Cooking with friends – Lyon, France

IMG_7180

View across the Saône river from the market

Continuing on with my food adventures in Lyon, France…

On Saturday morning we decided to go shopping at the farmers market along the Saône river in vieux Lyon.  My friend Guillaume offered to cook lunch for us, and we were so excited to get a homecooked meal full of fresh seasonal vegetables after our heavy meat-centric dinner at Café des Fédérations the night before.  It was a beautiful sunny hot day with clear blue skies, and the walk along the river was breathtaking.  The outdoor market was teeming with energy and the vibrant bright colors of vegetables and flowers were bursting with happiness.  Here are some photos from the vieux Lyon Saturday farmers market:

IMG_7116

IMG_7150

IMG_7126

IMG_7145

IMG_7168

IMG_7137

IMG_7117

IMG_7129

IMG_7178

We were lucky enough to get fresh morel mushrooms, just at the end of their season.  I’ve never had the opportunity to cook with fresh morel mushrooms, so this was a new experience for me.  I’m used to the dried store-bought version.  These fresh morels were soft and spongy, light and airy, earthy and pungent, and just simply delightful.  Guillaume also bought fresh ris d’agneau, or lamb sweetbreads which I was extremely excited about.

IMG_7214

Fresh morel mushrooms

Guillaume’s kitchen is tiny.  There’s really only enough room for 1 person.  It’s barely even tall enough for him to be able to stand fully erect.  I offered to help, but there was only 1 1/2 cutting boards (the 1/2 board was the size of a passport) and a few pairing knives.  How can this tiny kitchen with hardly any fancy gadgets whip out this fancy meal that Guillaume was describing to me?  Frankly, I was a little worried.  However, as soon as I saw him clean the sweetbreads, prepare the morels, sauté the fingerling potatoes in butter, cut the artichokes down to the heart, and throw the peas in boiling water all within a 10 minute period, I knew I could sit back and relax.  It’s not about the kitchen, or the equipment, or the fancy gadgets, or the space.  It’s about the chef, his creativity and his passion.

IMG_7233

Cleaned morels and lamb sweetbreads waiting to be cooked

The deep earthy aroma of morels filled the apartment as he sautéed them with butter.  At the same time, he individually and carefully cooked each vegetable before putting them all together in the pot.  He knew exactly how each vegetable had to be prepared to enhance their natural sweetness and character, and he was not cutting any corners.

IMG_7210

Chef Guillaume multi-tasking in his small kitchen

Before we knew it, a beautiful pot of asparagus, artichokes, peas, fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and garlic had been assembled on the tiny stovetop.  Meanwhile, he was finishing his morel sauce with cream and white wine from my cousin’s winery that I brought from Burgundy, and cooking it with the sweetbreads in the oven.

IMG_7260

Beautiful farmers market vegetable pot

The rest of the crew set the table and decanted a bottle of my cousin’s red wine, Simon Bize et Fils Aux Vergelesses.  We all proceeded to crowd around the small kitchen to watch the chef in action, all the while drooling and wagging our tails.

IMG_7256

Table is set, and wine is decanted

This ended up being one of the most memorable and delicious meals of my entire Europe trip.  There is just something so special about being invited into someone’s home and having a homecooked meal.  Shopping together at the market and seeing all of the fresh seasonal ingredients being transformed in front of my eyes in the kitchen also heightens the experience.   Everything was delicious, especially the lamb sweetbreads with morel mushrooms.

IMG_7269

Delicious market vegetable pot

IMG_7277

Succulent ris d'agneau with morel cream sauce

Of course we had the obligatory post-dinner cheese plate, again all selected by Guillaume at the cheese stand at the farmers market.  It included goat cheese with ashes and pepper, fresh goat cheese from goat’s milk that had just been milked the day before, and a Comté from the North Alps.

IMG_7287

After dinner farmers market cheese plate

Guillaume busted out his espuma gun for fresh whipped cream to complement the juicy strawberries.

IMG_7288

Succulent market strawberries

What a perfect weekend so far in Lyon, I thought, as I drifted away in a post-prandial snooze on the couch…

Random trivia:  Did you know that morel mushrooms, otherwise known as brain mushrooms, honeycomb mushrooms, or sponge mushrooms, are the official state mushrooms of Minnesota?

Advertisements

Life in Burgundy – Bourgogne, France

On my last trip to France, I spent a few days at my cousin’s house in Savigny-les-Beaune in Burgundy.  It’s always a joy for me to visit her, because I get to experience country living at its best, surrounded by the best foods and wines in the world.  Her husband Patrick Bize is the 4th generation winemaker of Simon Bize et Fils, which for me means a 15 second walk down to their wine cellar for unlimited access to their wines, 24 hours a day.  My cousin, who is an excellent cook, made simple but hearty and delicious meals for me every day to complement their beautiful wines.  Here are some photos of the good life in wine country…

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Horse plowing the vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin

Wine aging in the cellar

Wine aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Bottles aging in the cellar

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

Wine labels

One of the first lunches that my cousin cooked for me was Poulet de Bresse baked in the oven with house white wine.  All foods and desserts that require wine are cooked only with their Bize wine.  The last time I visited them, she cooked an outstanding coq au vin with 2 bottles of their pinot noir.  Although it seems like such a luxury from my point of view, this is ordinary daily life for winemakers.  What a life!

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse in house white wine

Poulet de Bresse, given an AOC status, is the most prized chicken in France.  Everything from rearing to quality of soil, from diet to slaughtering, is strictly regulated to maintain its famous gamey yet tender and delicate fatty flavor.

Poulet de Bresse

Poulet de Bresse

The Bresse chicken dish she made me was garnished with a simple cream and mustard grain sauce (using Dijon mustard, of course- Dijon is only about an hour drive away), accompanied with fava beans sautéed in butter and baguette from the boulangerie down the street.  I was lucky enough to score the tender chicken foie, while my cousin enjoyed the gizzard.

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

Poulet de Bresse with its foie, fava beans and baguette

One afternoon my cousin dropped us off in the middle of the forest, telling us that we needed to forage for our dinner.  This forest was her secret place to pick wild asparagus, les asperges sauvages, which I had never even heard of until then.  In this dense, dark, cool and quiet forest, we diligently picked these long and thin wild asparagus stalks in silence.  They were quite abundant, and I was so excited to be able to forage for my own food.  It’s such a wonderful experience to be able to see where your food comes from, and to be able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor.

Wild asparagus

Wild asparagus

I blanched the asparagus in boiling salt water, then tossed them with spaghetti, sea salt and olive oil.  It was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

Spaghetti avec les asperges sauvages

One of their winemakers brought over a basket of freshly picked baby greens from his garden, which he dressed with a simple viniagrette.  We enjoyed these fresh vegetables with terrine de foie de lapin (rabbit liver terrine) and an award winning jambon persilles (ham with parsley) from Maison Raillard in Beaune.  Paired with never-ending supplies of their house wine, this al fresco family dinner was one of the most memorable meals in my life.

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Fresh garden greens with Bize wine

Jambo persilles aved terrine de foie de lapin

Jambon persilles avec terrine de foie de lapin

On another evening, we gathered on the terrace to watch the sunset with a bottle of 1999 Moët et Chandon rosé and grougere, which is a type of cheese bread.  The inside of the bread was soft and doughy with a subtle and elegant cheese flavor.

Champagne toast with grujere

Champagne toast with grougere

Grujere cheese bread

Grougere cheese bread

My cousin made a delicious tuna, onion and tomato quiche one day.  Everything is made from scratch here, with great love and care.  Her dried cherry tart was also fantastic- freshly picked cherries that were sun dried on the terrace.

Tuna, tomato and onion tart

Tuna, tomato and onion quiche

Dried cherry tart

Dried cherry tart

For my last dinner, she pulled out the good stuff.  Burgundy escargot with garlic and butter, and house made duck leg confit.  The escargot were succulent and juicy, and the duck confit had perfectly crispy skin covering tender meat that fell right off the bones.

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

Burgundy escargots ready to go into the oven

House made duck leg confit

House made duck leg confit

Other dishes that she made include asparagus soup and strawberries marinated in house red wine.  Oh, and don’t forget the cheeses.  Every meal concluded with the obligatory assortment of French cheeses.  My favorite was the Epoisse, perfectly stinky and incredibly creamy. My time in Savigny-les-Beaune was magical, beautiful and happy.  Everything was prepared with great care and detail.  Every night we would gather around the table as the kids talked about how their school day went and Patrick about his predictions for this year’s harvest.  With laughter abound, delicious food filling our content bellies, and Patrick returning every half hour with yet another bottle of wine, mealtime was always a place of love and warmth.  Although I enjoyed my dining experience in Paris, from local bistros to high end restaurants, the food that I had at my cousin’s house was truly priceless.   Oh, I miss them so much…

Cheese plate

Cheese plate

Minestraio Trattoria

What a timely follow up to my previous blog entry about Riva- last week I dined at the newly opened Minestraio Trattoria in West Hollywood.  It hadn’t even been open for a week, but the restaurant was packed.  The restaurant was reopened by famed Italian chef Gino Angelini (of Angelini Osteria and La Terza; he is also Jason Travi’s mentor), in the previous La Terza space.  The interior decor and layout has not been changed at all.  This was a tad bit disappointing, as well as the large flat screen TV by the bar airing ESPN.  Seriously, what is it with the sports bar thing?

Especially in these tough economic times, Minestraio Trattoria is a breath of fresh air.  There is no pretentiousness, no attitude, and no ridiculously overpriced meals.  We got friendly smiles, wonderful service, spectacular food, and a great deal.  Minestraio is very reasonably priced, but they absolutely do not compromise on the quality of the food.

For starters, the bread and olive oil was superb.  I knew that I shouldn’t be filling up on bread, but I couldn’t stop.  The olive oil was green, earthy, rich  and nutty.  Just delicious. We had the chopped salad with chicken, avocado and cannellini (white beans).

Chicken and avocado salad

Chicken and avocado salad

This was a very simple salad that was well executed.  All of the ingredients were fresh and flavorful.  The dressing had a nice acidic citrus kick to it that worked well with the buttery avocado and cannellinis.  Other items on the antipasti menu were caprese, eggplant parmigiana, and beef carpaccio.  All are priced between $7-12. They serve 3 types of panini during lunch only- vegetarian, chicken breast, and turkey provolone.  They are priced between $7-9.

Pastas are the main star of the Minestraio menu.  There are 20 different types to choose from, and they are all priced between $8-16.  Most of the pastas are very basic and classic Italian dishes, like pomodoro, arrabiatta, vongole and lasagna.  The food culture has become so snobby and pretentious these days that it’s unusual for a big name chef to open a restaurant that serves basic simple dishes.  I’ve become used to reading long complicated explanations under each menu item, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this menu that was so easy to read and navigate.  Angelini has always been known to be strong in his basic meat ragus, so I opted for the Bolognese, made with homemade tagliatelle, beef ragu and parmigiano.

Bolognese

Bolognese

How beautiful is that?  A simple, basic, pure bolognese.  Nothing excessive, nothing added onto it for extra flare or fanciness, nothing to spoil the pureness of it.  And this, may I remind you, is at a Gino Angelini restaurant.

The first time I had a real bolognese dish was back in college when I was backpacking through Europe.  I was 21 years old, and until then I thought that bolognese was the kind of spaghetti with runny meat sauce that you see on Prego jar labels.  I didn’t know any better.  I had never been to Italy.  But boy, I can still remember so clearly that hot summer day in Firenze that I had my first true bolognese.  It blew my mind away.  It was my first time having homemade tagliatelle pasta.  It was dense and chewy, yet tender and light at the same time.  I couldn’t believe how good this pasta was, and how it went so well with the ragu.  The sauce clinged so well to the wide flat pasta, and it was a perfect combination.  I was also amazed at how the true Italian ragu wasn’t runny or liquidy.  It didn’t overwhelm the pasta, but it existed in harmony with it.  I was so shocked at this bolognese experience, that I was left speechless for the rest of the day.  And here I was at Minestraio, many many years later, reliving that experience of having amazing bolognese.  I almost cried.

We also got the Melanzane, rigatoni with eggplant ragu and dry ricotta.

Melanzane

Melanzane

The rigatoni was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the eggplant ragu was rich, light, and smoky.  Again, another basic dish that was cooked flawlessly.

We also got the Funghi dish, a homemade papperdelle with mixed mushrooms.  They used shiitake and oyster mushrooms.  A very aromatic earthy sauce that complemented the superb homemade pasta.

Funghi pappardelle

Funghi pappardelle

This was another dish where the pasta and the sauce was in perfect balance.  It was just as much about the pasta as it was about the sauce. Some of the other pasta dishes that I want to go back and try are: homemade tortellini filled with pork beef and parmigiano in chicken broth, gobetti pasta with sausage cream ragu, fusilli pasta with lamb ragu and mint, agnolotti filled with veal ossobuco, and taglioni with lemon zest parsley and cream sauce.  Most of the pasta dishes are $10-11.

My friends and I shared the grilled sausage with roasted potatoes as a secondi dish.  Other items on the secondi menu are rotisserie chicken, pork chop alla milanese, and beef tagliata dry aged rib eye.  The rib eye, for $19.50, is the most expensive item on the entire menu.  The grilled fennel sausage was absolutely delicious.  I could’ve easily eaten the whole dish by myself. It wasn’t greasy or heavy at all.

Grilled sausage

Grilled sausage

I loved the glass of 2005 Ruffino Modus Cabernet Sangiovese that I had with my meal.  All of the wines are also reasonably priced here at Minestraio.

Last but not least, dessert.  All three of us wanted something different, but we only wanted to order 2 desserts.  Uh oh, do we need to start a cat fight? I wanted tiramisu, especially since I couldn’t have it at Riva.  Tiramisu is my favorite dessert in the world.  If it’s available, I will always order it no matter how full I am.  I will be forever grateful to the Italians for inventing tiramisu.  Our friendly and wonderful waiter solved our dilemma by offering us complimentary tiramisu tasters.  What?! Free tiramisu at an Angelini restaurant?  Did I die and go to heaven?

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

Even though the tiramisu only lasted 3 bites, it was divine.  The mascarpone zabaglione was light and airy with just the right sweetness and creaminess.  The soaked lady fingers were still fluffy and not overwhelmed by the espresso.

My other favorite dish of the evening was the Torta della Nonna, Italian for ‘grandma’s cake’.  This was a pine nut tart with vanilla bean gelato.  It was superb.

Torta della Nonna

Torta della Nonna

I wonder which lucky Italian bastard’s grandmother first invented this?  I loved everything about this dish.  The custard inside the cake made with vanilla beans was smooth and creamy, the cake crust was dense and buttery, the pine nuts were soft with an aromatic earthy flavor, and the vanilla gelato was delicious.  Oh, Nonna!

Our third dessert was the Panna Cotta alla Vaniglia, vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sauce.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The panna cotta was good, but it wasn’t great.  It wasn’t creamy enough.  The best panna cotta I’ve ever had is my foodie friend Shirley’s homemade panna cotta that I had a couple of months ago.

Shirley's panna cotta

Shirley's panna cotta

How cute is that?  She brought the panna cotta, chocolate wafers, and homemade chocolate sauce in that cute little basket.

Panna cotta

Panna cotta

This panna cotta was rich, dense, creamy and thick.  It was pure heaven.  Shirley made a chocolate sauce to go with it, but I opted to enjoy this dish in its pure and naked form. Sorry to go on a tangent, but this was the perfect place to showcase her panna cotta.

Minestraio Trattoria is Italian food in its most pure, true and uncorrupted state.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.  My friends and I ate all of this fantastic food plus wine for $38 a person.  Angelini Osteria used to be one of my favorite Italian restaurants, but I didn’t go too frequently because of the cost.  On the other hand, Minestraio is the type of place that I will probably go a few times a month.  It’s casual, reasonably priced, the service is great, and the food is fantastic.  When we left, the entire wait staff and the chef de cuisine came out to thank us and give us a warm farewell.  From beginning to end, my dining experience at Minestraio was wonderful.

http://www.minestraio.com/

(website not up yet, but this is the address that was on their menu)

8384 West 3rd street, Los Angeles, 90048

(323) 782-8384

Random updates:

Pizzeria Mozza is making a take-out counter that is under construction right now.  It is sandwiched between the Pizzeria and the Osteria.  They are planning to open in April.  FYI, after trying all of the pizzas on their menu, my favorite is still the fennel sausage, panna, red onions and scallions pizza.  Nothing beats it.

http://www.mozza-la.com/

Comme ça (see previous blog entry) closed down the Boule patisserie, but they are planning to open a new bakery this summer just down the street from the old Boule location on La Cienega Blvd.  The Comma ça Bakery, spearheaded by Japanese baker Hidefumi Kubota, will still sell some of the macaroons and caramels that were made famous at Boule.  David Myers is planning to open a second outpost of Pizzeria Ortica close to the bakery.  Are we ready for another pizzeria in LA?  Hmmm…I’m not so sure…

http://www.commecarestaurant.com/

Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.