Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nature's Candy

I've been known to say that peaches are my favorite fruit.

I'm not talking about canned peaches, which are serviceable, at best. I'm talking about the fresh version, the type that has no idea what light syrup is.

For a few weeks each summer, these ripe treats are available at the greenmarket in peak condition. I'll eat them whole, sliced, grilled or any other way you can think of. Anytime in July or August that I see peaches on a menu, I'm going to be ordering the dish, guaranteed.

So it was on my birthday a couple weeks ago when I was dining with a friend for lunch at the Gramercy Tavern. Stuffed after sampling a delicious "Grilled Octopus, Mizuna, Fennel and Ginger Vinaigrette," a very good "Duck Terrine with Onion and Pistachio Marmalade," and solid "Sea Scallops with Baby Beets and Bacon," we only considered dessert because we felt obligated (it was my birthday lunch after all).

Lo and behold, the menu listed an option that I was obligated to order, a "Peach Cobbler for Two with Blackberry Sorbet and Ginger Ice Cream." For $12, we were presented with an enormous dessert (easily enough for 3) that was simply the finest expression of fresh peaches I've ever experienced.

I won't say any more, other than take a look at the picture below and try not to trample other readers on your way to the tavern.

Click to Enlarge (at your own risk)

You can walk in anytime of day and order this dessert in the casual bar area, but from 6-10 PM there might be a bit of a wait. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I'm back, baby

Dear reader,
Your fearless leader has returned safe and sound (though incredibly exhausted) from a rollicking jaunt through Barcelona, Pamplona, Madrid, Porto, Lisbon, Marrakech, Fes, Santorini, Mykonos, and Athens.

As you would expect, I had many a good meal on my journey. Here's a list of the top ten things I ate while on my journey.

#10 - Crema Catalana - Bilbao-Berria - Barcelona
A creamy, sweet dream of a custard topped by a razor thin layer of burnt sugar. One of several delicious looking desserts on offer for only 1.6 Euros ($2.40) at Bilbao-Berria, one of the ubiquitous "pay per stick" tapas joints near La Rambla. Every meal should end this well.

#9 - Chicken and Vegetable Tagine - Setti Fatima- Oukira Valley, Morocco

There are times when an incredible setting can enhance the experience of a meal to the point of elevating the flavors themselves. This particular dish I was fortunate enough to consume in the shadows of the Atlas Mountains at a cheap plastic table on the banks of a clear flowing river. A hundred miles away from the barrage on the senses that is Marrakech, this particular setting was as serene as they come. Did this particular tagine stand out from the eight or so other excellent ones that I consumed during my time in Morocco? Probably not. Though the vegetables were firm and sweet, the chicken luxuriously bathed in olive and lemon juices and the textures of the scalloped carrots interesting, it was the place in which we ate this meal that will make the dish linger in my memory for years.

#8 - Churros and Chocolate - El Churrero de Lerin - Pamplona

Properly crispy, sugar coated donut sticks with rich, hot chocolate sauce for dipping (and subsequently, drinking). The sauce was somewhere in between the viscosity of hot chocolate and hot fudge. A wonderful, life-affirming (though I suppose eventually, life ending) way to celebrate surviving the running of the bulls, even if we didn't actually participate.

#7 - Pork Gyro, Tzatziki, Red Onion - Taverna Sigalas - Athens

In six days in Greece, I ate nine gyro sandwiches. Believe it or not, I had planned on eating a whole lot more. I suppose its probably good for my health that I didn't. Though I generally have a preference for lamb, the best of the bunch actually ended up being this pork filled gem. Creamy, cucumbery tzatziki and sweet red onion harmonized wonderfully with the crispy, fatty bits of slow roasted pork. I have a hard time looking at this picture without drooling. Seriously crave-worthy snacking.

#6 Roasted Red & Green Pepper and Tomato Balls - Thomas Grill - Santorini

Santorini is known for its tomatoes and particularly for its Keftedes, a type of fried tomato ball. This was the best one we sampled while on the gorgeous island. Bits of tomato and pepper brought natural sweetness to the crunchy, savory batter in which they were fried. Blasphemous as it is to say, these could possibly eclipse buffalo wings as the best beer food ever. Barring that, they go pretty well with ouzo too.

#5 Grilled Artichoke & Calamari, Fried Basil, Olive Oil - El Tempranillo - Madrid

Great cooking is often as much knowing what to put in as what to leave out. This dish featured beyond sweet pieces of grilled calamari, assisted only by some phenomenal olive oil, a bit of sea salt and a texture foil in the crispy artichoke. Simple, delicious, it was a flawless way to enhance truly fresh seafood without overdoing it. A-mazing.

#4 - Charcoal Grilled Salmon - Matosinhos (Porto)

Informed by our Porto youth hostel host that there was a seafood festival going on in the nearby fishing village of Matosinhos, we headed over the the docks area to check out the celebration. While there weren't any parades, games or costumed mermaids, there were about two dozen restaurants within spitting distance of the water from where the seafood that they served was actually caught. We settled on one establishment that was grilling outdoors and dined on several standout dishes including octopus, shellfish stew, seafood soup and grilled swordfish. The best of the bunch was a simply grilled salmon steak that may have been the finest piece of the pink fleshed protein I've ever consumed. The intense heat of the charcoal grill coaxed the natural oil of the fish to the surface, basically frying the flesh of the salmon in its own oil. With nothing more than salt and pepper added (or needed) it was a perfect way to enjoy the bounty of the adjacent ocean.

#3 Smoked Salmon, Caramelized Banana and Caviar on Toast - El Tempranillo - Madrid

Sometimes you just have to trust a well respected restaurant to pull off flavor combinations that just don't sound right. I'm all for experimentation, but usually I can guess whether or not a particular combo is going to work. I was a bit skeptical about the idea of smoked salmon and banana playing well together, but after one bite, my fears were washed away by the joy you can only experience when trying something unexpectedly wonderful for the first time.

The sweet creaminess of the banana worked wonders with the salty goodness of the exquisite piece of smoked salmon and caviar. I'll remember that first bite for a long time to come. You can also be assured that I'm already at work on my own version.

#2 - Pan Seared Duck Breast, Sweet Potato Puree, Strawberries - La Crema Canela - Barcelona

Perfectly cooked duck means tender, juicy, medium-rare meat and crispy, rich, slightly fatty skin. This restaurant nailed this dish as well as all of the other six things we tried. The best of these offerings (in my opinion) was this superbly paired seared duck breast sliced over creamy mashed sweet potatoes and balanced with the acidity and sweetness of fresh strawberries. I hoped it would never end.

#1 - Grilled Lobster - Pinotxo Bar - Barcelona

Nestled in to the ever-busy Boqueria, Barcelona's world-class food market, Pinotxo Bar serves up a variety of tapas sourced from the dozens of fruit, vegetable, meat and fish vendors that surround their minuscule operation. While the bar may be small, the flavors it brings to its dishes are big and bold. My favorite thing I ate there was this simply grilled lobster with immaculate olive oil. Quite simply, I've never had sweeter, tastier or better cooked lobster meat in my life. This was last meal on earth kind of good. At 22 euros ($33) for six bites of meat, it better have been. You only live once, right?