Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

A Doozy of Meze at Istanbul’lu

After wine o’clock, a place that doesn’t serve booze has to be pretty special for me to spend precious time eating there that could be spent drinking & eating somewhere else. Promising me Somerville Turkish café Istanbul’lu was just such a place, a couple of pals took me for dinner—& they were right; it’s lovely, with smiling service as open-hearted as the cooking is soul-warmingly homey & honest. Is it better than Brookline Family Restaurant or Sultan’s Kitchen? I haven’t been to either in some time, but assuming they’re as good as ever, & I might be mistaken in assuming they are, I’d be hard-pressed to rate one over the other; each has its own strengths. At BFR, for instance, there’s the lahmacun; at SK, the doner kebab. At Istanbul’lu, if we’d stopped at the warm, focaccia-like bread with what I believe is called acili ezme, or maybe biber salcazi (both are vibrant red-pepper spreads of the sort that abound in the Balkans, from avjar to lutenica)

& the remarkably expressive, funky & sour, yogurt-enriched, lamb-chunked soup called paca,

I wouldn’t have been happier.

What these & all the other appetizers we sampled revealed was the extraordinary way in which Levantine cookery milks so much flavor from plants as such—vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs; fruits like pomegranates, lemons & olives (including the oil); spices like sumac—along with yogurt & fresh cheeses, while meat tends to play a lesser role. The overall profile of the cuisine is utterly luscious yet still fresh, sun-drenched with bright-tart accents.

For instance, under all those tomato slices (which really could have been worse given that it’s winter; at least they had a little juice) there was a meaty, zesty, simple salad of white beans & red onions.

There was haydari, a thick, mildly tangy strained-yogurt dip much like Middle Eastern labne.

And the famous imam biyaldi, eggplant stuffed with a mixture of onions, peppers & tomatoes, then baked; this wasn’t one of my favorites, however, as the eggplant was still a bit woody & stringy, a little bitter.

Borek stuffed with feta were also slightly disappointing, especially in light of my fond memories of the same dish at Sabur just across the street—the phyllo was flaccid, not crisp.

For that matter, the mucver—zucchini fritters with carrots & herbs—weren’t as crisp as they look either, but for me their softness was a plus, making for a sort of melted zucchini pudding in the mouth. (Not sure my pals agreed with me on that point, though.)

And if they’d been slightly hotter, mercimek kofte—red lentil cakes—would’ve been terrific: earthy & nutty, sprinkled with bits of tomato, green onion & parsley.

Groaning as we already were, we skipped entrees & went straight to dessert. Kadayif—essentially baklava made with shredded phyllo—was a little tough, but the flavor was textbook.

Of the 2 puddings we tried, the soothing sutlac—rice pudding (pictured)—was the bigger hit, the keskul (almond pudding) being rather bland.

In short, nearly everything had its flaws, its imprecisions—& yet, somehow, the whole was all the sweeter & more charming for them, the sum greater than its parts. Now if only they’d spike that sour-cherry juice with a little somethin somethin.

Istanbul'lu on Urbanspoon

Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar: Like Franklin Café, Only Different

Ha, these titles are funny ’cause they’re true. The original Franklin Café was a gastropub way before there was a word for such a thing. Now, its Fenway sibling Citizen is the latest word in such a thing. Piggy logo? Check. Piggy dishes? Check. Raw bar? Check. Raw bartender, too adorably young to know his ‘stache makes him look like Meathead from All in the Family? Check. Fernet on tap? Check. Wait…Fernet on tap?! Industry alert, check.

It’s all so of-the-moment it’d already be over, if David Dubois weren’t the sort of seasoned vet who knows how to make a good thing last. Since he is, he does, so it’s not. Over. It’s only just begun.

Granted, my own meal began with a misstep on my part. You know how sometimes a menu is so appealing, & everything sounds so good—like roast pork loin with cranberry beans, applesauce & melted cabbage; pig’s trotter schnitzel with smoked chickpeas & tartar sauce; or a fish & chips special wherein the fish appeared to be near-whole filets—that your brain starts to short-circuit & you wind up spastically ordering something accidental? So it was with peel & eat Old Bay shrimp—a classic, to be sure, done handsomely with a garlicky, spinach-&-tomatillo-based green sauce, but I wished I’d had the forethought to set the tone with something a bit more signature.

I got my act together after that via pungently salty-sweet, rosemary-whipped lardo with “breadsticks”—aka grilled crostini—which was so light & airy I could almost pretend I wasn’t eating entire spoonfuls of pure pork fat, especially since the bitterness of the accompanying dry-cured olives cut through it pleasingly.

There was, however, no pretending the giant carpetbagger steak wasn’t over the top—rare & juicy, topped with a fried oyster & served over spinach in a red-wine sauce.

It was a natural alongside a bottle of Robert Foley Franklin Cuvee, a soft, round, house-label Petit Sirah. What wasn’t so natural was the fact that pal T & I managed to follow it up a plate of sticky toffee pudding (unpictured), textbook except for the fact that it stood at least 6 inches high.

All of which goes to show why the draft Fernet is making such a splash; after a meal at Citizen, you & your digestive system are gonna need it.

Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Island Creek Oyster Bar: Like Great Bay, Only Different (UPDATED 6/12)

***Two reviews for the price of one!***

The first time I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar (report after the jump), it was relatively empty; though the buzz was loud among the city’s food geeks, it had yet to spread. On my return visit a year-plus later, the giant house was packed to the gills. Little else has changed, however: both Jeremy Sewall’s kitchen & the bar—where long-&-still-rising stars Tom Schlesinger-Giudelli & Jackson Cannon ply their trade—remain at the center of a tightly run, smooth-sailing ship.

And you bet said ship trawls for daily-caught seafood. As he served us an absolute stunner of an off-menu dish composed of fish charcuterie, Schlesinger-Giudelli waxed ever so poetic about the 300-lb. bluefin that had come in straight off the boat to produce, among many other things, the pastrami-cured slices pictured center. My stars, they were beautiful, almost literally melting in the mouth, rich but clear-flavored—only subtly pungent (if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, trust me, it isn’t). The fluke crudo on the right might have been outstanding on its own but couldn’t quite hold up to its neighbors—the leftmost item being a luscious tidbit of smoked steelhead trout over a walnut pesto–daubed rye cracker topped with an orange segment: funky, salty, sour-sweet.

I followed it with the signature dish of fresh pasta tossed with pieces of braised short rib, copious chunks of lobster, & maitake mushrooms, which served as the icing on the umami cake;

it’s a solid hit, elegant yet robust, though it too was overshadowed by the unexpected: a buttermilk biscuit half-hidden among the side dishes.

Golden-topped & flaky-layered throughout (no small order at its 3-inch height), then lightly drizzled in a gently spiced honey butter, it was just obscenely spot-on. No meal here should go without at least one.

Not should it go without at least a few moments in the company of Schlesinger-Giudelli, as gracious as he is extremely well versed in all things boozy.

Island Creek Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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Dish of the Week: Mark Special, Charlie’s Front & Back Door, ABQ

Two joints in one—the cozy, family-oriented Front Door & the dark, boozy Back Door—Charlie’s opened 45 years ago (in 1966) & has remained my sentimental Albuquerque fave for about half that time. Is it the city’s 5-star best? I can’t honestly say it is, since the red & green chile are inconsistent—& red & green chile are, of course, the be-all-end-all of Southwestern & especially New Mexican cookery. But when they’re good, they’re great, & everything else rocks all the way out, from the chicken & jocoque (a type of sour cream) enchiladas

to the como se llama with Polish sausage & beans to the torta de huevo—a sort of frittata in red chile—to the Navajo taco & all the oddities in between, containing such incongruous stuff as pastrami, sauerkraut, & 1000 Island dressing.

Still, I met my match this week while in town for Thanksgiving: the Mark Special.

It starts with carnitas whose crisped chunks, like good barbecue, almost slide unctously apart rather than break up in strands. These are scattered across generous mounds of chopped fideos—think soupy, ultra-comfy Mexican spaghetti; cheese-smothered calabacitas—think succotash, here with squash & corn; quelites—think sauteed spinach; potatoes fried with onions; & of course frijoles. But don’t, as you eat it, think at all; just take giant forkfuls of everything, separately & mixed together, letting a rich bit of this enhance the flavor of a tangy bit of that, combining & contrasting until suddenly you find you’ve eaten nearly the whole thing. Then scoop up that last bite with a piece of 1 of the fried dough squares known as sopaipillas.

Then squeeze some honey from the bottle on the table into the rest of the pocket & munch until your eyeballs pop out.

If you’ve got another millimeter or two of space, snitch a little of your mom’s smoky, indeed practically blackened, chiles rellenos

or grab 1 more chip to dunk into the guacamole or the kill-you-softly salsa on the appetizer sampler. (I’m not such a fan of the queso, done Texas-style with Velveeta, though I realize it’s not illegit.)

Then take a nap & have kaleidoscopic nightmares about how on earth you’re going to stuff down turkey with all the trimmings the next day. Yes, do it all exactly like that. Such are holidays in the Land of Enchantment.

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: No. 9 Park—Confession & Luxurious Penance

***Note to readers: After my epic jaunts to Chile & Boston this spring, I’ve got loads to show & tell—but rest assured I haven’t abandoned Denver! New posts on the local dining scene to come too.***

I have a confession to make that may ring scandalous to those who knew me back in Boston: in all my years of covering the dining scene there, I never ate a meal in the dining room at Barbara Lynch’s French-Italian institution No. 9 Park. Sure, I scarfed my share of eats at the bar, being among the early aficionados of the cocktail program started by then–bar manager John Gertsen (now running Drink, a more recent outpost of the Lynch empire). But I’d never had the full No. 9 experience until just a couple of weeks ago.

And what an experience it is.

Due to the ever-changing nature of the business, the tip-top tier of dining in Boston—as in most cities—includes only a handful of destinations that have been there for more than a few years: L’Espalier, Hamersley’s Bistro & Ken Oringer’s Clio all come to mind. And so does this subdued gem at the edge of the Common & the foot of the State House. How Lynch, like Oringer, manages to spread herself so frankly thin between a number of properties yet maintain such extraordinary quality at her flagship is anybody’s guess—her one-time boss Todd English couldn’t do it, that’s for sure—but I suspect it requires some combination of the knack for nurturing talent & tough, tight oversight.

In any case, the difference between running by rote & running smoothly is made clear here. No one at No. 9, FOH or BOH, seems to be operating on autopilot, no matter how long-established their routines may be; dedication to service & sharp attention to culinary detail are invariable. It’s incumbent upon the diner to dedicate him- or herself to attentiveness in kind; the critique most often leveled at this restaurant & many like it—that you pay out the nose for portions that barely pass your lips before they gone—is thus, I think, way off-base. If you’re using all 5 senses to take them in to the extent the food itself asks you to, you won’t leave wanting, physically or psychically. (Then again, if you must leave groaning to feel you got your wallet’s worth, just keep tearing into the French country rolls; the bread guy will wordlessly keep them coming—with excellent room-temp European butter, of course.)

Take the salade jardinière, artichoke en barigoule & nairagi (striped marlin) sashimi (not to mention the signature prune-stuffed gnocchi, already covered here).

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N9Partichoke

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Now, I’m really no firm believer in the idea that less is more (see: TAG); if there’s anything this blog as a whole goes to show, it’s that I can & all-too-often do put it away with reckless abandon. And at $19 a pop, the above appetizers indeed constitute a whole lot less for a whole lot more in the most mundane sense. But just look at them. There isn’t a tendril out of place, not a single ingredient that hasn’t been presented with the utmost care—from the radish slices so thin they’re translucent & the fresh green peas returned to their pod to the sculpted artichoke heart to the light-golden slivers of garlic. Of course, all that precision down to the last granule wouldn’t matter a whit if the granules themselves didn’t approach similar perfection in flavor. But they do. And when something’s near-perfect, 1 bite is enough—if, again, you’re taking it in complete consciousness & with all your heart. If, say, you spear that quail egg to watch the yolk spill out over the scraping of Green Goddess dressing, then swirl the single fiddlehead into the mixture before biting crisply into it. Or if you follow a morsel of the tender-as-butter heart with another of the carciofo fritto (creamily batter-fried artichoke) with a dip in the punchy salsa verde, comparing, contrasting. Or if you let that raw marlin (see here for another superb marlin crudo) just melt on your tongue for a moment, appreciating how its clean tang is only highlighted by just the tiniest touch of truffle vinaigrette & green garlic.

Not every dish warrants quite that much concentration. The pan-roasted tautog (a local white-fleshed wrasse), for instance,
N9Ptautog

though a lovely piece of fish, might actually—I never thought I’d say this—have been cut a little smaller to pinpoint its sea-delicacy, played against by earthy accompaniments—a spoonful of veal jus, thick fingerling coins & meaty porcini. A couple of bites in, I “got” it—criminy, was the kitchen at No. 9 Park actually teaching me, gimme gimme me, a lesson in the value of appreciation in the now over anticipation of the next? For the duration of the meal, at least, yes.

On the other end of the spectrum from the simply prepared tautog were the complex, rich guinea hen with foie en crépinette (essentially a liver sausage), cauliflower & black trumpets

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& the (badly photographed; mea culpa) grilled pork belly with curls of fried skin, escargots & parsnips.
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So much (but never too much) going on in both cases: the crisped, the glazed & the unctuous; the sweet & the pungent; the root & the flesh. For all the thrilling bells & whistles (that’s right, pork rinds!), it was the actually the meat of the hen that most caught my tongue: if I said it tasted pink, would I be understood in the deeply contented way intended—not, obviously, undercooked but rather rosy, spunkier than chicken, exactly like that of a fowl that scratches around in thickets & scrub?

I’d been sure I was going to end with a cheese plate—enthralled as I was whenever the cart rolled past us with all those wedges of blue-green & wheels of old gold & cylinders of wrinkled silver-gray from, no exaggeration, 1 of the world’s greatest cheese retailers in Cambridge—until the last moment, when the thought of black olive clafoutis with vanilla ice cream & Meyer lemon sorbet suddenly sounded so soul-soothing & palate-cleansing all at once.

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And so it was; the fruit (which olives are, don’t forget—probably candied vanilla-poached here) adding a darker tang to the still warm, crunch-lidded custard than the more traditional cherries would have, enhanced by the garnish of port reduction but lightened by the scoops, especially of lemon.

Throughout it all, our server, Abby, young as she was, was a true pro—not just well-trained in terms of timing & graciousness but showing real talent in her ease with & enthusiasm about wine pairings.
N9Psweets
The bill comes with gelatine di frutta & bite-size chocolate sandwich cookies.

Look, in the end, I’m not saying anything new about No. 9 Park here—just once more, with feeling. But that the place should inspire such feeling 12 years after opening its doors, in someone whose personal preferences & prejudices lead her to come-what-may places far more than gourmet landmarks, hopefully says a whole lot, unexpected or not.

No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: Neptune Oyster’s Michael Serpa Is David Nevins’ & My Love Child

The Director & I have an understanding that the Chowhound part of my heart belongs to David Nevins. The original chef of Neptune Oyster left Boston at roughly the same time I did to open Osetra Sono in Connecticut, leaving in turn a void for the place I’d call my own that no place since has ever filled.

Upon our first return to my old stomping (sometimes slurping, sometimes lurching) grounds in the North End a couple of years ago, I feared Neptune itself couldn’t quite fill it anymore; Nevins replacement Nate Nagy’s cooking, though technically every bit as proficient, just wasn’t, well, Nevins’ cooking. Upon our second a year later, Nagy’d come into his intelligent own, & Neptune felt exactly like home again.

And yet with the installment of Michael Serpa in the kitchen still another year hence, I suddenly got the weird magical sense that Nevins was back home where he belonged, at Neptune with me, in the form of our spiritual love child. Serpa may have “parents” & “a life” & his own way of doing things, but he’s got our twinned soul. I could see it, feel it, taste it in every bite I took on our, er, 3rd & 4th back-to-back return visits.

And there were a whole, whole, whole lot of bites.

Like the grandaddy of all New England oysters, Wellfleets, at 1 o’clock, followed clockwise by Summersides & Kusshis (which are hot these days, though I have to admit I prefer the similar but sweeter Kumamotos), plus the oyster crackers I can never stop popping no matter how much grub lies ahead.

NOoysters2
Or the incredible welcome home I got in the form of diced scallops atop cornbread so dense & honeyed it was almost blondie-like, along with rhubarb mostarda & caviar—a dish in the classic Neptune style, composed of startling, intensely luscious juxtapositions.
NOscallops

Lighter & less classically Neptunian but no less satisfying was another off-menu amuse derived from an on-menu appetizer: generous slices of hamachi with bright mint kimchi, cucumber, lime & spiced sea salt,

NOhamachi
which we liked so much we tried it in the form of tartare upon our return.
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Crudo specials change constantly, but if you hurry, you might yet catch the blue marlin tartare with sweet pea yogurt, mint & olive oil. Raw marlin tastes raw in the figurative as much as the literal sense: raw, deep & elemental. It’s eye-opening.
NOmarlincrudo

To say that the PEI mussels in red curry broth didn’t trump my all-time favorite mussel preparation at Neptune—basically an extravagant robiola-shellfish soup from 3 years back—isn’t to say it isn’t delicious, with cashews adding an unexpected flourish.

NOmussels

Many a meal here with the Director has been entirely & happily composed of appetizers. But when I found out he was a softshell crab virgin, there was no way I was going to let the opportunity to pop that particular crustacaean-based cherry & turn him into an ooh softshell crab lovah pass.

Sure enough, he should’ve gotten a room with what was basically an insane crab sandwich, thickly stuffed with tuna tartare & in turn sandwiched between mounds of avocado salad. The 1 bite I managed to swipe practically from between his lips was pure creamy-crunchy luxury, though. Take that, Double Down.

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And as long as he was going all the way, I figured I might as well indulge in roasted striped bass over suckling pig hash & sauteed squid. Again, classic Neptune, the wildly original combination of fish & meat, the smart balance between creamy elements & fresh herbs—undeniably rich but never merely rich.

NOstripedbass
Which, speaking of calamari, brings me to another atypically simple special: grilled calamari salad. In less capable hands it might have been boring; in Serpa’s, the squid, tossed in black olive vinaigrette, just melted with complex flavor.
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Much as the menu changes, there are a few signatures without a taste of which no trip to Neptune—hell, no trip to Boston—is complete. This time I had to revisit the vitello tonnato sandwich.

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On the one hand, every time I have the two-hander composed of brioche piled high with roast veal, tuna tartare, cucumber salad & spicy mustard—accompanied by mwah! perfect crispy fries—I kinda can’t help but wonder what it would be like slathered with the traditional sauce, essentially a tuna-anchovy-caper mayo; on the other hand, I appreciate how damned inspired the modern update is. I just happen to be slavishly fond of creamy shit.

Like the highly pickled housemade tartar sauce that comes with the fried Ipswich clams. Of the 20 or so orders I’ve had over the course of Neptune’s 5 years in business, they’ve never been anything but expert, equal parts greaseless, well-seasoned breading to funky-sweet clam.
NOfriedclams

Looking at the photos, I’m practically tearing up. I already can’t wait to go back to see what my boy Serpa will come up with next! Couldn’t be a prouder imaginary mama.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: The Makings of a Neo-Classic—Russell House Tavern

Diamond in the rough: that’s been the position of chef Michael Scelfo for years. From the North Street Grille to The Good Life to Temple Bar, he was the bright—& occasionally, if circumstances allowed, downright brilliant—spot against some rather dull backdrops.

At Russell House Tavern, he’s finally landed in the showease setting he deserves. Open only a few weeks, the subterranean dining room already feels like the right place at the right time—urbane yet convivial with its high ceilings, low warm lighting, clean lines, & sleek gleaming wood & marble surfaces. And the menu is just the right thing for the right place at the right time: running from New England raw bar to wine bar to gastropub & back again, the spectrum as a whole is characteristically Scelfo’s: as playful, colorful, & robust as contemporary American cuisine can get without sacrificing refinement.

Cases in point: the chilled lobster pot
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& the butcher’s choice pizza.

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We were advised to thoroughly mix the contents of the former to get the full effect: not only fresh lobster meat but also brunoise diced potatoes, chorizo aioli & crunchy cornbread crumbs. I’m one of those weirdos who considers lobster overrated as an in-the-shell delicacy & underrated as a team player, & this dish proves my point deliciously, the crustacean’s creamy sea-sweetness combining so well with the salty & earthy aspects of the rest. If you think about it—shellfish, corn, potatoes, sausage—it’s essentially an inspired mini–lobster bake.

As for the pizza—oh, the pizza. Atop an unusual, almost layered & flaky crust—less like classic pizza dough & more like a pâte brisée or something—were fontina, mushrooms (cremini? porcini?), & crispy chunks of, be still my engorged heart, smoked, cured lamb belly. Irresistibly bold, the smoky tinges kept it from seeming overly rich.

And that’s really the key to the style of all my favorite chefs ever, from David Nevins, José Duarte, Ana Sortun & Jamie Bissonnette back east to Frank Bonanno, Scott Parker & Pete List in Denver (to name just a few)—no one would call their cooking subtle, but no one can deny how carefully they balance the strong flavors they favor.

So the serrano ham—grilled, I think—is accented with pickled pears & manchego bruléed with honey.
RHserranoham

And so the charcuterie board smartly varies from salami & house-cured duck ham to a distinctly spicy, prosciutto-wrapped pâté de campagne, pork rillettes & some of the best chicken liver spread, sweetened with marsala, I’ve ever had. Put it on toast with the honeyed fig jam (top left),

RHcharcuterie

RHpate

& it all goes down like a PB&J.

A round of brioche surrounded by pecorino aioli & topped with a breaded, perfectly poached egg & bits of pancetta
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might well have been too luscious for more than a bite or two if not for the chiffonade of greens that gave the dish a refreshing, bitter edge.

Ditto the fresh peas & grilled ramps in the hearth-baked pasta (conchiglie with fontina & breadcrumbs).

RHpasta2
It was great to see so much Colorado lamb on Boston menus; the Director’s slow-braised shank with smoked lamb breast & stewed black lentils was great, period. As dark as it looks in the photo, that’s how it tasted—deep, dark & soulful.
RHlamb

Scelfo’s take on Chinese salt-&-pepper shrimp was also terrific—heavier than the standard, but rightly, IMO, given that he uses especially sweet, plump Laughing Birds & pairs them with Tabasco aioli.

I was too painfully full to even try the short rib Wellington,
RHshrimp RHwellington

but somehow managed to shove down a bite of the highly textured, nicely tart semolina-yogurt cake with basil.

RHsemolinacake
As an early proponent of Scelfo’s, I’m just so damn glad to see him making his mark so with such confidence, grace & pizzazz.

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

Call it Itale, call it Chily: Pasta e Vino, Valparaiso

Occupying a sliver of coastline & the hillside beyond, all bar-lined beaches & rickety funiculars, ultracolorful Valparaiso reminded me a lot of the funkier villages along the Mediterranean coast of Italy—your Positanos, your Camoglis—only a little more urban & a little more rural at the same time, what with a downtown strip on the 1 hand &, on the other, a cacaphony of stray dogs barking & roosters crowing all the livelong day.

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So the fact that one of the city’s best-loved restaurants, Pasta e Vino, happens to be Italian—but for the all-Chilean wine list, that is—seems fully well & good.

Minimalist as the tiny space is, constantly packed from the dining room

PyV

to the kitchen itself,

VyP2
the vibrant, luscious food is anything but, starting with an excellent bread basket filled with herbed ciabatta & carta di musica–like flatbread
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& an amuse of sesame-honey chorizo.

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Each dish being beyond critique, the captioned pics thereof should say it all:

gorgeous salmon & reineta carpaccio with capers, cress & lemon juice
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shrimp with merquén (smoked ground chiles) & crostini

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cream-sauced phyllo stuffed with red peppers,

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in turn stuffed with shrimp & goat cheese
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fettuccine with smoked ham & lemon-Sauvignon Blanc cream

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fettuccine with crudo ham, walnuts & honey in a parmesan sauce
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squid-ink pappardelle with frutti di mare in white wine

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& what was probably my favorite, the strikingly innovative squid-ink ravioli over spinach & cream, stuffed with smoked salmon, & topped with queso fresco & curry, of all things,
PyVravioli

cooked until it was almost dry—more a heady spice mash than a sauce.

I was so stuffed I couldn’t see straight, & even so I kept lusting after all my group of 5 had neither table space nor gut room for: gnocchi with king crab, shrimp & caviar; fettuccine with mozzarella, roquefort & mushrooms; ravioli with parmesan, wedge clams & white wine…sigh. There’s my review: just sigh.

En route on I-80, all covered with cheese: The goofy gastronomy of Beefstro & the La Vista Nines

With all the trekking we do through Nebraska en route to Iowa & Michigan & back, the Director & I keep track of our roadside options. Going chowish isn’t really 1 of them, a) because crawling the byroads & backways in search of the troves of chicken shacks, chili emporiums & custard stands they undoubtedly spill forth is only as romantic as one’s willingness to postpone happy hour after all the dreary ones on the road is firm—i.e. not very—& b) because I actually have an abiding fondness for chain hotel lounges in their anonymous sameness (as I’ve detailed here). There’s just something so calming about the bland decor, so appealing about the weird stabs at glorifying American bar snacks & staples.

Actually, though, at The West Omaha Embassy Conference Hotel, the results aren’t half so clumsy as the burnt-orange lobby space the La Vista Nines occupies. Granted, they’re not masterful either—despite the website’s claim that they’re “all prepared by our master chef from Germany!”—being as they are the exceptions to the largely rote rule of the menu: lemon-caper chicken, pork chops in gravy, club sandwiches, etc., with lots of wild rice medleys & buttered green beans tossed in for good measure. Still, there were the quirks I seek. A salad of baby field greens with pan-fried goat cheese, shiitakes, spicy walnuts, tomatoes & honey-thyme vinaigrette, for instance, or tropical fruit sorbets drizzled with chilled vodka.
Or the Cajun potato chips.

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Inspired (like so much that’s good & true in the world) by nachos, they’re hand-cut & fresh-fried to golden-brown, bubbly warped disks; smothered in cheese, crumbled Andouille sausage & green onions; & served with, of all things, a fairly spicy remoulade & a chunky, pinkish, but interesting black-eyed pea dip.

Or—I can’t believe I’m admitting this on national TV—the Alfredo flatbread.

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While the Director’s “margarita”

NinesMargherita

was a travesty of the Americanized name—cheddar, basil flakes & tomatoes stuck in a glue of mozz does not a margherita make—my choice was gloriously honest in its gluttony, topped not only with the glut of gut-destruction that is Alfredo (butter, cream & parm) but also yet more mozz, plus bits of grilled chicken & red onion. Ugh! Yay!

The Nines on Urbanspoon

***

Familiar as I am with a few of Iowa City’s diamond dives, it came as a self-surprise that my soft spot for schlock is firmer even than my devotion to dumps. But there you have it: standing between me (with pal Joey) & the likes of George’s, the Deadwood & the Foxhead, only moments away, was

Beefstrosign !!

I was powerless to resist.

Not that it offered much beyond the opportunity to say I was there. Sort of a steakhouse, Beefstro looks like a cross between the lobby of a ski lodge & a heartland diner; plods along servicewise; & engages in such exercises in awkwardness as
a chicken Caesar whose supposed grilled hearts of romaine turned out to be raw halved heads of romaine

BeefstroCaesar

see? awkward!

sprinkled with green-can parm
&

salt-lipped baked potatoes. Beefstropotato

Is this a common flourish I’ve somehow missed? Did someone mistake my spud for a margarita glass? Not that I minded—that’s 1 less garnishing hand-motion for me! Therein lies my compliment to the chef.

River City Beefstro Bar Grille on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Bacchus Knows Where, OK: McGeHee Catfish Restaurant

The Toy & Action Figure Museum (whose logo tee the Director’s rocking as we speak) isn’t the only detour Wampus took me on during my trip back home for the Okie Noodling Tournament. On the eve thereof, he & Suzy—his expectant wife, co-gourmet cheesemonger & rare comic equal—drove me all the way to the OK-TX border to do mouth-based research at a legendary catfish palace called McGeHee.

Mcgeeheesign

Housed way, way off any main road in an Americana-bedecked cabin overlooking the Red River, the place evokes a clubhouse for ballcapped, grizzled good old boys to sit around in guzzling beer, cheating at cards & spinning fish tales. But when we met a couple of Wampus & Suzy’s friends there around 8 on a Friday night, it was virtually empty—8 being nearly closing time in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not sure there’s anything on the menu besides catfish fried or grilled (but who doesn’t get fried? no one, that’s who), served AYCE family-style with all manner of sides; certainly the ordering process amounted to a smiling confirmation that that’s what we’d be having.

In no time, the waitress returned with a trayful of this & that & this—not only a dish of raw onion slices, peperoncini & lemon wedges but also

Mcgeeheestomatoes Mcgeeheescoleslaw

sweet pickled green tomatoes, hypercreamy coleslaw

Mcgeeheeshushpuppies

& crunchy-tender free-form hush puppies,

which we had just the right amount of time to plow through before the presentation of the beaucoup pièces de résistance.

Mcgeeheesfish

The cornmeal-fried catfish was expertly done—greaseless, moist & flaky—but I gotta say it was the snappy, salt-dusted, mahogany-hued, skin-on fries that enthralled me most, not least for being the 2nd absolutely spectacular batch of spud sticks I’d had in as many days.

Had we been anywhere Bacchus actually knew—McGeHee is dry—no telling how many I’d have polished off in inebriated bliss, hid in my pockets & otherwise hoarded. So many I’d still be eating ’em now, that I can t ell you.