’re a little less marbled. Don’t get me wrong: They’re still delicious, and are a lot cheaper than the cuts from the short loin.

So last week, while researching the culinary charms of Paris, Joanne and I discovered ROBERT ET LOUISE, a tiny place in the Marais that is dedicated to the proposition that “Steak Is King” – and not in the steak frites way. Here, thick, juicy slabs cut from the short loin are on offer. They likely come from the French “Charlois” steer, a mountain of a beast bred solely for its superior quality meat. R&L grills its steaks in a fireplace over a wood fire, right in the dining room – and, in our case, right next to our table. You’ll find it at 64 Rue Vielle du Temple.

The theater and the aromas were PRIMAL. They were compelling and convincing. They said something you don’t need to speak French to understand: “This is THE place for steak in Paris.”

Joanne and I have indulged in this sort of experience only once before and that was when our daughter, Jennifer, was working near Geneva, Switzerland and took us to dinner at AUBERGE DE DULLY in the hamlet of Rolle. It’s still there and if you ever find yourself on the north shore of Lake Geneva….well, as the Michelin Guide would say: ”It’s worth a detour.”

R&L is small, cozy and comforting; the kind of place about which Holly Golightly of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S might say, “It’s as if nothing very bad could ever happen here.”

And nothing bad did happen. Quite the opposite. We had a wonderful time watching the grill man flipping manhole-sized pieces of cow (as well as lamb chops) onto the white-hot cast iron plancha placed directly over the fire.

Make no mistake: This is not a MANNY’S or PETER LUGER steak. For one thing, it’s not aged beef (I’m at a loss to understand why the French don’t age their steaks; they age their wine, their game, their cheese…). But it was good – really good.

We started our journey by sharing a charcuterie platter of salamis and cured ham, accompanied by a sinus-clearing Dijon mustard and big jar of homemade sweet little gherkins. Our grandson, an adventurous eater, went for the escargot: 6 plump beauties in a bath of eye-watering, double-rich, high-fat garlic butter. It cost 8.5 euros. Not bad!

I, being an inveterate dining slut, went straight for the artery-clogging slab of faintly boozy foie gras, served up with toast points and red onion jam. To complete the round of starters, the rest of our group opted for the heart-healthy mixed green salad….BORING!

On to the mains…..

Our daughter, who avoids red meat, was delighted to find a safe harbor on the menu: Head-on Grilled Shrimp. Her son glommed onto the Duck Confit. Oddly, R&L also offers an omelette. No takers at our table, thank God. Who’d come to this restaurant for an omelette?

We ate all the iterations of the cuts of steak that they offer, including a 2-inch-thick Cote de Boeuf for two, nicely charred and caramelized on the outside, medium rare on the inside, for 48 euros. We also sampled a wonderfully fatty and boldly flavored Ribeye and a T-bone. This is not the place for the timid diner, as mondo hunks of charred beef are the clean-up hitters on this menu, which is further punctuated by take-no-prisoner sides like R&L’s generously salted potato wedges, deep-fried in duck fat.

For dessert, we shared a couple Tarte Tatins and Crème Brulées, along with platters of Roquefort, Chevre, Cantal and Reblochon cheese.

The image below, after the cheese board, is not our group, but it IS our table. Note that it’s just in front of the fire. I neglected to glean the table number, but if you go to Robert & Louise, just ask to be seated at the community table in front of the fireplace.

Steak Frites is fine and dandy in Paris.  But if you’re in the mood for Steak frites’ BIG BROTHER, then call…01-42-78-55-99.

W.T.F.

PHIL

PESCADO AND PAELLA ON THE POTOMAC

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!!!

Stay tuned….

WTF
Phil

HOLY MOTHER OF SAUCES

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.”

WTF,

Phil

LONDON’S UNDER-THE-RADAR BARGAIN

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.

W.T.F.

PHIL

SEAFOOD AT THE SALT LINE

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.

W.T.F.

Phil

A.A. GILL: A CRITIC WORTH ACCLAIMING

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.’”

He continues…

“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.”


WTF

Phil