Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

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"If you asked me what I came into this world to do,
I will tell you: I came to live out loud."

Critic and novelist Emile Zola

Karen's brother Kevin carves a mean pumpkin in Illinois!

Karen's brother Kevin's daughter -- our niece Jessica (r.) --
and her friend (l.) on Halloween

Monday, October 31, 2005 Happy Halloween!

Ours was definitely made even happier by finding our Web site listed among Manhattan User's Guide's "The 400": editor Charlie Suisman's "thoroughly subjective" list of 400 New York City Web sites "the city is better for."

To see the entire list of "The 400," click here.

And if you don't already subscribe to the single best guide to enjoying life in New York City (OK, that's "thoroughly subjective," too), click here for a free e-subscription to MUG.

Manhattan User's Guide is at

Stop the Presses: Eric Ripert serves canned tuna at Barca 18!
Atun en Escabeche:
Rare Seared Tuna, Aged Sherry Vinegar
& Extra Virgin Olive Oil -- yes, tuna served in a can!

Bacalao Coca: "Salt Cod Pizza," Grilled Peppers, Red Onions,
Olives & Shaved Manchego at Barca 18

Patatas Barca: "Fiery" Potatoes, Spicy and Mild Sauce

Croquetas: Potato and Serrano Ham Croquettes, Lemon-
Pequillo Mayonnaise at Barca 18

Conejo: Marinated Rabbit & Mediterranean Vegetables
cooked on slate, Sweet Garlic Aioli at Barca 18

Cola de Res Braseada: Oxtail, Roasted Garlic, Apple Mashed Potatoes at Barca 18

Desserts at Barca 18: Churros y Chocolate & Crema Catalana

Fondue: Caramelized Apples, Vanilla Ice Cream,
Warm Caramel at Barca 18

Saturday, October 29, 2005 Lighting can strike twice in the same place. Last night, our second visit to Eric Ripert and Steve Hanson's new tapas restaurant Barca 18 proved that to us.

This time around, sparks were flying while tasting terrific tapas such as the tuna escabeche ($8) pictured above (in one of the cleverest presentations imaginable: right out of the oblong tuna can) as well as the salt cod pizza ($10).

Classic Spanish tapas were well represented through Barca 18's versions of patatas bravas (here, of course, known as Potatoes Barca, $5) and croquetas ($8). The latter were impossibly rich on the inside while crispy on the outside, leading us to wonder how on earth Ripert managed to encapsulate and deep-fry pure bechamel (or so it tasted)!

We love Barca 18 for its tapas, but are very happy that we were able to sample the wonderful rabbit entree last night known as conejo, which was described on the menu as "marinated rabbit and Mediterranean vegetables cooked on slate" with sweet garlic aioli ($22). The rabbit was both crisp and juicy, and beautifully accented by the aioli. Now this was a dish cooked in traditional Spanish style -- simple and perfect!

To our taste, we wished the oxtail with roasted garlic and apple mashed potatoes ($29) had received the same simple treatment. While it was delicious, in the setting of a Spanish restaurant, we would have hoped for a dish a bit earthier and more rustic, rather than one that showcased haute cuisine technique and deeply reduced sauce.

Desserts were again a highlight of the Barca 18 experience. The churros stood up to our memory of them as some of the best we've ever tasted, with an exceptional cup of accompanying chocolate. We had fun with the whimsical take on "fondue," with apples and wafers served on wooden sticks alongside dishes of warm caramel and rich vanilla ice cream ($6).

Already packed -- with the food, service, and ambiance of a restaurant that's been around for years instead of mere days -- Barca 18 is the best kind of thunderbolt we've experienced during New York's rainiest October on record.

Barca 18 is at 225 Park Ave. South (at 18th St.), New York. (212) 533-2500. Web:

Tony Dragonas' pushcart at 63rd & Madison in August 2005

The New York Times' October 15, 1992 article on Tony
Dragonas' pushcart, with the photo caption:

"Almost every day, at least some of the cooks at Arcadia trot across
the street to the northeast corner of 62nd and Madison, where Tony Dragonas, left, cooks them sidewalk fare. Having lunch recently at
the stand were, from the left, Andrew Dornenburg, Junior Jimenez,
Tony Bonner, Anne Rosenzweig and Christine Taus"

Friday, October 28, 2005 The October 25th entry at reports on the First Annual Vendy Award Nominees: the best of New York City street food vendors, who are up for an award at a Nov. 10th event at a large loft in NoHo ("actually a garage where vendors store their carts at night").

We were delighted to find among the four finalists Tony Dragonas, whose Madison Avenue pushcart Andrew has been patronizing since we moved to Manhattan in 1992. In fact, his mentioning the popularity of Tony's pushcart to Karen eventually landed upon the ears of a New York Times reporter, who wrote the story pictured above in October 1992.

It begins, "Where do some of Manhattan's finest chefs lunch? Tony's pushcart. At first glance, Tony's looks like any other hot dog stand dotting the city. Oniony smoke puffs from its grill, its blue and yellow Sabrett umbrella flaps in the breeze, cans of Yoo-Hoo and 7-Up glisten on its aluminum shelves. But almost every day, at least some of the cooks at Arcadia, the trendy restaurant serving 'creative American' cuisine, trot across the strreet to the northeast corner of 62nd and Madison, where Tony Dragonas has parked his pushcart for the last six years. Resting from an afternoon's work making dishes like 'chimney-smoked lobster with celery root and tarragon,' they chat with Mr. Dragonas while he cooks them hot dogs, souvlaki, hamburgers, grilled chicken and other sidewalk fare.' 'He's just a guy on the corner, but his stuff is really fresh and really good,' said Andrew Dornenburg, Arcadia's grill cook, who recently braved a rainy afternoon to sample Tony's new specialty: prosciutto, mozzarella and basil on a roll."

While we haven't eaten from Tony's pushcart in a number of years (although we've both stopped there to eat even long after Andrew left Arcadia), we're still rooting for him.

The 1st Annual Vendy Award Finalists:

#1) Thiru Kumar: New York Dosas is in Washington Square Park at the corner of West 4th and Sullivan Streets, New York.
What to get: Vegan dosa (i.e. stuffed crispy Indian "crepe")

#2) Tony Dragonas: Tony's pushcart is now on 63rd Street bet. Madison and Fifth Avenues, New York.
What to get: Grilled chicken with salad and rice

#3) Rolf Babiel: Hallo Berlin is at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, New York. (Look for the sign "Freaking Deal, $5.")
What to get: German sausages and side dishes

#4) Best Halal (aka Mohammed, Mustafa, Islam & Sam) is at 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, New York, after 8 pm.
What to get: Chicken or lamb and rice, with white sauce

The 1st Annual Vendy Awards will be held November 10, 2005, from 7 - 10:30 pm at 27 E. 4th St. (bet. Lafayette and Bowery), New York. Tickets are $35 and tax-deductible (as they benefit Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that provides a voice for the ten thousand people who sell their wares on the streets and sidewalks of our city); to purchase, click here.

Enjoying breakfast in Madison Square Park this morning

Shake Shack serves breakfast: apple fritter and black tea,
Breakfast Shack, and hot cocoa with graham crackers

Andrew wields a Breakfast Shack: scrambled egg, cheese,
fresh pork sausage, lettuce, tomato and "Wake Up" sauce
on a griddled bun ($3.23)

Shake Shack playfully boasts "the finest hot chocolate
served in Madison Square Park!" and serves it with a Fluff
cap and graham crackers ($3.46)

Thursday, October 27, 2005 Since we got up at the crack of dawn to work on our book this morning, by the time 9:30 am rolled around, we were hungry.

Flashback to Union Square Cafe's 20th anniversary party a week ago tonight: While chatting with Richard Coraine -- one of the managing partners of Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group -- he reminded us that Shake Shack (which he knows we love!) has been serving breakfast since October 17th. This morning seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a walk downtown to check it out.

The highlight of breakfast is the Breakfast Shack. If you're a fan of the Shack Burger like us, you'll find that the Breakfast Shack is a perfectly translated version of that signature burger for the breakfast hour, featuring a dose of "Wake Up" sauce that had a nice kick to it. While we initially questioned consuming lettuce and tomato before noon, both added welcome notes of freshness that cut through the rich breakfast sandwich.

We also shared a Warm Heirloom Apple Fritter, which is shaped like a Hostess fruit pie of yesteryear, but features firm, fresh apples and is dusted with cinnamon sugar ($2.31). [Sidenote: We just Googled "Hostess fruit pies" to make sure they were still around, and saw them selling for around $1 each and featuring the words "Artificially Flavored" prominently on their label. All the more reason to enjoy a version many, many times as delicious for only about twice the price.]

Word to the wise: Stir your hot cocoa before trying to take a sip of it through the marshmallow Fluff. Thereafter, we found it not only the best hot chocolate in Madison Square Park, but in a much larger radius of Manhattan.

We spied lots of tourists among those enjoying breakfast in the Park this morning, but don't let them have all the fun: Shake Shack is a fabulous new breakfast venue that New Yorkers unafraid of outdoor dining in sub-50 degree temperatures can enjoy until it closes for the season in December.

Shake Shack is located in Madison Square Park near 23rd Street and Madison Avenue, New York. (212) 889-6600. Web: Breakfast is served Monday through Friday, from 7:30 am - 10:45 am.

Cesare Casella's delicious new book True Tuscan

Field green salad at Inside

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic at Inside

A wonderful accompaniment: Original Sin Hard Cider

"Cesare Casella cooks the most delicious Tuscan food
in the spirit of the garden and the family table."

Alice Waters

Wednesday, October 26, 2005 Congratulations to Cesare Casella on the publication of his terrific new book True Tuscan: Flavors and Memories from the Countryside of Tuscany. We're impressed that most every recipe is accompanied by a "Wine Suggestion," detailing his recommendations of what to drink with it and why. (A Tuscan fish stew calls for a simple red "like a Rosso di Montalcino or a Chianti," while he suggests a young Sangiovese or Merlot for a dish of grilled quail.)

Last night, we were happy to attend Casella's book launch party at his new West Village restaurant Maremma. As we were leaving, we stopped to say hello to his wife Eileen Daspin, whom Casella thanks in his book's Acknowledgments for working "often at 4 am, to pull everything together, and now knows more about Apicius, ancient Roman cooking, and Etruscan eating habits than she ever thought possible". As she was sitting down to dinner, we caught a glimpse of what Daddy's little girl Chen (to whom he dedicates his book as "my Tuscan in training," and who is adorably pictured atop his shoulders in his author photo) eats for dinner: macaroni and cheese.

Afterward, we stopped by Inside for a quick bite a few blocks away. Without a familiar face on the door, we were able to order and eat anonymously, so we decided to put the kitchen to the ultimate restaurant test: How would Inside do with a simple green salad and chicken?

The salad of pristine leaves arrived beautifully dressed. With a sprinkle of the salt from the shakers placed on each table, it was exactly to our taste. The chicken? It was cooked to a perfect crisp, surrounded by an abundance of roasted garlic.

We even managed to find a +2 (excellent) pairing in the Original Sin Hard Cider on the menu, a wonderful accompaniment for chef Charleen Badman's 2-for-2 dinner.

On the subject of 2s, we can't think of any two restaurants we'd rather visit on a cold and rainy night in the West Village!

Maremma is at 228 W. 10th St., near Bleecker St.; New York. (212) 645-0200.

Inside is at 9 Jones Street (bet. West 4th St. & Bleecker), New York. (212) 229-9999.

Grilled Montauk squid, lima beans & salsa verde at Cookshop

Winesap apples, mizuna, spiced pecans & blue cheese

Marinated beets, herb salad & tahini at Cookshop

"Snack" of grass-fed air-dried beef at Cookshop

"Snack" of sauteed mushrooms & grilled toast at Cookshop

Diver sea scallops, celery root & sauteed mushrooms

Pork loin and link with cider-braised cabbage at Cookshop

Apple cake at Cookshop

Chocolate tart at Cookshop

Old friends Steve Wilson, Karen Page, and Barry Salzman

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 Who needs new friends?

Certainly not us, or so it felt last night while luxuriating in the company of our two long-time dear friends photographer extraordinaire Barry Salzman (visiting from his home in Sydney to pick up an award from an international photography competition) and media whiz Steve Wilson, both sectionmates of Karen's from Harvard.

And certainly not Cookshop, or so it felt last night while seeing the place jam-packed at 8 pm -- with fellow diners like uber-restaurant designer Adam Tihany and his wife Marnie Mass with their daughter, to whom we were happy to get to say hello as they were seated in the back booth next to ours.

Cookshop and its sister restaurant Five Points (both owned by Vicki Freeman and Marc Meyer) are restaurants that have inspired not just fair-weather but avid friends. We were introduced to Five Points by our friends Cynthia and Jeff Penney, who also brought us along as their guests to Cookshop's opening party the other week. A few years back, Cynthia invited Karen to join her at a James Beard House dinner at which Five Points was being featured, where she gave an impromptu, empassioned after-dinner introduction to the restaurant to the gathered crowd that received a rousing ovation. When we forwarded Andrea Strong's ode to Five Points and Cookshop, Cynthia immediately identified with her adoring sentiments.

Last Thursday night at Union Square Cafe's 20th anniversary party, we were talking with CBS Early Show producer Jee Won Park, and her own fandom of Five Points and Cookshop was revealed. Coincidentally, Park's husband Scott opened his new wine store Appellation (featuring organic and biodynamic wines) literally right next door to Cookshop. (We made sure we arrived a few minutes early so we could check it out -- without first making sure that Appellation was open on Mondays. Unfortunately, it isn't.)

Trying to temper any overblown expectations after hearing so many raves, we sat down for our first dinner at Cookshop. It did not disappoint. We would order any of the dishes pictured above again. There are more than a dozen wines available by the glass (or quartino, about a glass and a half), and we sampled and enjoyed everything from the Domaine Champalou Cuvee sparkling Vouvray ($10/glass) to the Kremser Freiheit Nigl Gruner Veltliner ($9), to the Sainte Fleur Domaine de Triennes Viognier ($8), to the Lagrein Alois Lageder Rose ($9).

We were happy to make Cookshop's delicious acquaintance, and think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship....

Cookshop is at 156 Tenth Ave. at 20th Street, New York. (212) 924-4440.

Zombie complemented by Niman Ranch Dry Cured Bacon

Monday, October 24, 2005 After sampling Penelope's BBLT (double-bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich) earlier this month, we were inspired to attempt to create the ultimate BLT sandwich. (Those who read our October 16th Blog will recall that we didn't care for the restaurant's too-crisp brittle bacon.)

Yesterday Andrew bought some fresh sourdough bread to toast, and made mayonnaise from scratch. But with bacon being THE make-or-break BLT ingredient, the question arose: What bacon to use? We found one up to the task: Niman Ranch's Applewood Smoked Dry-Cured Center Cut Bacon. We actually tested two bacons yesterday; in addition to the aforementioned, we also sampled Niman Ranch's Applewood Smoked Uncured Center Cut Bacon, which has no nitrates. While both were extraordinary, with excellent pork flavor and meaty texture, we found that we preferred the slightly saltier-tasting dry-cured version.

Enamored of this bacon made from heirloom pork (hogs are raised on pastures or in deeply bedded pens), this morning for breakfast Andrew was inspired to serve "zombies" (in Karen's house growing up, they were called "gashouse eggs") accented by additional strips of it. Mmmm....

Fellow bacon lovers can join us in enjoying this affordable luxury ($7.95/12-ounce package) by shopping at Citarella, Dean & DeLuca, or Whole Foods, or by visiting Niman Ranch's Web site here. While you're at it, you can read more about this 30-year-old sustainable company whose meats you've doubtless already enjoyed everywhere from Chipotle Mexican Grill to Babbo and Daniel.

Niman Ranch is at

Jovia's appetizer of duck and pork "pot" with croutons

The gnocchi (with hake and sausage) at Jovia in New York

The hand-torn pasta at Jovia in New York City

Jovia's warm baba rum, bruleed bananas, espresso crema,
and Tahitian vanilla ice cream ($10)

Jovia's warm Valrhona chocolate panettone with caramelized
semi-freddo, crunchy toffee, and milk chocolate ice cream ($11)

Upon leaving Jovia, our napkins formed accidental origami

Sunday, October 23, 2005 New York has been called "the city of a million restaurants." Others put a numeric estimate closer to ten to fifteen thousand, but the point is the same: In order to stand out, it's vital to offer something that's different from and/or better than the rest of the pack.

It makes us wonder about a restaurant like Jovia, which opened six nights ago in a townhouse on East 62nd Street, where we dined last night.

Chef Josh DeChellis, who is said to be an alum of not only The Culinary Institute of America, but also of Wolfgang Puck's Postrio, Rocco DiSpirito's Union Pacific, and New York's Sumile, shows promise in the kitchen -- which is perhaps all one can hope for on Day Six. During any restaurant's opening week, it's easy to find things a little off (e.g. we found the "pot" appetizer above nearly impossible to spread on the croutons that accompanied it), which is why dishes like perfectly rare venison were especially welcomed on our table of four (as was the lovely basket of Amy's Bread and garlic knots, served with three spread options: cow's and sheep's milk butters, plus a quite olive-y fennel-olive puree).

Service can also be a bit off, as a restaurant struggles to find the right balance between professionalism and seeking early feedback. Last night, it frankly got rather annoying to be asked, "Are you enjoying everything?" every 20 minutes, no matter how well-intentioned this was. In our book DINING OUT, we quoted legendary New York magazine restaurant critic Gael Greene as saying, "Last night, we were in a very good restaurant, and I think perhaps six times the waiter said, 'Is everything all right? Are you happy with what you have?', demanding a response. I hate that. I don't want to be interrupted or to have to reply. That would never happen in a serious French restaurant, where they would only say, 'Please let me know if I can get you anything.' Then you don't even have to respond. And if they say, 'Bon appetit' or 'Enjoy,' I don't mind that. I think that's fine."

So as Jovia shakes things out in the weeks and months to come, we wonder how it will manage to stand out from the pack. Its beautifully elegant setting is definitely a plus, for celebrations or romantic nights out. The restaurant's practice of de-crumbing tables quickly with paintbrushes provided a whimsical touch. And Jovia's offering 3-ounce tastes of wines as well as 6-ounce glasses is another benefit; last night, this allowed us to sample a wonderful Tocai Friulano at the bar (at the helpful bartender Bruno's recommendation) while we waited for our table, and Pinot Noir and DeLille Cellars' "D-2" with dinner.

Perhaps the restaurant might want to put all those open bottles to better use by recommending glasses or half-glasses of wine to accompany each dish on its menu. After all, if there's anything we've learned from our research this past year, it's that perfect pairings can create a one-in-a-million experience.

Jovia is at 135 E. 62nd Street (bet. Park & Lexington Aves.), New York. (212) 752-6000.

Barca 18's Charcuteria plate includes Serrano ham, chorizo,
Manchego cheese, and pan con tomate ($12)

Barca 18's Crispy Calamari with spicy romesco sauce ($9)

At Barca 18: Baby clams, white beans, with salsa verde ($10);
Octopus, sweet pepper confit, lemon, and EV olive oil ($12)

Buenelo de bacalao (salt cod fritters, aioli) at Barca 18 ($8)

Barca 18 desserts: Tarta al Whiskey, and Crema Catalana

Churros y chocolate: cinnamon-dusted fritters, spiced hot
chocolate; Pan con chocolate: flourless chocolate cake ($6 ea.)

Saturday, October 22, 2005 In our book The New American Chef, we sought to sum up the essence of 10 influential world cuisines. After interviewing America's leading experts on Spanish cuisine, we chose as its motto "Letting Ingredients Taste of What They Are." Spanish cuisine is about procuring the best ingredients -- and the best Spanish chefs let them shine simply.

One could say the same of chef Eric Ripert's approach to cooking at seafood temple Le Bernardin. He procures some of the best fish and seafood available on this planet, then does as little as necessary to show off the intrinsic flavors of each.

So it's a natural, really, that Ripert would team up with restaurateur Steve Hanson to open Barca 18, a restaurant serving traditional Spanish tapas (e.g. tortilla, fried calamari) and entrees (e.g. paella).

We popped in last night (after a frustrating turn at trying to make an early dinner reservation by phone, and finally being told, "Well, we're accepting walk-ins..."), the restaurant's 4th official night of being open. We usually shy away from trying brand-new restaurants because the experience is so often disappointing as they struggle to work out kinks in its early weeks and months. However, with the name of a perfectionist like Eric Ripert on this venture, we had a hunch we'd be lucky -- and indeed we were.

Barca 18 is the best thing to happen to Spanish cuisine in America in 2005. While we've long loved Spanish food -- since Andrew learned to cook some traditional Spanish dishes 15 years ago while working with chef Lydia Shire in Boston, since we fell in love with our favorite Spanish restaurant on the planet Solera a dozen years ago, and since making our first visit to Spain exactly one year ago -- we understand that most of the rest of the world is just coming around to trying Spanish cuisine in the current "era of Adria" (i.e. Ferran Adria, chef of Spain's three-star El Bulli, about whom we were among the very first American journalists to write). And all of those curious about Spanish cuisine aren't likely to fit into Solera's extraordinary tapas bar nor that of our tiny and newly beloved Tia Pol. But Barca 18, with its multiple levels of tables and generous bar area, is large enough to accomodate throngs of the curious -- and already good enough to make them all fall in love with Spanish food and wine.

Scores of America's best sommeliers are closet lovers of Spanish sherry, which they count among the wine world's best-kept secrets. But most have given up hope that their passion will ever be shared by the masses. They should take heart in the wine list at Barca 18, which offers manzanilla, fino and amontillado sherries plus additional dessert sherries by the glass. We loved the glass of 2002 Alvear fino sherry we tasted there last night, along with the (virtually clear) Pale Cream PX sherry we enjoyed with dessert ($8).

Those same sommeliers sing the praises of the incredible values offered by Spanish wines, whose quality/price ratio is one of the highest around. Barca 18 offers more than a dozen wines (including cavas) by the glass, which are bound to create new fans of Spanish wine. Of those we tasted last night, which included a 2004 Albarino ($8), a 2004 Verdejo ($10), and a 2003 Treixadura blend ($13), we'd happily drink any of them again.

Barca 18 makes it easy to get to know Spanish wine and food. Last night we complimented Barca 18 general manager Marla Tremsky on the fact that not only does its wine list feature a helpful glossary with descriptions of the various white and red grape varietals, but there are clear translations on its menu as well, with the Spanish name followed by a concise description of key ingredients in English.

For a restaurant of this size's fourth official night, we found the food more than impressive. While the oil used to fry our squid could have been a bit hotter for the calamari to earn its menu descriptor of "crispy," it was still tender and delicious. We would happily order any of these dishes again, including the octopus, which was one of the most tender versions of pulpo we've ever tasted. (And while we found the Serrano ham offered on the menu sweetly delicious, we long for the days when real Iberico ham will be available in the United States!)

While you'll be tempted to keep ordering more tapas and more wine and sherry, be sure to save room for dessert. Le Bernardin's talented pastry chef Michael Laiskonis (whose desserts we've admired since his days at Tribute in Detroit) has his hand in the dessert menu, and showed his stuff with offerings like Crema Catalana (vanilla foam, caramel, cinnamon ice cream) and arguably the best churros we've ever tasted: Churros Y Chocolate (cinnamon sugar dusted fritters with spiced hot chocolate). At $6 each, the desserts at Barca 18 offer one of the best values in New York.

After tasting the churros, we told our passionate waiter Lorenzo that we had a problem -- and his brow wrinkled with serious concern. "These are so good that we're going to be back every day to have them, and we're going to get fat...." we confessed. He laughed, and shared the story of how much he loved to eat long churros after school while growing up in Venezuela.

We love it that a whole new audience of New Yorkers is about to discover the joys of ages-old Spanish flavors and traditions via Barca 18.

Barca 18 is at 225 Park Ave. South (at 18th St.), New York. (212) 533-2500. Web:

Solera is at 216 E. 53rd St. (near Third Ave.), New York. (212) 644-1166. Web:

Tia Pol is at 205 Tenth Ave. (bet. 22nd & 23rd Sts.), New York. (212) 675-8805. Web:

The secret "Get Smart" entrance to Alinea in Chicago

Alinea's PEAR o celery leaf & branch, curry
Pairing: Christian Drouin Pommeau de Normandie "Coeur de Lion"

Alinea's CHESTNUT o too many garnishes to list
Pairing: Vercesi del Casteliazzo "Gugiaroio" Pinot Nero Bianco

Alinea's TROUT ROE o pineapple, cucumber, coriander
Pairing: Dirler-Cade Tokay Pinot Gris, Alsace 2002

Alinea's LOBSTER o chanterelles, ravioli of coconut powder
Pairing: A. Christmann Estate Riesling, Pfalz 2004

Alinea's DOVER SOLE o mostly traditional flavors
Pairing: Movia "Veliko Bianco," Gonska Brda, Slovenia 2000

Alinea's PHEASANT o cider, shallot, burning leaves
Pairing: Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois "Vieilles Vignes," Alsace 2003

Alinea's SQUAB o watermelon, foie gras, black licorice
Pairing: I Portali Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata, Italy 2002

Alinea's LAMB o fig, pernod, pillow of sassafras air
Pairing: Rocche del Manzoni "La Cresta" Barbera d'Alba, Piedmont 2000

Alinea's BISON o truffle, pistachio, sweet spices
Pairing: Finca Flichman "Paisaje de Tupungato" Tinto, Argentina 2001

Alinea's MATSUTAKE o pine nut, mastic, rosemary
Pairing: Vinhos Barbetto "Charleston" Sercial Madeira

Alinea's BACON o butterscotch, apple, thyme

Alinea's CORN o honey, tonka bean, vanilla
Pairing: Brillet Pineau des Charentes "Blanc Prestige"

Alinea's PEANUT o frozen pedro ximenez

Alinea's CHOCOLATE o avocado, lime, mint
Pairing: Alto Adige Moscato Rosa with Creme de Cassis

Alinea's DRY CARAMEL o salt

Friday, October 21, 2005 While interviewing several of Chicago's top sommeliers for our next book, we asked whom they thought were some of the best food and wine pairers among their colleagues. The name of sommelier Joe Catterson came up more than once. We then scheduled a telephone interview with him, and had such a delightful conversation about his beverage passions (which include beer -- a holdover from his days studying as a professional musician in Germany) that we looked forward to seeing him in action. We finally had an opportunity to do so when we dined on Wednesday night at Alinea, the restaurant which opened this spring and quickly received the highest possible praises from Chicago magazine and The Chicago Tribune for chef Grant Achatz's "sci-fi cooking" (to quote Chicago quoting The New York Times).

Our 15-course tasting menu with wine pairings at Alinea featured a couple of the most delightful wine pairings we've ever experienced in our decades of dining out. It presented us with one of the most inventive immersions into the fall season imaginable. It even offered up a single dish that was one of the most memorable of our lives, and an unforgettable revelation. Overall, however, the experience left us cold -- and is one we'd personally prefer not to repeat.

If we did ever return to Alinea, however, we'd like to begin by tickling the service staff. In Alinea style, we could fashion a high-tech feather duster that would administer tickles in a whimsical way, but personally we think even a good old-fashioned poke in the ribs might do the trick. For the most part, the staffers at Alinea are as deadly serious as a roomful of CPAs. (We recently walked out of a restaurant in New York City after we noticed that not a single member of the restaurant's staff -- from the manager to the bartender to the waiters and busboys -- was cracking a smile, but one is not as likely to do that at a restaurant like Alinea, where landing a reservation can be a weeks-long process.) Relaxing and enjoying yourself -- the purpose of a restaurant visit, or so we thought -- is much harder when most everyone with whom your table interacts is so joyless in tone. The very best restaurant professionals know how to balance outstanding professionalism with a sense of joie de vivre. (We'll never forget one of our first visits to four-star Restaurant Daniel in New York City when an investment banker friend of ours arrived to join us for dinner and sat in the chair closest to him before moving to the next so that the men were on the outside and the women on the inside, and then switched to yet another chair so that we'd split up the couples for conversation's sake. Our waiter didn't miss a beat in motioning to the fourth chair and teasing, "Perhaps Monsieur would like to try this chair next?" as the four of us broke into laughter -- setting the perfect enjoyable tone for the perfect, enjoyable dinner that followed.) As the evening wore on at Alinea, we did witness a couple younger staff members, such as the charming spike-haired Branden and sweet Matt, loosening up the tiniest bit, which was a welcome if belated change of pace.

But from the start, what is the tone set at Alinea? There were no menus offered, not to us nor to anyone else we saw on either side of us. Instead, a staffer (with a tableside manner comically reminiscent of the "Austin Powers" character Frau Farbissina, Dr. Evil's son Scott's mother) described three available menu options by the number of courses each featured, without ever mentioning their respective prices. (Those of us arriving for an 8 pm reservation could easily eliminate the 20+ course option, rumored to require more than five hours.) We were offered either a wine list or glasses of wine matched to each course, with the latter option being an easy choice for the two of us who were there to experience the sommelier's pairings. However, a few courses later, the sommelier's assistant arrived to let us know that there were two wine-pairing options open to us: the standard version, and some kind of deluxe version, with the implication being that the latter bore a higher price tag. However, specific prices were not mentioned and again no printed wine menu or list was offered. We demurred, and at this point, Karen felt the way she did when she swore off department store salon facials once and for all: She went for facials to relax and luxuriate in the experience, and could no longer bear the esthetician's mid-facial (i.e. when she was already half-asleep) sales pitch to buy products or upgrade to a "better" facial when doing so was spoiling the experience she was already paying for.

We were elated with our first sip of the evening: a Christian Drouin Pommeau de Normandie "Coeur de Lion," which we were told was made from a blend of 20 different apples. It was light and fresh, and we mused how incredible it would taste with Camembert. "Or Epoisses," added Catterson, magically reading Karen's mind by mentioning her favorite cheese. We can't wait to try either combination, and will be forever grateful to him for introducing us to this delightful aperitif.

We had a few stunning food and wine combinations right then and there. By itself, the Slovenian Veliko Bianco was an oak bomb, and was said to have been aged three years in new oak, a year in old oak, and three months in the bottle. We each took a sip -- and shuddered. So it was a revelation to taste it again after the Dover Sole with "mostly traditional flavors" (albeit in powdered form) that it accompanied, and to see the combination surprisingly rise to a +2. (This is on our five-point scale, with +2 being a great pairing, +1 a good pairing, 0 a neutral pairing, -1 a negative pairing, and -2 a truly awful pairing.) The slices of banana upon which the Dover Sole was served brought out similar banana flavors in the wine.

Upon tasting the Albert Mann Pinot Auxerrois from Alsace, Andrew remarked that the wine tasted unusually Pilsner-like, upon which statement Karen (who is allergic to hops) sneezed twice. It made for a beautiful +2 pairing with the single bite of tempura-style Wisconsin pheasant that had been served to us on a tree branch of smoldering oak leaves. The aroma of burning leaves was a brilliantly playful and visceral reminder of the fall season outside. We loved it.

When glasses of Argentinian red wine were poured, we were already happy to be heading into a big red meat course -- but had no idea that it would be one of the best and most memorable dishes we've ever tasted in our lives. The largest course of the evening, the North Dakota bison was served with pistachios that had been innovatively and deliciously braised and seasoned as if they were legumes. In the photo above, the bison is wrapped in a fried spiral concoction that makes it appear rather UFO-like; however the meat was perfectly rare, perfectly moist, and perfectly delicious.

Having tasted a number of +2 pairings at Alinea, we are solidly convinced of Catterson's food and wine pairing prowess that had been attested to us by his peers. However, the unusual ingredient combinations featured in dishes at Alinea would be a challenge for any top pro, and indeed some of the pairings we were served missed the mark. For example, the trout roe with pineapple was sweet enough to obliterate the dry Alsatian Tokay Pinot Gris that accompanied it (-1.5). And while the Barbera d'Alba worked with the lamb itself (+1), it clashed with the Pernod-laced fennel that accented the dish (-1.5). Similarly, the Aglianico went nicely with the squab and foie gras (+1) but didn't quite work with the other accents on the dish (-.5).

As you may surmise, it is all about the food at Alinea, which struck us as more museum than restaurant. If you go, you go because you're interested in experiencing the food, and the food and wine pairings (as this is one place we'd suggest one never simply order a bottle of wine off the wine list, as neither the wine nor the food would stand a chance). This is not the kind of restaurant where you would ever conceivably send a dish back to the kitchen: What is offered is the artist's vision, and if you happen to find a dish not to your taste (as was the case for both of us with more than a couple of the courses we were served, which tended to feature excessive powder- or crumb-like components) or even inedible (as we found one of our latter courses), well, then that's your experience.

So Alinea is therefore not the place to entertain clients, nor to take someone for a birthday or anniversary or promotion celebration, for example, when you'd be looking for warm hospitality to make your clients, the birthday boy or girl, the anniversary couple, or newly-promoted professional feel special. In our book Culinary Artistry, we write about cuisine being a medium of expression, where much is wordlessly communicated from the kitchen to the dining room. In its culinary communications, this is a stern lecture of a restaurant -- so if you are drawn to visit Alinea, you should know going in that this experience is all about Alinea, and not about you.

Wait a minute....Isn't celebrating life and making customers feel warmly welcomed (e.g. with a smile) what a truly great restaurant experience is supposed to be all about, regardless of how traditional or avant garde the cuisine being served? It is, at least in our book -- which is why, despite some exceptional moments, we can't imagine an occasion for which we'd ever wish to return.

Alinea is at 1723 N. Halsted, Chicago. (312) 867-0110.

Desserts at Dave's Italian Kitchen in Evanston, Illinois

Novelist Loraine Despres with Karen Page at a book signing

Karen hugs her sister Lee in front of a portrait of Frank Sinatra
at Rosebud restaurant in Chicago

Andrew eyes Chicago's finest on Segways on Michigan Ave.

Friday, October 21, 2005 We returned to Manhattan from Chicago last night in time to attend Union Square Cafe's 20th anniversary celebration at the restaurant -- and to wish owner Danny Meyer and chef Michael Romano all the best for the next 20 years!

Highlights of our trip to Chicago included a wonderful dinner with novelist Loraine Despres (with whom she spoke on a panel along with Court TV's Rikki Klieman the next afternoon) in Evanston at Dave's Italian Kitchen, which didn't appear to have raised its prices much in the more than two decades since Karen used to waitress there while a student at Northwestern. It still features some of the best tomato sauce we've ever tasted, not to mention wonderful Italian salads, minestrone soup, meatballs, and even impressive bang-for-the-buck desserts. We sampled the cannoli, chocolate mousse, and tiramisu (see above). Even the wine list had its bargains: our eyes popped to see a five-year-old Chateauneuf-du-Pape on the wine list for just over $30. It was fabulous!

Lunch at Rosebud with Karen's sister and brother-in-law was better company than cuisine -- but Andrew enjoyed snapping the sisters in front of the restaurant's portrait of "Old Blue Eyes."

Dave's Italian Kitchen is at 1635 Chicago Avenue in Evanston. (845) 864-6000. Web site:

Mango and strawberry refrescos at Mercadito

Tasting of three different guacamoles at Mercadito

Mini-chicken tacos with mole poblano at Mercadito ($13.50)

Tasting of 3 different botanas at Mercadito

Tres leche cake with diced pinaepple at Mercadito

Monday, October 17, 2005 We'd been looking forward to visiting Mercadito ever since 2005 James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini first told us about it several months ago when we ran into him at the Circuit City near Union Square. When we learned he lived nearby, we asked where he liked to eat in the area, and Mercadito (which had just recently opened at that point) was high on his list.

Warned about the sometimes-long waits for a table at peak dinner hours, we slipped in for a very early dinner last night:

+ We enjoyed the refrescos -- non-alcoholic drinks made with soda water, lime, and a choice of pineapple, mango, blueberry, or strawberry ($3.50 each). While the mango in Andrew's mango refresco was quite unripe (so unripe that Karen had to try it twice to be convinced it wasn't pineapple) and didn't contribute much if any mango flavor to his drink, we found the pineapple version to be a marked improvement -- and we found the strawberry refresco more delicious still.

+ We loved the tasting of three different guacamoles ($13.50) -- a traditional guacamole; one made with mango, jicama, and chipotle chile (which was Andrew's favorite); and one made with pineapple, habanero chile, tomatillo, and mint (which was Karen's favorite).

- The platter of four mini-tacos (each about 2 3/4 inches in diameter) topped with crispy chicken, mole poblano, plantains, and crema fresca, struck us as a very small portion for the price ($13.50). While the tacos were flavorful, to our taste they were lacking salt and a good squeeze of lime.

- For the tasting of three botanas, we ordered quesadillas, tostada de hongos (with wild mushrooms), and pork picadas, all of which we found to be tasty. This course seemed very reasonably priced for the $9.50 we'd seen indicated on the menu -- but an eye-popper for the $19 that appeared on our bill, after it was explained to us that the $9.50 price was a "per person" charge. When we indicated that our waiter hadn't informed us of this, they quickly adjusted the bill to charge us $9.50 instead of $19.

+ The restaurant's version of tres leche cake was different than we've had anywhere else, but still light and pleasing, with its creaminess accented by diced pineapple. It was either $4.50 or $7; we can't tell you exactly because as night fell, the restaurant grew so dark, and the ink on the restaurant's printer was so light, that we could barely read our credit card receipt by the light of the tiny candle on our table.

The atmosphere at Mercadito is pleasant (nice decor, good music), and the service seems to be very well-intentioned. However, even with only one other table filled during most of our time there, it seemed (inexplicably) to take forever for our later courses to arrive.

Our verdict? If you're in the neighborhood, you might enjoy stopping in for the guacamole tasting and a refresco (just ask which fruit is ripe before you order) -- or, given that three of the menu's five pages are devoted to alcoholic beverages, perhaps trying something a little stronger.

Mercadito is at 179 Avenue B (bet. 11th & 12th Streets), New York. (212) 529-6490.

Barron Point oysters with Honey Crisp apples, Brazilian chiles
and Grenada seasoning peppers at The Tasting Room in NYC

Birch Bolete mushroom soup with raw goat's milk cheese
and chives at The Tasting Room in New York City

Corned veal brisket with garlic mayonnaise, Sucrene lettuce,
roasted cauliflower, and hard-boiled egg at The Tasting Room

Warm chicken-of-the-woods mushroom salad with roasted
pumpkin, leeks and Candice grapes at The Tasting Room

Line-caught cod with roasted red peppers, plum tomatoes,
and Marcona almonds at The Tasting Room in New York City

Saffron milkcap mushrooms with Japanese sweet potatoes,
fresh soy beans, roasted shallots and long beans

Selection of American farmhouse cheeses, which we loved
with a glass of Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Vineyard port

Locust Grove crab apple and fromage blanc tart with Peach
Leaf whipped cream at The Tasting Room in New York City

The Tasting Room chef-owner Colin Alevras and Karen Page

Tables at Penelope feature food photos circa 1950s

Penelope's BBLT (with double-bacon) and fries

Make-your-own open-faced spinach-artichoke sandwiches

The cupcakes at Penelope are a must-order if you visit

Sunday, October 16, 2005 We're sorry, we're sorry....Our apologies to those of you who've grown concerned enough to ask why we haven't been blogging recently and/or why you haven't received an e-Newsletter in several weeks. Yes, we're still very busy finishing our next book! However, this past week, we handed in 650 pages of our manuscript (while we tighten two final chapters) -- so we allowed ourselves to venture out for the first time in a long while for some sustenance.

One of our first stops was a late lunch at Penelope, which is a haven for so many 20- and 30-somethings that it's hard to believe it's north of 14th Street, let alone in the East 30s. We'd eaten there a couple of times before, and find it more appealing for its comfortable, homey ambiance (e.g. a huge chalkboard featuring the day's specials, cooking magazine articles from the 1950s shellacked on the tabletops) than for any single offering on its menu. But as sleep-deprived authors, we needed a little comfort!

On our visit this week, Andrew ordered a BBLT (a double-bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich) served on sourdough toast, with good fries. We certainly share the restaurant's enthusiasm for copious quantities of bacon, but unfortunately not its taste for bacon so crisp that it crumbles with every bite. Karen's dish was an enigma: while called a spinach artichoke dip, there was nothing "dippy" about it: Dipping a piece of toasted bread in, it came out unscathed and dry. In truth, it's more make-it-yourself open-faced vegetable sandwiches -- which is not such a bad thing. The reason to return to Penelope, however, is for the cupcakes, which are some of the moistest, tastiest chocolate cupcakes in town with lovely buttercream icing.

Last night, we did something we've been wanting to do for months: We returned to the tiny 24-seat restaurant that celebrates the best of American ingredients and wines The Tasting Room, which we described in our Summer 2005 e-Newslettter as "a small miracle of a restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where chef Colin Alevras and his wife Renee manage to serve truly remarkable dishes (which earned them an equally remarkable 27 food rating in the 2005 Zagat Survey) in a shoebox of a restaurant that doesn't even have a stove."

What restaurant even has a shot at living up to such high expectations, given our previous experience? See, that's the thing about the "small miracle of a restaurant" that is The Tasting Room: Every single dish we had last night was perfect.

Upon first tasting the Barron Point oysters (which made a perfect pairing with our glass of 1999 "J" vintage brut sparkling wine), our immediate instinct was to order another round. But when our gracious bespeckled waiter David next came to our table, it was with our Birch Bolete mushroom soup with raw goat's milk cheese that managed to make our glass of 2004 Honig Sauvignon Blanc sing. Each course in turn was so delicious as to make us forget about ordering another of the last.

If you've never had chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms before, this is the place to order them for a rich experience of how poultry-like a mushroom can taste. We enjoyed ours with a very light-bodied but flavorful 2001 Bannister Pinot Noir, but this warm salad with roasted pumpkin, leeks and Candice grapes would have gone nicely with an off-dry Riesling as well.

The corned veal brisket dish was a revelation. Served with a "hard-boiled" egg that was more like a poached egg with a semi-hardened yolk, the yolk became almost cheese-like and the egg white an irresistible sauce. It was our most extraordinary egg encounter since Alain Ducasse New York, which managed to change our notion of what an egg was forever -- as did our experience last night.

Chef-owner Colin Alevras escaped from his subterranean kitchen for a few precious moments to say hello and to share a few of his secrets with us. That egg? The alchemy responsible for its incredible texture was cooking it for one hour at 64.5 degrees Celsius with the aid of an immersion circulator -- essentially, a thermostat with a pump that manages to keep a water bath at a constant temperature. Alevras predicts that soon every upscale restaurant kitchen in America will be cooking with one. Indeed, we know that many top restaurants, from Blue Hill at Stone Barns to Restaurant Daniel, already do -- and, in fact, Daniel Boulud was the first chef to speak with us about sous-vide cooking (nearly a decade ago).

Alevras recounted with amusement an article that appeared in The New York Times magazine a couple of months ago that stated it took several thousand dollars to get started with sous-vide cooking. "I got started with $150 and by reading and making a few phone calls," he laughed, adding that it's possible to purchase an immersion circulator for less than $100 on eBay.

With his tiny gas-free kitchen, Alevras has found necessity to be the mother of invention. And what incredibly delicious inventions they are....Dinner at The Tasting Room is a not-to-be-missed New York experience.

Penelope is at 159 Lexington Ave. (at 30th St.), New York. (212) 481-3800.

The Tasting Room is at 72 E. 1st St. (bet. First & Second Aves.), New York. (212) 358-7831. Web:

Monday, October 3, 2005 Who needs an excuse to get away from the computer for 45 minutes more than two authors on deadline with their next book? Our email alert today from New York magazine announcing new restaurant openings provided us with the perfect excuse: The opening of a positively-reviewed burger place virtually just around the corner.

Good Burger does indeed serve up a good burger. We had ours with cheese ($5.25), fries ($1.75), and a chocolate shake ($4.75). While the burger is a welcome addition to our neighborhood, we're not recommending that anyone jump in a cab to head to Good Burger. In fact, we can't think of any burger in town we'd jump in a cab for with the exception of Shake Shack in Madison Square Park if we hadn't been there all summer -- or McHale's for a bacon cheeseburger any time before it sadly closes in December 2005. Other than that, when we need a burger fix, we'll head to our favorite spot in the neighborhood closest to wherever we find ourselves, whether that's Midtown East (P.J. Clarke's), Midtown West (Burger Joint), the Upper West Side (Big Nick's), or elsewhere. From now on when we're craving a burger and don't want to jump into a cab, we just might head to Good Burger.

Good Burger is at 800 Second Ave. at 43rd Street, New York. (212) 922-1700.

Chef Frederic's wall of fame at Chez Le Chef

The delicious fresh-squeezed juice medley at Chez Le Chef

The "world-famous French toast" at Chez Le Chef

The farmer's omelette at Chez Le Chef

Sunday, October 2, 2005 Having burned off a few calories early this morning running the Grete's Gallop Half-Marathon in Central Park (where Karen was given a good-luck "high five" by Grete Weitz at the starting line), by the time afternoon rolled around, eating healthy was less of a priority than trying something new and stretching our legs for a few blocks.

We ended up having brunch at Chez Le Chef, a quirky spot that always seems to be decorated for Christmas where handlebar-moustached chef-owner Frederic has a "wall of fame" of media clippings (from such esteemed publications as Town & Country and in multiple languages lining the stairway up to the second-floor dining room.

Chef Frederic himself is a busy guy at Chez Le Chef: He welcomed us, took our order, then disappeared to prepare it in the downstairs kitchen. While dropping off another table's order, he spotted us sharing the same plate (which we like to do, finding it romantic) and asked if we wanted a second plate. Now that's a seasoned restaurateur's eye!

We adored the tall glasses of a medley of a half-dozen different freshly-squeezed juices (in our post-13.1-mile-run state, we could only recall strawberries and peaches). Of course we had to try the "world-famous French toast" ($4.75) trumpeted on the menu crediting a 1988 New York magazine article, which was nicely custardy with a sugar-cinnamon topping. And the farmer's omelette ($12.95) was ample enough for two ravenous runners to share, filled with sausage, potatoes, herbs, and "garden-fresh vegetables" such as broccoli and peppers. While our omelette arrived at our table an unusual shade of brownish-gray (or was it grayish-brown?), it was absolutely delicious.

Four diners at the next table were celebrating a birthday, and had apparently spotted us taking photographs. "Would you like me to take a photograph of the two of you?" one asked, as the four were leaving. We demurred -- but we loved that Chez Le Chef is the good-quirky kind of charming neighborhood spot where another diner would even think to ask.

Chez Le Chef is at 127 Lexington Ave. (bet. 28th & 29th Streets), New York. (212) 685-1888. Delivery is available -- including "Breakfast in Bed."

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