Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Have Your Lavender and Eat It Too: The Doughnut Plant, NYC

There are donuts. And then there are donuts from the Donut Plant in New York City.
For the record I am not a big fan of donuts. Too heavy. Too fried. Too sweet. However, to go to the Donut Plant is to erase everything you have previously believed you knew about donuts.
Here they are artisan treats, made with real lavender, homemade jam and freshly ground peanut butter. The creme brulee had burnt sugar on top and custard inside.
The coconut is made with real coconut milk. The chocolate is from Valrhona. The donuts come square and round, cake style or not. Each one was better than the next. Right now they come in flavors like chestnut, marizpan, panettone and pomegrante!
Another example of why it is worth a food visit to New York and bringing back the largest box of treats that is possible. The hardest decision? Do you share them or keep them for yourself?

The Donut Plant, 379 Grand Street, New York (with a new location, soon at the Hotel Chelsea!)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Late June at the Union Square Greenmarket, New York City

So, a busy life means a very belated blog post. But in this winter, it is still lovely to remember early summer/late spring at the Union Square Greenmarket. And, after all, a farmer's market is always worth a visit.

Union Square Greenmarket, Union Square, New York City

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Long Time Coming: Bresca, Portland, Maine

Just over a year ago I read about Bresca in Portland, Maine. The Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais, had trained at the Gotham Bar in New York and Guy Savoy in Paris. Smitten by the idea of a woman opening her own restaurant, along with the consistent press that raved about the quality of her food, I eagerly anticipated trying it out.

So, this November, I finally decided to treat myself for my birthday and to head, yes, solo, to Bresca to find out what the exclaim was about. And, in fact, each dish left me with a greater yearning to return.
The restaurant itself is defined by a gentleness: the lighting, the service, the music. There are no tablecloths and few decorations. Instead, the dusty rose walls are lined with photos of Italy and other than rose petals and votives, the atmosphere is kept simple. The restaurant itself seats about 18 people and, upon reflection, felt more like dining at a friend's house. There are two staff people and one Chef, so the pace is slower than at most, giving a chance to enjoy the dish and the peace.
Too much on the menu sounded too good, so I asked the Chef to just send out her favorites. And, in fact, I heard the next table insist that my first dish, "Chorizo and Gorgonzola Stuffed Dates" was their favorite bite in all of Portland! The sweet dates oozed with molten cheese and the smokey/spicy smell of the diced chorizo wafted over the table. They were delicious, though a bit rich for my taste. But watching other couples fight for the third date made me suspect I am in the minority.
My second dish was wonderful. The Chef shaved raw (!) brussels sprouts on a mandoline and tossed them with honey (a theme on the menu, and one of her favorite ingredients), olive oil and toasted walnuts. Shards of freshly shaven Parmesan topped the greens. I am one of the few that love brussels sprouts. Roasted with a bit of salt, they are nutty and delectable. But I have never had them raw. This dish was a perfect example of how the simplest dishes, done with stellar ingredients can be so good. The fruitiness of the honey and olive oil heightened the freshness of the raw sprouts. The walnuts added a layer of complexity. And, ironically, though I love fresh Parmesan, I am not convinced the dish needed it. This dish was so delicious, in fact, that I am hoping to replicate it for our Thanksgiving meal sans cheese.
However, it was my third dish that made me swoon. Braised Tuscan Black Kale was served with a 6 minute egg, a swirl of crispy pancetta and charred multi-grain bread. The secret, though? The Kombu butter that covered the plate. This seaweed, that I have only previously had in Japanese Dashi (broth), had been poached in the butter. The result, a heavenly taste and smell that was so comforting and perfect that I longed to eat it again for breakfast. If you have never understood the concept of Umami (the "fifth taste"), go for this dish.

Yet, I will return for the desserts. The Chef was originally a pastry chef and her sweets captivated me. That night she offered four (the next table was smart enough to try them all!) The Chef sent out a small version of her panna cotta for me to try. This dish is typically so cliched. And, quite honestly, I have never understood the appeal of it. Yet, for the first time, I got it. While it is typically served solo, here the Chef placed the buttermilk panna cotta in a passion fruit sauce. It was served with diced pineapple, mango, papaya and berries. And on the side, a small scoop of white pepper-orange flower gelato. This is one of the best desserts I have had. Instead of a heavy dish, it was the epitome of freshness. The interplay of the creamy panna cotta, the bright flower of the gelato and the acidity of the fruit was the perfect end to the meal.
But the Chef went one further, serving me her "Milk Chocolate Soup." Sitting in the molten liquid was a homemade salted caramel gelato. And, next to that, a fresh pastry filled with sliced bananas and marscapone. The gelato, barely sweet and topped with sea salt was wonderful. The pastry was crispy and light. My only change on this dish-I would swap out the milk chocolate for dark to better appreciate the chocolate without the sweetness.

The meal at Bresca was a lovely one. I know I will go back. I know the menu will shift. And I look forward to the chance to try it again. Before next year.

Bresca, 111 Middle Street, Portland, Maine

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Full of Grace, Portland, Maine

My experience at the restaurant, Grace encapsulates my love of Portland, Maine. I had asked around for the best place to have a drink on a Saturday night. The consistent answer: "You HAVE to see Grace." Rarely did people stress the food or drinks, but instead it was the locale and space that provided the need for this to be an essential visit. As soon as I walked in, I understood. For Grace exists in a renovated Methodist Church, Circa 1856. The kitchen sits below the organ. Patrons dine in place of former pews. And the circular bar rests below vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. It is the perfect spot to begin an evening. I started with the Afterglow, a house infused maple-orange-fig Bourbon. It was warming on a cool evening. My first course, pork cretons were...fine. The bartender had described the dish as a Quebecois pate and in fact what arrived was a cylinder of rustic pork served with mustard and pickles. However, while the portion was generous, the pate was a bit too cold and underseasoned. As the initial chill wore off and I added a bit of salt, the dish improved. However, my salad exceeded my expectations. A wonderful mix of watercress and arugula was served with a poached pear and poached crab apple. The fruit was nestled in the ubiquitous foam that shows up so often on menus these days. However, here the intense acid of the lemon foam and the fresh pepper played beautifully off of the bite of the greens. My dish was missing the walnuts, but had just enough blue cheese to make this a substantial starter. You can make reservations to eat at Grace for dinner, where entrees hover around $20. Or do as I did-get the bar on the early side, be seated immediately and feel free to order from either the bar menu or the regular one. But you get a chance to see the restaurant at play and to experience the glory of the space.

Restaurant Grace, 15 Chestnut Street, Portland, Maine

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Toast to Arabica Coffee, Portland, Maine

Bard Coffee, I do love you so. You were my first stop this time as I arrived in Portland. And once again the Barista created a delicious cup of, her choice, Ethiopian coffee. I sat. I wrote. I was happy. But when a Portlander told me I had to try Arabica Coffee Shop, I couldn't resist. And, in fact, I am smitten. You see, they have toast. Homemade toast made by a man named Doug who delivers it to be served in thick slices and smeared with butter. And, yes, the my short cappuccino was as good as it gets. There are tables to sit, to indulge, to write. So, now I have two loves.

Arabica Coffee Shop, 2 Free Street, Portland, Maine

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Charm of the Third Visit: Portland, Maine

2 Lights State Park
York Beach

Portland is quickly becoming my respite, where I can leave life behind and dream of the day I can live here full time. This is the third time I have arrived. Chapter 1, in late spring meant the discovery of the Rabelais Bookstore, Hugo's, the Standard Baking Company and the Farmer's Market. My abode? The Higgins Inn in Cape Elizabeth was simple and inexpensive. The compromise of thin walls was being feet from the beach. I day-tripped it in late August and was treated to heirloom potatoes and fall tones of squash at the Market.

This time I stayed in Portland at the Inn at St. John. A friend had alerted me that is on the outskirts of town. And, it is true, when I saw the location-both gritty and far enough away from sites to require a car, I got nervous. But once inside, I was more than pleased. It is completely sound-proof, quiet, with free parking, Keurig coffeemakers and wireless access. The room was clean, spacious and had a lovely tub for soaking. You can stay for as little as $50 or splurge for a "suite" that hovers around $100.

Once again I was struck by the kindness of Portlanders who are always more than willing to offer up food suggestions. And per usual, they were right. The treasures on this escape (and with posts to follow in future weeks!): a drink and appetizers at Grace (a restaurant in a former Church!), dinner at Bresca and coffee at Arabica. And, of course, many more recommendations that I have to come back for a meal at Miyake. The laid back atmosphere of this place, the smell of the sea, the allure of local food, the art is all compelling to start planning my retirement now.

This time I indulged in a pie from Two Fat Cats. The mixed berry (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries) was pretty close to homemade perfection. At Standard, the counterperson encouraged me to try their whole rye bread. Thick and dense, it is perfect with slices of cheddar. Meanwhile, I returned to 158 Pickett for a delicious pimento cheese spread slathered on their homemade bagels. Eaten at the beach, it was a pretty wonderful breakfast.
Higgins Beach, Maine
On top of Portland glories, I added a few beaches this time. Near perfect solitude and crashing waves existed at York Beach. The Higgins Beach is a more peaceful respite where you may catch a glimpse of surfers while dogs race across the sand. However, what captured my heart this time was Two Lights Park in Cape Elizabeth. This glorious site can be viewed from benches at the top. Or, if you aren't feint of heart and have good shoes, you can climb on jagged rocks to watch the waves pound by. It is existential beauty at its best.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Rolls are Just the Start: Lineage, Brookline

They churn their own butter. This alone may not be reason to go to a restaurant, however, this level of detail defined two different visits to Lineage. Both meals offered wonderful food and for prices that are relatively reasonable considering the care that goes into each dish.

The meal starts with a roll. Sure, sounds common enough. Except that these rolls are made each day with Lisa Sewall’s own brioche recipe. Topped with sea salt they are served warm with the incredible butter. Those rolls and a salad could make for a perfect meal. And, in fact, it was clear that some people were doing just that at the bar.

However, this was my birthday meal, so my lovely guest (my mom) and I indulged. I started with a unique drink, the Cornucopia. It was created by Bartender and Bar Manager Ryan Lotz for the Pie in the Sky Cocktail Challenge. He starts by grinding roasted pecans to a powder. He then simmered them in a simple syrup with vanilla, cloves, allspice and ginger. This syrup is blended with Maker’s Mark to create a beverage that was reminiscent of spiked warm cider. It was perfect on a chilly fall night.

I had to start with the Island Creek Oysters. Owner Jeremy Sewall just opened the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square. Farmed in Duxbury, a recent Boston Magazine article pointed out that chefs prize the oysters for their…However, I was taken with their plumpness and pure taste.

My mom and I both raved about our salads. We typically order dressing on the side, but here we let Lineage make the call. And both were perfectly topped. I had a salad with Scott’s Farm Honeycrisp apples, thinly sliced endive and radicchio, Marcona almonds and candied ginger. My mother chose the Equinox Farm’s Filed greens, local radishes and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. However, she asked them to substitute roasted beets for the candied walnuts that were listed on the menu. Not only were they happy to oblige, but, my mother’s instinct was right-it was a lovely combination.

For her main dish, mom ordered the Rosemary and Garlic Marinated Flat Iron Steak. It was served with crimini mushrooms, baby spinach, parsnips, caramelized onions and red wine sauce. We both loved our first tastes. The steak was cooked medium rare and was seasoned perfectly. The vegetables were wonderful. However, the meat was plated on a creamy sauce (parsnips perhaps), that made the dish, ultimately, too rich. And, in fact, the dish didn’t need such a heavy sauce to enhance the simplicity of the produce.

My dish, however, was spot-on. I had the panko crusted Gulf of Maine Cod. It was served with Baby Beluga Lentils, chunks of lobster, celery root puree and lobster roe oil. The Cod was as moist and tender as possible. The oil played up the sweetness of the lobster, without dominating the dish. And the tiny lentils, reminiscent of caviar, added a nutty and earthy texture to the dish.

For desserts, we ordered their classic: Butterscotch pudding, made from scratch, of course, and served with candied pecans and whipped cream. Remarkably, it wasn’t too sweet and despite being full, we couldn’t stop digging in our spoons and licking them clean. We also tried the cranberry sorbet. It was luscious, smooth and refreshing. Bizarrely it tasted of grapefruit, even though our waiter informed us that it was pure cranberry. In any case it was a tart respite from the weight of the other dishes.

Both times my visits were characterized by wonderful wait service. The waiters were informative and friendly, but never hovering or obsequious. Somehow that seems to be a hard balance to find in most restaurants.

Perhaps it is my circle of friends, but when I mentioned Lineage as my dinner locale of choice, most replied, “Really? Never been? How is it?” That being said, they were also honored as one of Boston Magazine’s top 50 restaurants. All I know is this: I will be back, even if it is just for those rolls!

Lineage, 242 Harvard Street, Brookline