Showing posts with label Restaurants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Restaurants. Show all posts

Town Restaurant: Ottawa's Prince Charming

Delicious smells in a warm room make you realize that you're already in your Happily Ever After … welcome to Town.

Once upon a time in castle-laden Ottawa, Canada, lived fair maiden Lori Wojcik and her charming prince chef of a husband, Marc Doiron.

"Darling, I've got a bun in the oven," Marc announced. She widened her pretty eyes and agreed, "Of course, honey. You're a baker."

"No -- I have a dream. I want to open a full restaurant where I create the most delightful food in all of our Canadian capital's land."

And so it began. . .  after ten years of saving ducats, nigh on three years ago, they flung open the doors of their Bistronomy demi-castle.

Chef Marc is the stuff of which legendary cooks are made.

Tuck Shop -- Love at First Bite

A friend of mine used to date Enrique Iglesias. Enrique was such an energetic and passionate lover that their sessions often broke furniture.
At the end they were breathless, totally satisfied, but anxious for more. Thankfully he had stamina.

I've never lustily busted up a Noguchi table, but I had a thrilling dinner at Montreal's Tuck Shop.

I swung open the door where smiling host Miles extended his arm which is lyrically tattooed with a musical note hinting that perhaps he was named for Miles Davis.

His friendly handshake told me that not only was he happy to have me there, he was happy to be there.

La Luna at Gaia... Sweet Bird of Youth

Every morning at 3:30, a young Costa Rican boy stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing brightly colored pajamas, rubbing his sleepy eyes open to watch his mother make sandwiches to sell to the local fishermen. As soon as he could hold a knife, his mother taught him to slice vegetables.

By age 12, Miguel Monge Solís was a vital part of his mother's kitchen operation. He learned to reach outside and grab the bountiful flavors, and cook. In Costa Rica, banana trees are like pop-up restaurants -- coconuts, plantains, coffee, and tamarind grow for the taking, and making, of creative food.

After professional training in San Jose, Miguel "Mayky" is now the executive chef at La Luna, the diamond-in-the-rough Costa Rican jungle fine-dining restaurant at Gaia: Manuel Antonio's unrivaled luxury hotel, spa and nature reserve. Everything about this resort is overwhelmingly refreshing. Even Chef Mayky -- he's 22.

Cafe Boulud: Palm Beach -- "Paris Is A Moveable Feast"!

In 1993 Daniel Boulud opened his eponymous restaurant in New York City. He whipped the lid off of a pot and his fantastic French food popped up yelling Surprise! We fell in love.

Then in 2003, Daniel opened Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach. He put American-born chef, Jim Leiken at the helm. Daniel personally took Leiken by the neck and fed French food down his gullet like a duck being readied for a future life as foie gras. He relaxed his grasp and left the Florida ship in masterfully creative hands that conduct a marriage of French and American food each night.

Cafe Boulud Place Setting

It feels good just to approach Cafe Boulud. It's tucked away at the end of a one-way street, past classic stone mansions. Enter Boulud's sexy room and accept the French kiss on both cheeks from the warm, suntanned dining room. The powerful voice of Ziarra, who sings for your supper live every Friday and Saturday night, comes wafting from the lounge into the dining room, along with the aroma from the artisanal bread.

Cafe Boulud Dining Room
The restaurant looks like a visit to Paris when you are in love. Boulud's designer must've just met someone smart, rich and elegant. They spread that warm feeling over the tables, boldly painted the walls with passion, then danced around the room, plunking just the right hue of orchids in amber vases. The maître d’ winked as he flung out my orange napkin, as if to cover my excitement.

Just as we settled in, bouncing bronzed arancini amuse bouche rolled onto our table like Bentley's rolling through Palm Beach stop signs. When popped into my mouth, they had that crunch that I always think over-tanned people would have if I bit into one. And they were delicious.

Cafe Boulud Amuse Bouche Arnacini  

I kept my mouth closed over the soft, creamy rice, in case it tried to escape to re-apply sunscreen.    

Next came the grilled Spanish octopus -- which is the the new, super-sized calamari. Just ordering it conjured up images of a giant, swirling beast trying to grab me with one of its eight long sucker-punched legs. The shiny, spicy arugula is spun into a salad like wet seaweed beside the monster, making the meat look complacent and only curled up to sleep. 

As I cut into what I assume will be rubbery and tough, the knife slides in easily, making me feel heroic. It tastes fantastic -- it's been grilled like a lying witness, and I drag my bite through the tart blood orange sauce, running it brazenly across the dangerous-looking slash of squid ink.

This dish is like falling in love with someone who has substance. It's tender, smooth, full of surprises, and shows you a thrilling side of life that you'd feared. The sweet pepper couscous hops on your fork like pearls being lavishly bestowed on you by this rich undersea creature.  

Ziarra belted out Dim All the Lights and I think they actually dimmed as the risotto appeared, in place of a drumroll. Timing is the most crucial essence in risotto, and they pulled it off -- the right creamy-to-firm ratio. The pouf of foam on top made it seem like the sous chef pulled it at just the right moment, speeding it excitedly out to our table, where it eventually settled down. 

Cafe Boulud English Pea Risotto

I glanced over my shoulder when the foie gras and smoked duck marbre with pain d'epices, poached apricots and sauternes gelée slid onto our table. I swear I saw an heiress in one of Boulud's private booths licking this same slab off the chiseled stomach of her pool boy.

Cafe Boulud Foie Gras Terrine

The busboy discreetly looked the other way as I made small yummy sounds. The chef had gingerly deconstructed the ginger-laced d'epices element and left it up to us to spread it onto his soft brioche, placed discreetly on a silver tray nearby. I tried to mimic the heiress and the pool boy, but I am not that limber.

The French waiter had a more relaxed style here than some I've observed at Daniel NYC. Their sommelière, Mariya Kovacheva, has designed a wine list wilder than a bacchanalian orgy. Ordering wine can be challenging under pressure when you often have a waiter hovering in judgment. One of my fellow diners asked if a Sauternes was the best choice to go with an upcoming course. I expected a sharp look to drip down the waiter's long, aquiline nose, causing his lips to curl into a condescending smirk. Instead, he put one hand on his hip, the other on the empty chair back at our table, and leaned in -- suddenly we were all buddies in a Napa timeshare. He advised that a California Chardonnay would be a better fit. These moments often end in a high five.

I ordered the trio of heirloom pork with one fear -- that the apple wouldn't fall far enough from the pig's mouth to allow me to discern the subtle roasted differences between the cuts. But each one of Boulud's heirloom pork selections were their own man. The roasted tenderloin was moist and no-knife tender, and I wanted to spread the crispy shoulder confit all over my body. As I ate the yummy, fatty pork belly, I chewed on the very bouncy essence of the fire which drove flavor from the meat straight into the gelatinous fat. I sat in my chair doing mental abdominal crunches.
The baby carrots wore the sweet, tiny face of Alice Waters. Each looked as if the chef had reached out the back door and plucked them from the closest patch. Her plea for using local ingredients has been heard.

Cafe Boulud Pork Three Ways

Boulud lays his signature dish -- chickpea fries -- out for me as if they were Palm Beach itself -- a hot, colorful beach blanket spread on uber-soft sand. I muscled their dense, weighty bodies into the roasted red pepper coulis, realizing that looks can be deceiving. Maybe heavy in the hand, but they land lightly on the tongue.

Cafe Boulud Chick Pea Fries

The maître d’ paused by our table and asked, Are you enjoying your evening? He needn't ask if the food was to our satisfaction, if we liked the room or if the music made us feel like dancing -- he knew the answer to those was always a fast yes, yes, and oh hell yes. I love confidence when it can be backed up.

As the tagliatelle and egg was placed on the table, the perfectly cooked egg jiggled across the top, sending a subliminal note-to-self that maybe I should drop and retrieve my napkin twenty times as on-the-spot, secret core work. The yolk was poached so perfectly plump that it looked like ten pounds of sugar in a five pound bag.

Tagliatelle and egg 

The long golden pasta was tangled like lovers' legs, when, for a moment, as you blissfully lie there, you don't know whose gams are whose. A quick poke and you figure it out. I twirled and twirled my fork around with the reckless abandon of a drunk majorette, picking up yellowfoot chanterelles and luscious Parmesan cheese with each pass of the baton, the end of each bite dotted with sweet garlic chips like tiny savory sparklers.

I needed dessert to cool down. I eased into the cuddle of the gorgeous pecan-pear Belle Hélène. The level of detail that pastry chef Arnaud Chavigny crafted on the cut-out tart was tasted throughout every bite of the entire creation. 

pear dessert with cutout pear pastry and sorbet

Strawberries were in season, and looked as luscious as everyone in the room. This sweetly tart lime mousseline and super-bright kaffir lime yogurt sorbet happily puckered my lips into oooooooh.

Strawberry and key lime trio

Then, just as Ziarra queried What's Love Got to Do With It?, a star was born. His Vacherin was presented, frozen solid and cold as an ice princess.

blueberry buttermilk sorbet and meyer lemon curd

Photos can't capture bliss. The blueberry and buttermilk sorbet was wrapped into a precise and compact box, like a bride being readied to travel to her new home. The puffed floating islands of Meyer lemon curd were her dowry.

Music often plays at the most unpredictably apropos times of our lives, and we shouldn't stop it. To the tune of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, the check came and went. We walked out and passed the singer; I saw Ziarra's shoes before I heard her.

Cafe Boulud Lounge SInger
French food makes me believe in l'amour. This Boulud chef makes age-old ingredients lively, fresh and exciting, but not in the way that makes a wife suspect her husband of cheating when he tries a new move.

I was dining with two who had been one for fifteen years, and as we talked near the huge fountain in the palm-stuffed courtyard, one told me that his favorite dessert was still a French one prepared by his beloved. You may stare at an old, gnarled tree and have a hard time imagining it once a young, thin sapling, but a compliment like that from old lovers will make you believe in the timelessness of devotion.

This branch of Daniel's tree bears a different fruit than his New York City joints -- it's a seasonal and rich variety. It honors his true love of French cuisine and adds a dash of classic American boogie.

Cafe Boulud. 301 Australian Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida 33480. (561) 655-6060

Antico Martini: Venice, Italy -- Old & Improved Since 1720!

As we wind through the untraceable narrow streets of Venice, darting into dark alleys and hearing creepy echoes of invisible feet walking across St. Mark's Plaza, my Venice tour guide, Marco, points to an alabaster white, ancient marble bust stuffed above a doorway. Once painted with vibrantly colored detailed faces, it has now faded back to the plain white blank, Marco waxes on. I reply, You can't swing a cat in Venice without hitting great art but you can't eat the art. Yeah, yeah, the busts are stunning but I'm hungry. It's been hours since I've had gelato. Marco holds a finger up to my trembling lip to hush me, In Venice, everything is art. Even his gestures have a sexy, Italian accent.

Venice is Atlas, holding a world of endless beauty on her bridged shoulders. She's now sinking under the weight. Every angle is a photograph, and even the simplest of pastas at any cafe is a triumph. A child could dust some fettuccine with truffles and poof! It's perfect.

I love dining at the venerable Venice restaurant, Antico Martini, serving since 1720. Being from the States, I am lucky to eat in a place that has been serving since Wednesday.

Americans tend to disregard their old everything, always looking up, ready to toss their tried-and-true people or plate to see what new and exciting dish has entered the room. In Venice, they respect their elders, and stay at the table, savoring each flavor and honoring the institution.

Antico Martini's restaurant is tight, and everyone maneuvers beautifully about the several marvelously sexily lit separate rooms, politely squeezing between chairs, touching your shoulder as they whisper scusa. The Italians don't mind contact. When in Rome includes all of Italy. They live in the streets as one big mound of semolina flour crowned by a giant egg.  The people walk around, swirled together by a common, strong, masculine hand, happily resulting in soft, delicate breast-like gnocchi.

Antico Martini has their beloved practices and entrees, but have wide open minds and doors. If a chef thinks he has built a better mousse trap, and hopes that this new dish can join the menu, they are given a chance --  just as any new girl trying to marry into a good Italian family. She has to go through a tough family approval process. If worthy, she's in. Forever.

The restaurant's decor reflects this mash-up of old and new. We sat in one of the many small rooms, surrounded by terrific murals that depicted art-deco era women interacting with 18th century characters.  Guide Marco had been spinning yarns about the decadent, Carnival days, where wanton anonymous sex and booze parties went on and on and on for months. Any dinner here is a tiny peek into that experience.

I excitedly creaked open the big menu, and my eyes were immediately drawn by the flashing lights of familiar letters in the universal food language: Foie Gras! I taste two things for distinction in every country where I find them: Coke, and foie gras. The fatty food is now too cruel and therefore illegal in my home state of California, so I have to take advantage of sources outside of the jurisdiction of PETA and the ACLU.

As soon as I placed my order, I gasped as the tuxedo clad waiter placed his hand on my menu flirtatiously, then he snapped it shut and whisked it away, leaving and making me miss both. Within minutes, the most adorable amuse bouche ever, appeared, calming my petulance.

We eat with our eyes first. This presentation -- a tiny crock with a sealed lid, that when popped open offered me tangy, crisp gazpacho that had to be eaten with a demitasse spoon was like a yummy midget. The chef was obviously a culinary tease. I could have eaten a bucket of this soup, but he taunted me with a morsel, like a Baldwin brother keeping his shirt buttoned up. 

I dug my spoon around the bottom edge, wishing it was my more pliable finger. The tomatoes were local, and had plumped up under the Tuscan sun and burst with pride right into the chef's pot. He wistfully sprinkled just salt over the top as he thought of his first love, sighed and sent them out of his kitchen, crying from onions. I wanted to pocket the tiny pot.

The Italian description of my foie gras oozed off the page like Gina Lollobrigida whispering in my ear:  Scaloppa fi fegato d'oca al porta e marmalatta di arrange amare...

The porcelain spoon held palazzo-made marmalade, and the generous, seared slab of foie gras was protected from the harsh white plate by a thick, sweet port reduction.

I put a bit of marmalade on a bite of foie gras, then dragged it through the port sauce as if I were dragging Gina to bed. I deftly swooped it up off the plate and into my watering mouth. Bolero played in my head and my hand-to-mouth movement was in perfect sync. 

When I eat out with Bob, I have this strategy I call ishky-pishky. The concept is everyone sharing a least a taste of their food. I get to try more different dishes. If you can't decide between the beef and the fish -- have both.  If I hear a fellow diner protest, Sometimes you just want to have your own, it sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher,Whaaa-whaooom-wha.

So on this night at Antico Martini, I convinced two diners to go ishky-pishky, a new triumph and personal best. I should have gotten their names or emails.

One ordered the John Dory in corn crust with topinambur. When an Italian menu boasted a corn crust, I pictured one of those salt crusts that the waiter busts up with his shoe, then digs out the food treasure. When it arrived, it looked like a piece of catfish my grandfather Pop might have caught, rolled in cornmeal and deep fried at our cabin on Lake of the Pines.

This Italian version was crisp and delightfully fishy. The soft, white fish was fluffy, and the corn crust held it together well. Perhaps Venice could use this to bolster up its crumbling foundation. The top two swirls of topinambur, Jerusalem artichoke, made a deliciously starchy and substantial side dish.

I wished my grandfather had known about it for his fish-frys -- he'd shake things up at that old lake. Well look who's all fancy now that he's been to Eataly.

Next came the sliced Angus beef served with their special sauce - tagliata di angus alla rosa canina. The beef was so tender, I am sure it was raised lovingly by a swarthy Italian farmer and massaged daily, albeit begrudgingly, by his equally swarthy sons, Luigi and Pepe.

Pepe was named so because the father wasn't sure Pepe was his son, as his wife had disappeared one week and came back ten pounds heavier and speaking Spanish. But the star of this dish was the sauce, and I am proud to say that I wasn't the only one dredging bread through it, or sopping up the gravy as it is traditionally known in the South. It was laced with peppercorns cracked by just a gentle but stern glance from the chef in order to ensure the dish maintained a harmonious balance and didn't taste all bitter from hate.

I ordered lamb chops, costolette d'angello al pan d'erbe, made in a crust of herbed bread, primarily to see how they made it, compared to my version. I love to eat out and to cook so I get new ideas, and try to replicate them at home. What did I learn from this chef? To add tarragon to my rosemary, pepper and garlic crust, and that I liked each chop individually crusted -- not like they do here, where they crust the entire rack. Then they slice it, leaving the inside chops all naked, crust less and vulnerable.  It was still really delicious, but they looked so unprotected and I could just feel the inside chops embarrassment.

I recalled that just outside of my hotel was the Venice Prada boutique. They featured their winter coats, open, with the mannequins naked underneath. This revealed beige plastic bodies that, just like Oprah needed makeup, would have benefited from a sweater. So would the lamb chops.

I want you to know that the service here, and all over Venice was top-notch. The waiters don't often ask you, in the middle of your meal, if everything is to your liking -- they don't have to, they know it is.  They presented the catch of the day on a sliver tray. That sums up their level of service, held confidently and assuredly. Your fish, sir. 

This is one of the longest-running productions in the world. The waiters do a precise dance around the room -- black-tie costumed with white napkins draped over their arms, politely bowing and offering bread, wine, water, some slicing meat or de-boning fish, one guy setting something on fire, another putting it out.

They know their menu and their positions. Any question you have is answered, in English. Their deft Italian tongue makes our droll English sound romantic. They have a  lengthy wine list, but they know wine personally and could recommend the right one highly, like a pretty cousin they were eager to marry off.

When dining with particular eaters who are having trouble deciding on what to order, I often remind them that this probably isn't their last meal, and they can order one now, and the other dish another time. The ishky-pishky concept was a hit and continued onto dessert. At this rate the entire restaurant would be entangled in an all-out orgy, like the ancient Mardi Gras Carnival celebrations we had learned about from Marco.

I ordered a frozen raspberry souffle. One runs the risk of tasting the fridge with a pre-made dessert, but the raspberry prevailed. It was like a slutty virgin --light and tart.

The next guy ordered these terrific, crisp crepes that once pierced, revealed their perfectly sweet cream filling. The last guy ordered tiramisu. We had all been in search of a tiramisu that equaled the one we had the night before at Da Fiore -- and I will report in advance that none ever did. Or probably ever will. Da Fiore's tiramisu freaked me out.  If Miuccia Prada tasted it, she'd cover her nekkid mannequins in it.

Our forks and spoons ram into each other on the plates. We normally private grown men were publicly spoon feeding each other bites of souffle, smacking our lips like cushioned spankings.

Sugar rushed my mind off to those old rascally Carnival revelers, whose identities were safely hidden behind whimsical masks.

During this specific two-week period, sanctioned by the Catholic church, Nobleman could slip chambermaids into their Palazzo's private bedrooms, and have their wicked way with them and be anonymously absolved. But the maid felt a responsibility, like my waiter at Antico Martini who kept the dinner flowing at a perfect and professional pace, discreetly turning away as I caressed the bread. The chambermaid, caught up the rapturous thrusts of her titled tryster, reached up and ran her finger along the headboard to dust it. Everyone is a pro in Italy, so in that same responsible and loving spirit, the waiter smiled, bowed, and allowed his hand to linger on the smooth, leather folio just a bit as he presented me the bill.

This meal was so great, so satisfying, that I wouldn't have minded if I had been hit by a bus on the way home. But in Venice, there are no buses, and I doubt that any gondolier could get one going so fast that it would jump the canal and wipe me out, so I am certain I will dine another day.

To find this, or any restaurant in Venice -- just leave your hotel, head down any alley, turn left, then head straight down that alley, then another, go over three bridges, pet the meowing cat but don't feed it, head past the first well, turn right at the pile of laundry, and it's right there on your left:

Antico Martini. Campo San Fantin, 2007, 30124 Venice, Italy. Phone:+39 041 522 4121

Wolfgang Puck Cafe: Orlando -- Theme Park Fare

Wolfgang Puck's motto is live, love, eat.  He serves plenty of that up at his Wolfgang Puck Cafe at Disneyworld. Remember -- people come to see Mickey, but Mickey can't cook.

A day at a theme park includes long lines and lots of walking, bolstered up with available and tempting food like turkey legs, corn dogs and ice cream. Last week I did see new healthier offerings such as edamame. After having the corn dog bites on the kids buffet at Animal Kingdom's Tusker Cafe, I realize the pesky stick in a traditional corn dog is in the way -- bites only for me from now on.

At the end of any day, I want to sit down and have a nice dinner. After a Disney day -- it's a must. Downtown Disney is a lively, outdoor promenade lined with shops and restaurants -- some new and some familiar, like Wolfgang Puck's Cafe. Reservations are necessary.

Disneyworld's Wolfgang Puck Cafe

Puck's Cafe is at the end of the road -- if arriving on one of the resort buses, leave 20-30 minutes just to walk to the Cafe from the bus drop off. There's a cab stand closer, which comes in handy after dinner, or if you have little-legged children.

Disney had a reservation service, Disney Dining; however we used it and upon our arrival, the Cafe couldn't find our reservation, even when we gave them the provided confirmation number. The hostess attempted to be rude, but she was quickly sniffed out as an amateur. A manager, who realized he has food to sell, swooped in and organized a table upstairs in the Dining Room -- which we preferred as it was quieter and they had a more upscale menu.

I love Wolfgang Puck's food. But, one of my general complaints about Wolfgang's casual restaurants is the noise and cluttered decor. His food deserves better surroundings -- he was raised in and inspired by beautiful Austria. His food tastes like the Alps -- clean, bright, and a little out of this world. When I see violent splashes of jagged mosaics and suffer deafening acoustics, my lederhosen gets in a bunch and it's hard to separate the terrific food from the surrounding terror. 

Downtown Disney's Wolfgang Puck Cafe

Spending the day at Animal Kingdom and seeing all of those wild animals made us hungry. We ordered a sushi assortment, a beet, goat cheese and arugula salad, the tuna tartare, the pork schnitzel, the beef goulash and his spicy steamed fish. We placed them all in the center where the four adults could share. My 5-year old niece ordered spaghetti -- and it was terrific, beautifully plated and topped with freshly shaved Parmesan. I did wish that the waiter had included the child in his initial water service -- it's a small world after all.

The tuna tartare was wrapped in savory, nutty, delightfully spicy tuile cookies - making this one of the best variations on what is usually a very predictably familiar theme. The caviar was the salty icing on top.

Tuna Tartare at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe Orlando

It's important to note that their website clearly states that their food is "inspired by" Puck's original dishes. Take that with a grain of salt, which you will need for the Beef Goulash. Wolfgang isn't in Orlando -- completing the flavor profile of the original chef is hard for a line cook to do. It's like asking Walt Disney himself to operate the Dumbo ride. I'm not saying Goofy's in the kitchen,  but I do invite Wolf to be my guest and fedex his Disney branch some Paprika like his recipe calls for -- they left it out.

Beef Goulash at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe Orlando

If I ordered pork schnitzel as my one and only entree and the waiter placed this in front of me:

Pork Schnitzel at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe Orlando

I would reach up, grab his necktie and pull him close to my plate, demanding to know if he thought I was big enough to ride this ride.  A portion this size is asking too much of my appetite, time and artery space. But we were sharing it so I backed down and picked up my sharp knife.

Looks can be deceiving. As I cut into the schnitzel, the light crunching sound caught me off guard. My knife easily freed a chunk, and as I took a bite, a wave of calm relief rushed through my body, eased by the smooth, tangy mustard sauce. The schnitzel was delightfully crispy, deceptively light, and the best thing we ate. The tiny discs of fingerling potatoes must have been lovingly sliced by the Seven Dwarfs themselves, whistling as they worked.

This is the point where "inspired by" is important. At Puck's Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, they dramatically plop a whole, fried fish on a plate and place it in front of you in a showy, impressive presentation. The vegetables in that dish practically light up like fiery sparklers.

Our waiter here was careful to point out that here in Orlando, guests did not cotton to the idea of seeing the fish served with head and tail, so they gave it the Marie Antoinette treatment. The Florida grouper was overcooked and rubbery, hard to cut but fun to poke and feel the bounce. The peppers in the sauce saved the flavor though.

Steamed Fish at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe Orlando

We tried all of the desserts, but the apple pie hit our sweet spot. I am never angry at a properly prepared molten cake, so there's a good chance I ate that too.

Apple Tart at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe Orlando

Disneyworld is the new Vegas -- what we eat there, stays there.  Live, love, eat -- and be glad there's one big bad Wolf at Disneyworld who isn't going to eat you, but feed you well.

Wolfgang Puck's Cafe 
Downtown Disney -- 1482 East Buena Vista Drive
Lake Buena Vista , Florida 32830  

(407) 938-9653 

Harry's Cancun -- I'm Just Wild About Harry's

Mexico surprised me last week. I avoid hotel concierge self-serving restaurant recommendations. In Cancun last week, I used my private, personal Advisor, Trip. Yes, I've heard that online review sites are actually now victims of paid advertisers, and no longer of independent opinions. But I want to believe that good in the world still exits, at least virtually, so I entered best and top and even the dreaded hip restaurants in my browser and all bots led to an Argentinian joint called Puerto Madero. I wasn't excited that they had a sister location in cuisine-killer Miami, but I was getting hungry, so off I went. On the bus. Yes, the bus. It's a terrific way to get around Cancun's ONE street.

Cancun Beachline
I was surprised at the crowd in the lobby. Had a crime occurred? I stepped over some people, worked my way to the host, and asked to be seated. He asked if I had a reservation. He heard my eye- roll of an answer and returned my smirk; I left without incident.

Hungry and back out on the dark, busy, foreign highway, I felt like hooker Julia Roberts when the Beverly Hills store refused her money. Stunned and confused, I looked up and saw a refuge, my only hope -- a tall, stone wall with the name Harry's written in black iron. What kind of Latin name is Harry's?!
The stylish lobby was packed. I approached the host, leaned in close like I had huge boobs and seductively asked if there was any way he could squeeze me in? I stepped back to give him the full view, air, and time.

He broke out into a huge, bus-driver friendly smile. He nodded to his co-hort and they swept us in the swanky, huge dining room.

Harry's Cancun Lobby

Harry's is impressive. I passed a wall of glass doors, behind which millions of dollars of really old meat was napping. It seemed like a well-curated meat museum. A massive counter, where a man stood gently tending lobsters as if they were sheep, was on my left. Vast, stone walls on either side made me feel like I was being led into a secret bunker.

When I left my resort tonight, I thought I'd be doing some sad little Mexican restaurant a favor and toss a few million pesos their way in exchange for some guacamole prepared table side or watch a wrinkly old abuela hand-pressing tortillas in a display window.

The room was crowded with women wearing clothes one didn't normally pack on a Mexican trip -- fluffy dresses, good, chunky necklaces and jewel-encrusted sharp, high heels that looked painful to the wearer and the ground they stepped on. Everyone was tanned, perhaps by law or health code.

I had no idea what type of food Harry's served. I assumed Mexican food, so I sat and waited for my beloved basket of tortilla chips and salsa. I love the sweet, fat Mexican restaurant waitresses with tattooed eyebrows and a huggable attitude. They slam chips and salsa on your table before they say Hola. But here, a handsome waiter carefully slid a bread basket down, and I thought, que pasa? His Hermes belt buckle was looking me straight in my skeptical face.

Bread basket Harry's Cancun

The basket resembled a Latin boy band -- some were wafer-thin, and others were plump and hidden in the back maybe because they danced slower, but they were all spicy and well-managed. My dining companion took one bite of the chubby solo act in the back, and exclaimed, It's Christmas dinner in a bite! It actually was -- soft, fresh bread topped with sage and butter. I pictured exhausted yet happy elves in the kitchen, singing Mexican folk songs as they baked magic in a pan and couldn't dream of a better life. 

Commander's Palace in New Orleans has impeccable service and legendarily fun cocktails. But they can't beat Harry's who free pours your drinks table side. I have had ceviche, guacamole, Bananas Foster,  Salt-baked fish, Caesar salad, steak tartare all prepared table side, but this packed a refreshingly new service-as-performance punch.

Drinks poured tableside Harry's Cancun

I held the Captain's hand down onto my table and looked into his eyes. He looked nervous yet intrigued. I asked him how long they had been open, expecting this to be their grand opening and explain the jubilant crowds and hoopla. Five years, he smiled, pulling his manicured hand away. I felt uniformed and not hip, and being from LA, that's a fear only rivaled by earthquakes, parking restrictions and yard sales of the stars.

The huge menu folds out to reveal a full artistic triptych, but no doves fly out -- it's well-organized and not too ambitious. What the menu can't warn you is that each appetizer is enough to share among a busload of tourists.

I was excited to see Kobe beef sliders. The soft, creamy meat was nestled between soft, puffy buns that reminded me that I'd miss Jennifer Lopez when she left American Idol. These burgers were topped with caramelized onions that tried to sneakily abandon the melted Vermont cheddar when I applied a little pressure, but I caught them, pushed them back in and devoured the dish intact, with no defectors, as it was intended by the dictatorial chef.

Kobe Sliders Harry's Cancun

I needed to remember where I was so I ordered the Kobe beef taco appetizer as my own homage to Mexican cuisine. I know they love large families in this nation, but when they delivered four tacos on my plate, it made me feel like a father who has a tiny house and gets the news he's just had another child he doesn't have space for: I love you, but I don't have room.

Taco meat is usually cheap ground beef, disguised and spiced up with toppings. Kobe meat tastes special, so the delicious, tender meat can be regarded separately from the rest of the taco team, the same smooth way that Kobe Bryant stood apart from the other players when they were all jammed on the court -- as star is a star. I barely have to chew this tender beef, so I have time to note that I'd like to spend a summer on a Kobe farm, shivering in a cold Japanese barn massaging these cattle as a volunteer; I need to give back.

Kobe Tacos Harry's Cancun

When a waiter in Toronto warns you that a sauce is spicy, it's okay to swat him away like a fly. When a waiter in Mexico warns you, listen bitches. The accompanying roasted habanero pepper sauce on my plate already looked ominous. It was black and slimy, hiding in a corner like a gooey poisonous spider. It had dangerous seeds, which jumped onto my fork as I drug it through the sauce, like tiny little terrorists whose intent was to harm me. My lips burned for two delicious days like a lover's perfume lingering on my neck I wouldn't dare wash off, reminding me of my passionate night and this sauce.

Octopus is my new scallops. I embrace the long, sucker-laden tentacles. Sure, I eased into the relationship by cutting my teeth on rings of squid, safety-coated in batter and gently fried to make the concept palatable. When my twin nieces were three, I used to get them to eat calamari by telling then it was Ursala from The Little Mermaid and they were ridding the world of evil. They, and I, felt like heroes.

Black ink risotto with octopus Harry's Cancun

Harry's promised me black ink risotto. The chef must have interned in an old Italian grandmother's kitchen, who beat him senseless each time he turned her precious dish to mush, because this dish was perfectly al dente. The densely black squid ink was as rich and black as Bill Cosby, and a surprise came in the first bite -- the only octopus in my dish wasn't the curvy, showgirl leg on top.  Chunks of octopus were hidden in the dish like illegal immigrants, and I would smuggle them into America in my belly. Hopefully Customs agents wouldn't slice me open as I crossed the border; no one should ever see all I have eaten. The dish was superb; some fan even tossed accolades of confetti all over it as it left the kitchen, that tasted like Parmesan cheese.

 More surprises came to my table. I  pulled succulent, local lobster pieces out of my coleslaw on another dish, worried that I had exceeded my limit. Fried shrimp were so huge I was nervous to eat them, convinced they were raised near a nuclear plant. I ate them, thinking, What a way to glow!

The dining room is fun. Large parties feel free to be noisy, seated at family-fun round tables. Hosts hoisted their shimmering martinis in one hand, and a grandchild in another. Razor-thin foreign socialites knocked their non-knockoff David Webb bracelets against their Onassis-tanned boyfriend's muscled necks as they embraced the exciting food served and relished in the convivial atmosphere.

I questioned any restaurant situated on the West side of the street, seemingly to me the wrong side -- the East featured views of stunningly turquoise water. But Harry's founders were as smart as the once ruling local Mayans -- when the sun set, they gave their diners one last look at the glorious sun, setting with the same grace that the Captain's at Harry's used to remind your busboy that your water glass looked half-empty. To me, this place made it look half-full.

Deconstructed pecan pie in a shot glass finished me off. My grandmother made perfect pecan pie, but had she tasted this, she'd have buried her recipe in the backyard and given away her dog so he couldn't dig it up. I tried to take a picture, but like an African tribe afraid they lose part of their soul each time a photo is snapped, it eluded me. Or I ate it too fast, I'm not sure.

We were two men at this dinner. I think they were afraid to serve us their signature, and impressive post-amuse bouche, their dining denouement as it were -- giant cotton candy reminiscent of my Aunt Nelda's beehive. Perhaps to them it looks romantic and they feared us sharing it like Disney dogs sharing a noodle, but they had no fear --  I was stuffed tighter than a pinata. Though grateful not to have had the tempting sugar placed in front of me, I would have appreciated being spun the same finale as the other diners. 

Word-a-licious Ruth Reichl penned the term Ballet of Service when she witnessed the perfect balance in a dining room provided by a perfectly working team. Harry's has it. The host, as conductor, flits about the flatteringly-lit rooms, smiling at diners, cooing over the plates as if it's his first glance in a new lover's eyes, the Captains smoothly direct professional waiters who direct discreet busboys, who I guess go home and kick the dog.

We chose not to eat fresh green salads this trip, and even though the hunky male diners here at Harry's were jabbing their forks into huge hunks of iceberg lettuce, I stuck to my guns so I wouldn't be stuck to the toilet. I didn't get ill this trip, and I enjoyed the dishes I can't easily find at home. No regrets is among my best vacation memories.

Without ever eating at their easier-to-find online next-door neighbor, I knew Harry's was superior, and felt like running into the kitchen and releasing the legions of chefs into the wild, along with the lobsters, where they could do more good in the world. I would send them up to Miami to convert their faithless chefs.

Harry's isn't a cheap meal, but a great value. I considered walking back next door to Puerto Madero to hold up my hefty receipt, raise my shirt to reveal my full, extended belly and proclaim to their smug rejecting host, in a toothy, Julia Roberts smile, Big mistake!

But I just flagged down a bus and took my seat. I allowed the giddy driver's wild ride to help me digest. As he careened through down the dark, curvy highway, I made a note to self: Delete Trip Advisor.

Au Pied de Cochon: Montreal -- Baby, It's Cold Ootside

Never name your pets if you live on a farm.

Montreal's most innovative eatery, Au Pied de Cochon (foot of the pig), is owned by a pig and duck farmer who also harvests prize maple syrup. He concocts gastronomical masterpieces where he features each item singularly or combines them in a brash, showy combination that ends up on the news, or on the plate of a Michelin rater. He also specializes in foie gras, a dish at which I am never angry.

Au Pied de Cochon is in an older part of Montreal where the buildings are low and the cobblestone streets seem too narrow for cars. It's the kind of hood with low trees, the part of town where witches live and drunkards gather in pubs and plot to overthrow the tyrant king.

The restaurant is tiny and packed -- exactly like the sausages so tastefully created by the chef. There was a party of four huge men (probably Yanks) attempting to sit at a table by the entrance, but they literally wouldn't fit and had to leave. We were first at a table near the entrance, but the host had the good sense to avoid a fit and move us to the best table in the house, in front of the window on the old, picturesque street.

The busgirl laid a small loaf of bread directly on a napkin on the table, as if to say, This bread is so fucking amazing that it stands alone and needs no plate or basket. I wasn't going to touch the bread but within seconds, I was on it like a priest on a choirboy.  It was fantastic bread, with the thickest, crustiest crust I had ever had -- the veritable John Huston of breads.  Later, I regretted eating the bread, only because we noticed the busgirl suffered from a terrible case of eczema. She obviously felt that a sleeveless shirt exhibited that best and to clear a table, and that tucking the bread under her scaly arm made it easier to manage the dirty glasses and cutlery.

I started with 100 grams of foie gras, seared in maple syrup from the chef's farm, and tossed with chunks of ham raised by the chef, and pineapple. Normally I would think the ham was gilding the lily, but this was a terrific pairing -- and all elements were from the same farm! It was tasty, not too sweet, and gone in sixty seconds. I would have hit the table and yelled, "Encore," but I had a lot of food coming and it was kind of noisy in there.

For my main course, I ordered the Pied de Cochon Melting Pot because it was touted as the most comprehensive sampling. Blood sausage, garlic sausage, super-slow-roasted pork shoulder, and a tiny pork chop, protecting the softest, gooiest mashed potatoes I have ever had, all snuggled together in the little pot:

Each meat was tastier than the previous one. My fork darted around the pot, jumping from meat to meat like a promiscuous tap dancer on Smash. I reached over more than once and helped myself to Bob's Duck Magret. He didn't really notice because the woman dining next to us had really shiny, dangling earrings, the kind bought at a craft fair that included a "story," and that kept distracting him. Later he wondered why he wasn't full.

Two tourists, likely from China, Korea, or Viet Nam, you know, one of the richer countries, sat at the table next to us and were relishing in this Montreal "must do." One ordered the duck in a can -- a marvelous presentation where the chef heats the duck they canned right in that restaurant. Once ordered, the chef heats the whole thing up, and the waiter opens it table-side with a hand-cranked can opener, and in a flashy show, once opened, the tin is dumped onto the diner's plate -- amid flashing of cameras and tiny oohs and aahs. By me.

that's the can in the center of the table.
My mashed potatoes were so gooey that I vowed to replicate them at home, but I had to know the secret to do that. See this shot of the kitchen? I took it through the plants, so the kitchen looks like a Viet Nam jungle and the chef looks like Rambo before he had a facelift. (These little hanging bags hold just-spun-with-maple-syrup-fresh-from-the-farm cotton candy.)

I hopped over the half-wall and grabbed Chef Rambo by the neck and wrestled his chubby body to the ground. I demanded to know how he got those potatoes so gooey. He wouldn't even give me the courtesy of a reply. I began bashing his bandana-wrapped head against the bricks, spitting out my demands between bashes -- "How (bash) did (bash) you (bash) get (bash) those (bash) fucking (bash-bash) potatoes (bash) so (bash) gooey (really hard bash), you (bash) French (bash) bitch (big final bash)?!"

He still wouldn't speak, and probably couldn't after all the bashing. I was spent, and released him. We both collapsed against the grimy, duck-greased wall, heaving, gaining our breath back. I wiped my brow, reached up, grabbed a loose duck confit leg and nibbled.  I wiped my chin and struggled to get up.

In court, I will say I never touched that non-English-speaking chef.  The waitress cheerfully offered up the secret to the potatoes -- they add an obscene amount of cheddar cheese curds, the fattiest part of the cheese. I over-tipped her and left. 

Although we had taken the luxurious subway to the restaurant, I obviously needed to walk off my hostility, and meal.  After walking about half an hour, we happed upon a fantastic chocolate joint, where I resisted eating any chocolate.  I did, however, have a crepe laced with salted caramel and fried bananas. I took a picture of it, but I'd rather show you the type of chocolate this family-themed cafe features.  This confection puts the Kama Sutra to shame. It depicts many naked, obviously limber, and sexually aroused men and gravity-defying women engaged in what most would call a sex act. I left immediately, out of shame and guilt. 

As I walked away, I thought of the dude ranch where I worked one summer in Colorado and adopted a little pet pig, Arnold, and why one should never, ever name your farm animals. They might end up on my plate.

Momofuko: Toronto - Avoid the Crowd

Toronto is like if NYC and LA had a baby, then abandoned that baby in the cold, expecting the endless community of new, towering skyscrapers to raise him.

Toronto has theater, nightlife, beautiful parks, and sits on Lake Ontario which is so vast you will think you are staring at the sea. They also have some terrific restaurants.  I was most excited about eating at Momofuko, without actually fuko-ing some host in NYC to get a table. Since it's currently #93 on the 2013 list of the world's best restaurants, the Big Apple branch has a wait list as long as, well, what I would fuko them with.

Only open a few months, the Torontonians haven't caught the Korean-American fusion fare fever. While I wish culinarily hung chef/owner David Chang much success, me rather love his food long time than wait in line long time. Did I mention it's freaking cold up there?

Ignore the crazy-ass sculpture out front. Obviously Barbara Walter's asked Chang what tree he would like to be and he said A dragon, with birds all over my body like flying leeches and maybe it can look like a jellyfish too or a scratch on my back from the birds.  Walk past fast.  I'd post a picture but you're aboot to eat.

Once safely inside, the warm walls with their dark colors are wombishly comforting.

Momofuko Toronto dining room

A womb is where babies are grown, and must have inspired his most popular dish --  the steamed pork buns. This must be what baby tastes like. The pork is so tender it seems more than steamed, more like it formed from vaporous meat and an angel gracefully floated the newborn down, gently placing it between the firm, yet comfy soft-as-a-baby's-bottom buns.

steamed pork buns

The welcoming bowl of chilled spicy noodles (noodles here are served as authentically cold as a Korean mother-in-law) with sichuan sausage, spinach and cashews was next.

spicy sauasge over rice noodles with spinach

I took the warm bowl from the kind waitress, thinking how different the service might be in NYC.
I dug my chopsticks fearlessly down to the bottom of the bowl, careful to grab just a bit, then pausing as I pulled out to pick up a little passenger of each ingredient on my way out.  As I took the first bite, I wanted the flavors to introduce themselves to me, one by one, so I cleared my throat to get their attention. The shockingly hot spice took advantage of my open gullet's hospitality and settled in nooks and crannies of my throat. I tried to warn my dining companion but I sounded like Stephen Hawking trying to spell h-o-t.  This might burn three times, I noted.

I know people come for the Fuji apple kimchi, but after trying it, I don't care to know those people. It's not the nasty feet-like taste of kimchi, that's not it, really, I promise.

fuji apple kimchi salad

This dish was missing the acid from the apple as much as Apple misses acid-dropping Steve Jobs. I wanted the dish to be better. But life's too short so I left the wimpily flavored salad and fortified my strength with mussels.

mussels in fermented soy garlic broth

As I forced the shell open as if I were a mean gynecologist, strong garlic wafted up protectively and let me know this dish was no pushover.  Trace amounts of fennel and fermented soy could be found as I dredged the bowl with the porcelain spoon, wishing for bread.

The service was caring, warm, and most likely not to end up in fisticuffs like perhaps in might down South in NYC. The waiters took turns bringing dishes to our table; maybe to get a look at the guy who was ordering so much food, or maybe because they understood the higher concept of cooperation and wanted to get the food to the guests as quickly as possible both to ensure better quality of the chef's art and to get us out faster and have another party seated to perpetuate a clever but logical lather-rinse-repeat interpretation of order-serve-repeat.

Other benefits for crossing over to the cold side is that Toronto is a great place to film movies and television shows. Parts look enough like NYC to use it as NYC, and those Cannuck rubes are attitude and union free, so you don't have those grumpy Teamsters and pesky SAG rules that get in the way of completing your project. Their streets are wider so you can close them to film, unlike NYC, where only parades, natural disasters and babies-in-a-well shut down 5th Avenue.

Americans like to cast stones after we cast our ballots if the election doesn't go our way; disgruntled yanks threaten to yank themselves right over into Canada if the wrong party prevails -- handy since most Canadian cities are a stones throw away from the US border. That vast tundra holds the promise of free-health care and a lack of guns, which may be connected.  And they don't hurl paint on you for wearing fur.

As I left, I was really, really rude to the hostess. She was shocked and as the tiny tear streaked down her tender, gentle face, I told her that it was for her own good. Soon, the New Yorkers would find out the Momofuko Toronto secret. She needed to get used to it.