Friday, September 30, 2016

Lardo, oh my

Courmayeur, September 29—
IF YOU HAVEN'T traveled in Italy, and maybe even if you have, you may not understand the appeal of lardo. The word itself is somewhat off-putting, perhaps especially to those of us who remember cans of lard standing at the kitchen stove. 

But lardo colonnato, as I' probably wrong in thinkiing it's called, is an extraordinary thing. Pure pork fat is salted and aged in a stone basin under a weight, sometimes with a subtle flavoring — a bay leaf, say. And the lardo d'Arnad of the Valle d'Aosta is not to be neglected.

As you see, it came with lightly candied chestnuts and a couple of slices of brown bread with honey. It was truly memorable: silky, solid, delicate. The waiter suggested it's the water here makes it so good; this lardo is allowed to bathe, making its texture piu morbido, its flavor clean and pure.

Afterward, a cotoletta valdostana, because it used to be a favorite thing for me to make at home: a thin boneless scallopine, covered with prosciutto, then cheese. I used to use Fontina; this tasted more like Emmental. It was first-rate and huge and came with lots of vegetables.

White wine in carafe
Ristorante-Pizzeria du Tunnel, via Circumvallazione 80, Courmayeur; 0165/841705

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Catching up


En route, September 29, 2016— 

TWO DINNERS and a lunch to catch up on, owing to lack of time and Internet access (we've been driving around in the mountains). 

All, as it happens, were in repeat restaurants. On Tuesday, Sept. 27, we met the Contessa's cousin and his wife at a place I discovered two months ago, and there we had a typical Piemontese dinner. No menu: suggestions were recited by the waitress. 

We had a broad range of antipasti, including a fine vitello tonnato, and then some excellent pastas; and a side dish of marvelous sweet-sour onions; and, because I was greedy, an arrosto da vitello, as excellent as it was two months ago. 

Malvasia in carafe

Arneis in carafe

Nebbiolo,  Fassono Giuseppe, 2012

Osteria La Stellina, Bruzolo (TO)


Lunch had been at another familiar spot from two months ago, in Chiomonte: the range of antipasti for me, a plate involving sausages, vitello tonnato (again, excellent), and three different sauces: the typical Piemontese green sauce, a sort of mayonnaise, and a Sicilian-style pesto with tomato paste and, I think, ground almonds.

Arneis in carafe

Cantoun, Chiomonte (TO)

By last night we were just over the border in France. The restaurant I'd hoped for was closed for the season, so we drove to the next town and had a routine but competent hotel-restaurant dinner.

In my case this was a plate involving "house-made" (no guarantee of quality) terrine followed by tartiflette, the Savoyard version of potatoes gratinée. It was good, and my companion pointed out that the lettuce in our little salads was superb. 

For dessert, a bavarois flavored with coffee; afterward, a genepy…

Vin blanc de Savoie in carafe

Hotel Restaurant Relais Les 2 Cols, Lanslebourg;

Monday, September 26, 2016


The dining room at Consorzio
 Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 26, 2016—
AS YOU CAN see, we arrived precisely at 12:30, the first customers today at Consorzio. The place has been packed in the evenings, but lunch seemed slow today.

The menu is identical, and it is delicious. From it we chose:

La cruda (me)
Plin d'ortiche e seirass con alghe e baccalà (her)
Ripieno di peperoni, acciughe e bagnetto verde (her)
Agnolotto gobbo (me)

She was delighted, and why not? I had exactly that sequence last time I was here, two months ago.

I was delighted too.  I'd had the cruda before; it was quite the same this time: raw minced veal tartare, the one on the left more strongly flavored, that on the right sweeter, flanking a strip of raw steak dusted in gingery panko. Olive oil, good salt, and black pepper are all the additions  needed.  

Perfectly cooked pasta, marbelous shredded braised veal nicely spiced, served simply in butter and a very discreet dusting of grated cheese.

Panna cotta, innocent yet unctuous; on the side, small garnishes of Barbaresco chinato, chinotto, and torrone. They're small but powerful, exactly the right amount to flavor the custard.  This is truly a fine restaurant, one of the Hundred.

Filagnotti, Cascina degli Ulivi (Piemonte), 2014: golden, stemma, solid, a fine match for the cruda;
Freisa rosata Cascina Tavijn, "Rosetta" (Piemonte), 2015: garnet, rich, pleasant

Ristorante Consorzio, via Monte di Pietà 23, Torino; +39 011 2767661

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Antiche Sere

Via Luca della Robbia, Torino, September 25, 2016—

AS I THINK I mentioned yesterday, the restaurants in this town are full. But this afternoon we ran into an old friend who had providently booked a table for six tonight at one of Slow Food's favorite Torino osterie, and she had only three friends with her, so we tagged along.

Actually we led the way. We had an hour or so before dinner, and wondered how to fill the intervening time, and someone proposed a walk. Great, I said, brightly, we'll just walk to the restaurant.

Antiche Sere is not in the center of town, which is where we were at the time, at the Teatro Carignano, where we'd just seen a film. Antiche Sere is out in Cenisia, nearly as far from the center of town as our apartment. It took us an hour of fairly brisk walking to get there, over four kilometers according to Google Maps. A few of the others seemed dubious about my leadership, and even I was a bit uncertain when we finally turned down the unpromising, dimly lit via Ceneschia. Near the end of the block a white light hung on the facade of a building, and when I got there I was welcomed by the sign OSTERIA and the gilt letters you see above the curtain on the window.

We were greeted warmly, of course, with glasses of Prosecco thrust into our hands. We had a nice round table in the front dining room — there are three — where our friend, something of a celebrity, would be on display to all. And then we looked over the menu.

Now you may complain you cannot read this menu because of the quality of my photo, but I assure you it was not much easier at the table. Let me translate:
Antipasto Misto:
[illegible:] semolina cake flavored with lemon zest
Peperone with anchovies
Vitello tonnato


Vegetable and bean soup
Agnolotti with meat sugo
Gnoxxhi with Gorgonzola
Tajarin with porcini

And there we stopped; we could not eat any more. Well, a green salad; no way we would be allowed to skip that, not in this crew.

And desserts, of course: peaches stuffed with bonet, bonet itself, panna cotta, tirami su. And a grappa. And a sugar cube in a jar of basil-infused grappa to put in the grappa. 

And then, after three hours at table, our friends called a cab to go back downtown, and the Contesssa and I walked another mile through the gentle night to our apartment. 

Arneis in caraffa; Nebbioli in caraffa; Barolo: Prapo, Schiavenza, 2011, rich and mature

Osteria Antiche Sere, via Cenischia 9, Torino; +39 011 3854347

Saturday, September 24, 2016


Via della Luca Robbia, Torino, September 24, 2016—
YOU MAY THINK it strange that after a day cruising Slow Food's Salone del Gusto here we would shrug it all off and eat at home again. But that's what we did.

The principal reason was fatigue — we'd walked ten kilometers, many of them among tight crowds of people, shopping bags, kids in strollers, dogs on leashes, folks looking at their cell phones instead of where they're going. Or, more important to me, where I'm going.

The secondary reason: with this many foodies in town it's impossible to get a same-day reservation at any restaurant I can think of wanting to visit. We had a nice enough lunch at a Pugliese bar-cafe-delicatessen — a hamburger made of house-made Pugliese salsiccia, with a glass of house red. But that wasn't dinner.
So on the way home we stopped at a little mom-and-pop operation on via Giolitti and bought a little butter, some Parmesan cheese, a couple hundred grams of fresh agnolotti, and a busto of what we call mache at home, but is in fact lamb's lettuce in English and valeriana in Italian.

Cook made a good supper out of all this. We had the ends of yesterday's wines to finish. We'll turn in earlier tonight, and be ready for the fray again tomorrow. 

Oh: and Alice did a fine job in her panel discussion about urban gardening. 

Panificio Convertini, via Giolitti 11, Torino

Friday, September 23, 2016

Focaccia at home

Via Luca della Robbia, Torino, September 23, 2016—

AFTER ALL THOSE restaurant meals, even though we're in a capital of food, it was nice to unwind after a day of travel — well, a few hours of travel — with a simple supper at home. We'd noticed a neighborhood bakery on the short walk to our apartment from the metro stop: ah, grissini, a loaf of rye bread, a couple of focaccias — oh, look: focaccia da Susa!

Around the corner, an attractive wine store: Why not a bottle of Arneis for the cocktail hour, to have with the grissini?

Down the block, a greengrocer: let's get a bottle of water, a couple of pears, a few fresh Italian prunes…

Oh: forgot to get milk for breakfast. Oh well, here's a neighborhgood CRAI supermarket. Milk and, why not, a bottle of cheap Grignolino.

Back home we had our Arneis and grissini, then the two dinner focaccias, one with prosciutto, the other pura Margarita: tomato, mozarella, basil. A little overcooked — Cook's not secure with this oven yet — but good, especially with a nice red wine.

Arneis, Azienda Agricola RiDaRoca (Roero), 2015; 
Grignolino d'Asti, Enrico Morando, 2014
Delper SNC, via Vandalino 15
Il Grappolo, via Vandalino 15/e
Frutta e Verdura da Mimmo e Rosa, via de Sactis 37
Supermercato CRAI, 37/B via deella Robbia Lucca



Zoutkeetsgracht, Amsterdam, September 22, 2016—

WE ENJOYED THIS PLACE at the beginning of the year, when we stopped in for a drink on New Year's Day, and decided to stay for dinner. It was cozy and welcoming, and the menu was traditional and simple — perfect for a cold day after a night of celebrating.

Since then there have been a number of changes. The physical ones are fairly subtle: new chairs, a slightly different decor. The biggest changes have been to the menu, which has almost given up the traditional Dutch cuisine in favor of the complex surprise-ingredient small plate fashion. 

Our waiter said this was done to stay in competition with the wave of trendy restaurants opening in this city, but mostly to keep the cooks interested — otherwise they'd been losing interest after roasting a few hundred cockerels and French-frying tons of potatoes.

There were three of us at table, and one of us went for three of the small plates, to her liking as it turned out, though the third of them took an unconscionably long time appearing. My companion and I stayed with the traditional page, ordering that 

"cockerel" — in fact a game hen, I think. First, though, I began with a salad: veal and tuna tartare, served with lotus root beets, and arugula, with a dollop of good mustard to kick things up a notch.

A clever variation on vitello tonnato, this turned out to be pretty tasty. The tartare had enough shallot and capers to give it presence, and the texture was correct.

My chicken, though, was mostly inedible. I'd had the same dish last time, when its concept and execution were fine. The birds are roasted on a rack, many at a time, and served with piri piri, green beans, and French fries, with a little container of applesauce on the side, for this is after all a traditional Dutch restaurant.

My hen was way undercooked, though, and the fries were a little soggy. Companion had no complaints, which leads me to suspect the cook had simply snatched my bird from the wrong rack; it was par-cooked but certainly not finished. And the fries weren't much better.

The dessert was an imaginative take on the traditional hemelse modder, "heavenly mud": a chocolate marquise, dark and serious and bittersweet, with an almost gluey texture from, I suppose, egg yolks. This version was called, simply, dark chocolate mousse, but was the recipe I remembered from January, except that it came tonight with blood orange ice cream, and a sprinkling of sea salt. It tasted fine, and made a spectacular appearance in its dark bowl, paired with raspberry puree.


Vermentino di Gallura, S'eleme (Sardinia), 2015 (very nice);

Adenauer, Ahr (Germany), 2014 (best red German wine I've tasted)

De Gouden Reael, Zandhoek 14, Amsterdam

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Vuurtoreneiland, September 21—


HOW TO DESCRIBE this most enterprising, courageous, and utterly rewarding restaurant? If you read Dutch you can consult the website; otherwise you'll have to take my word for it...

It is set on its own island off the Amsterdam coast, an elegant glass pavilion at the top of a low hill, rather bare of vegetation and built up otherwise only with a single cottage and an extensive but very discreet network of bunkers, for this isle and its twin were Amsterdam's defenses from attack via the Zuider Zee in the old days, before the advent of air warfare rendered them useless.

The ownership and use of the island involve arrangements to complex for me to understand, let alone relate. It is protected wilderness, with city, national, and European Union designations: but in good Dutch reasonableness allowances are made, sought even, for its preservation and maintenance in conjunction with the careful, respectful installation of the restaurant — another project of our friend Sander, whose Restaurant As I have written about here on other occasions. ( ;

WE EMBARKED, perhaps forty-five diners, from a quay at the Hotel Lloyd, on an aging, comfortable, nostalgic passenger-ferry that quickly brought the classic film Beat The Devil to mind. The boatswain wore a blue-and-white striped maillot; his white hair was wild above an open, smiling, weathered face. The skipper was in red-and-white stripes. We entered the main cabin and picked up glasses of Corenwijn and our box of amuse-bouches: a plank containing, for the four of us, smoked herring, beef tartare, gherkiins, rye bread and butter.

This we took up to top deck, where we sat and nibbled, talked and laughed, and watched the slow progress of the built-up skyline slide past. The low red wafer of the sun (thanks, Stephen) peeked inscrutably from behind untroubled clouds: we were steaming north, through the main lock dividing IJ and Amstel from the IJsselmeer, ultimately to dock at a small pier on the low island.

Sander took us on a little tour of the bunkers on our way to the pavilion. The work is really quite amazing: begun three years ago, it has now entered a second or perhaps third phase. Where were once barracks and officers' quarters, storerooms and ammunition magazines, kitchens and bars are slowly being installed. You could imagine this being a marvelous retreat, comfortable and even luxurious, yet leaving tthe surface of the island quite natural and pristine.

But we were here for dinner, and proceeded to the pavillion. By now it was nearly dark out, and the double-gabled long rectangle of the completely glassed steel-frame building glowed from within, where tables for two and four were quite busily and happily full.

Our own was a table for five: the chef joined us. And we had a typically enterprisiing, imaginative Sander dinner:

Bread and half-churned butter

Celery root, mussel, lovage, beet, ricotta, grapes

Salt cod, buckthorn, corn

Wild boar, Jerusalem artichoke, palm cabbage, gravy

Pear and chocolate

Let's begin with that "half-churned" butter. Normally butter is churned from fresh cream until the buttermilk is completely separated out: here the process had been interrupted, leaving just enough whey to give the butter a curiously sweet tang and a soft, silky, almost whipped-cream texture.

The celery root-mussel dish was a triumph of counterposed textures, colors, and flavors. I said to Sander that I often find such dishes compromised by the use of too many ingredients: normally six is one too many. Not here; never at his table.

Who knew buckthorn could be eaten? It gentler this version of baccala, soft and silky like the butter, a maritime version of the Venetian baccala mantecata, conversing with its elegant and subtle corn broth.

The boar, from the Hoge Veluwe forest in the Dutch interior, was dense and meaty, comfortable with the equally dense, cabbage-core-like palm and the serious Jerusalem artichoke, given dignity by the subtle, authoritative gravy. (You see: I can and do reach for familiar adjectives now and then.)

Saint-Romain, "Combe Bazin," Domaine de Chassarnay (Cotes d'Or), 2014, light and supple; 

Cotes du Roussillon-Villages, Domaine de Rouvre, "Aux Champeilles", 2003, mature, superior, generous and satisfying

And then the boat back, under the half moon, on a fragrant, soft, end-of-summer night, with another glass of Corenwijn. A superb evening.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016



Prinseneiland, Amsterdam, September 20, 2016— 

THIS WILL ALWAYS BE among one of my Big Five restaurants: any involving our friend Kees. And so it is almost always our first stop in this city: a modest, comfortable dining room on the Barentszstraat, out in the zeeheldersbuurt near the main railway station.

We'd breakfasted in the Reykjavik airport, on salmon and beer, and lunched on coffee and a raisin bun at Schiphol. By dinner time we needed a reset, and Marius was just the place.

We began with the house amuse-gueule, olives, salami, bread and olive oil — the salami a saucisson sec from Saumur, complex and sophisticated.

Next, the Contessa and I going mezzo-mezzo: skate with spinach sautéed in brown butter; squid, sliced into strips, with tomato and a marvelous Georgian-inspired "pesto" involving walnuts, raisins, and spices. 

Main course: for her, roast quail with duck liver; for me, braised beef with chanterelles, corn, and romanesco. The beef was from a retired dairy cow, summoning childhood memories from the farm; deeply flavored, sound and nourishing.

Wines: Greco di tufo, Calafe, 2009 (!); Fixin, Domaine Gérard Seguin "La Place", 2014 (very nice indeed)

Restaurant Marius, Barentszstraat 173

1013 NM Amsterdam; +31 20 422 78 80

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Nothing fancy

Eastside Road, September 18, 2016—

THAT'S THE LAST time you'll see that dateline for a while: we'll perhaps fast tomorrow, either that or eat airplane food. And tonight we were simply catching up with leftovers — believe it or not, the last of the fusilli amatriciana, for me; but with a side course of Swiss chard. That's one of my very favorite vegetables, and it's always a regret, to me, that the Contessa is less fond of it than am I. I think it may have something to do with beet roots: she loves them; they are not at all to my personal taste. Swiss chard is pretty close to beet greens, and come to think of it I like beet greens, too, though not as much as chard. Perhaps who likes the leaf disdains the root, and vice versa.

In any case: Green salad afterward, and applesauce. See you at Marius…

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Café Chez Panisse; Ground Lamb

IMG 9883
Eastside Road, September 17, 2016—

I WILL NOT SAY much about last night's dinner. A week or two ago I declared I'd not attach adjectives to descriptions of dinners here, on the grounds that any comments I have on a place I have some long interest in (forty-five years!) would be open to suspicion. Sure enough, even that comment brought a response, a reasoned one: I'm still trying to figure out what position to take going forward.

Suffice it to say I started with salad — lettuce, figs, mint, crème fraîche — and then braised pork with rosemary and cumin, shell beans, peperonata, and salsa verde. I took a photo, but it's terrible. The pork was succulent and fresh-tasting, not manufactured. I understand some animal rights folks have been busting in, lecturing folks on what they should eat. I think this is unmannerly and counter-productive; also unscientific. I figure that when I'm dead I'll be eaten by something; that's okay with me. In the meantime, I'll grant the animals I eat a comfortable life — they'd likely not exist if not for meat-eaters — and a quick death. It's what I hope for myself.

The dinner was hosted by friends; it was John's birthday. There were eight of us at table, and the conversation got in the way of devotion to dinner — that too is as it should be. Chocolate cake for birthday boy; a fine ice cream bombe for all of us; the highlight was peach-leaf ice cream, pure genius.

Cabernet sauvignon, Paradise Rige, 209, very nice; Dolcetto d'Alba, G.D. Vayra, 2015, authentic and delicious; Arrbois rouge, Stéphane Tissot, 2015, balanced, firm, granitic
•Café Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; 510-548-5525

Tonight I cooked ground lamb. Almost sixty years ago, when we were first married and vwery poor, ground lamb was as frequent a guest at our table as we were able to manage. My father was prejudiced against lamb and would not have it on the table, but when I left home I embraced it. And then, sixty years ago, we ate it because it was cheap: twenty-five cents a pound.

I saw it in the Healdsburg farm market a couple of days ago, from Preston of Dry Creek, and bought a pound, even though it was considerably more expensive. Tonight I mixed it with a few finely chopped cipollini, parsley, mint, and marjoram from the garden, and cumin and ras al hanout — the recipe was loosely based on Paula Wolfert, whose way with Mediterranean food, from both north and south of that basin, is particularly coherent and rewarding.

I mixed the spices and onions into the meat, then made little meat balls, as you see. With them, Middleton Gardens's limas, and sliced tomatoes. Marvelous. Green salad; dark chocolate.

bottle-ends: cheap rosé, red wine

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Friday, September 16, 2016

Clams and mussels

IMG 9832
Petaluma, September 15, 2016—

I CANNOT EAT crustacea, I'm sorry to have to tell you; they make me nauseous. It may be that I cannot eat any arthropods — I haven't really investigated. Crustacea, you know, are six-legged creatures with exoskeletons; those common to our diet are crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, and prawns.

But oh boy can I eat bivalves. They have no legs, and their blood, if they have any, is not based on copper. In season they make me very happy.

So when we agreed to meet a couple of friends in a central location, and they chose this place new to us in Petaluma — a town I thought of as drab when I was a boy seventy years ago, but which is now turning from eggs-and-chickens to tourism for its bread and butter — I looked the place up on the internet, and was pleased to see clams and mussels on the menu.

We began with a Caesar salad. It was okay but not marvelous. The romaine was chopped; the dressing involved egg yolk; there was only one anchovy and it a white Spanish boqueron, not a nice grey-pink salted one. But it was okay.

Then I moved on to the bivalves. They came in a rich saffron broth, with generous slices of toasted bread to soak up the juices. Most of the protein had moved out of the shells, but there all those delicious naked little creatures were swimming in the sauce, fresh and meaty. It was all pretty delicious. I'm sorry I didn't photograph the dish when it was set before me, but I forgot. Here are the empty shells on their plate, and below I'll set the dish as it looked under deconstruction.

Dessert: Rather a rich, delicious bread pudding.

Pinot grigio

Graffiti, 101 Second Street, Petaluma, California; 707-765-4567

IMG 9833

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Mid-week catch-up

IMG 9829
Eastside Road, September 14, 2016—

THE USUAL SCRAMBLE around here, end of summer, much to do in garden and on grounds and all that. But we do manage to continue to eat. Mostly.

Sunday, as I said, was a hamburger. Monday we were downhill at the neighbors', celebrating an unbirthday with chuck roast and sausages grilled in the fireplace, zucchini sprinkled with pecorino and gratinéed under a broiler, salad.

Tuesday was Fast Day, the first I've had in nearly two months, and welcome — it's a routine I've come to enjoy.

And today I made pesto. I thought of Doris and Charles Muscatine as I peeled the garlic (Rose de Lautrec, my favorite variety by a long shot). Charles was an English professor at UC Berkeley, where I never met him, though I was an English Lit major; his wife Doris was a fine bouche, the author of a historic book on San Francisco restaurants of the old days and, more importantly perhaps, the editor of a mammoth book on California wines. (Now that I've looked her up on LibraryThing, I realize I've never read her books on San Francisco and Roman restaurants, and I must correct that).

We didn't see the Muscatines socially, to my regret. He was fifteen years older than we, she nine; both moved more easily in academic and social circles than I ever could. We saw them at the opera, because their seats were a row ahead of ours, and they were first-nighters. (I was a reviewer, is why I went on first nights.)

Doris was one of the garlic ladies at Chez Panisse. There were three or four of them, and they got together in the restaurant dining room the afternoon of many Fourteenths of July and peeled garlic, hundreds of cloves of garlic. It was always a pleasure to see her, immaculately coiffed and dressed, handsome and cheerful and enthusiastic, peeling her garlics with a sharply pointed short-bladed knife.

I have such a knife in the little block that houses paring knives of various sorts. I use it exclusively for garlic. For salad I use it to slice the bottom off the clove, then split it in two to remove the sprout, if any; I then crush the garlic with a hand-held crusher.

But today I was making pesto, so I peeled the cloves as I'd so often seen Doris Muscatine do it, slicing the root end off, then running the point of the knife just under the rose-colored peel, slitting it toward the other end, then lifting the peel away. It is such a pleasure to peel garlic, and to recall fine moments over the years…

Oh yes the pesto. The whole peeled garlic cloves, an equal amount of pine nuts, a little salt: smash into a hard creamy paste in the stone mortar with the wooden pestle. Add the basil leaves: these days I cut them in with kitchen scissors. Smash them until they've joined the paste. Add grated Parmesan and continue working the mixture. Add olive oil until the consistency is right.

You may think there's not much pesto to be seen on these whole-wheat penne. Well, I've stirred it in already, with my dinner fork. IT was a fine, pungent, sparkly sort of pesto tonight, nutty and garlicky and abbastanza basilicato. Green salad afterward, with avocado and Green Zebra tomatoes, and a little dark chocolate for dessert.

Cheap Italian rosé

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015


IMG 9811
Kettleman City, California, September 11, 2016—

THIS IS WHAT you need to know before planning an automobile trip in our beloved state: it can be a long tedious drive between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Of course it can be an even longer but much less tedious trip. There are five basic approaches to the problem, as far as I know:

•The very long way across the desert, up the east side of the Sierra, and then west across one of the passes
•Across the dread Grapevine to the bleak Central Valley, then up Highway 99 toward Sacramento, then west
•The same, but the much faster Highway 5 to the storied Altamont Pass, then through the suburbs
•Over to the coast and up Highway 101, perhaps stopping at the old Spanish Missions along the way
•Over to the coast and up Highway 1, which can be a spectacular road, the blue Pacific to your left the entire distance
There's another route, but I'll keep that to myself for the moment. We like Highway 101, because we like a few towns, cafés, and restaurants along the way, but that turns it into a two-day drive. Today we're in a hurry, so we take Highway 5, leaving Los Angeles about 12:30 in the afternoon, arriving home nine hours later. (We live a good hour north of San Francisco.)

The main problem with Highway 5, apart from the tedium of its 300 miles of flat straight two-lane asphalt, is that it offers no rewarding food or beverage. On this trip, though, we tried a little harder, and lowered our requirements a bit. There is a Starbuck's in Lebec, where Highways 5 and 99 diverge — in fact there are two: and while they do not consistently serve my very favorite coffee their product is better than the stuff you get from vending machines at highway rest stops.

And lo and behold there is an In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City. We do not often eat hamburgers. We have never been in a DQ or a Denny's or a Jack In The Box, and the only Big Mac I've ever had was from the Macdonalds on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. But we do make an exception, in trying times, for this chain, whose beef has never been frozen, whose buns are made of flour, and whose lettuce and onions and tomatoes seem like food.

We ordered identically, my contessa and I: an ordinary hamburger, yes sliced onion please, and that small basket of French fries. I'm told this added up to about 700 calories. It kept us alive until we got home, when we had some fruit and a whisky.


•In-N-Out Burger, 33464 Bernard Drive, Kettleman City; 800-786-2149 (but there's an app for it)

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Monday, September 12, 2016

Eating at Marriott

IMG 9769
Los Angeles, September 10, 2016—
I AM A RUSTIC intellectual framed in the Berkeley of the 1950s and '60s who lives a relatively secluded life in the country in Northern California, but every now and then my Companion and I slip sideways from our usual path into an alternate universe.

This weekend it is a Marriott Hotel at the Los Angeles airport, where we are attending a conference. The guests come from all over the country and indeed some of them from abroad; the speakers are international. This is the tenth annual installment of this particular conference; all have been at this hotel, for the hosting organization is based here in Los Angeles.

We met a couple tonight from near us, Palo Altans retired to Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, but we dined at a table for eight among people from Maryland, Michigan, and Orange County. These people are not like us, but they are agreeable and friendly.

Conversation was difficult, for a dance band was playing throughout the dinner. We smiled and nodded and occasionally caught a few words and responded, we think, appropriately.

We began dinner with a pretty good salad: carrots, cranberries, orange segments, toasted pumpkin seeds, feta cheese, balsamic vinaigrette and sesame ginger dressing. I think I mentioned we are in Los Angeles.

The main course was grilled mahi mahi with pineapple relish, rather piquant, and baby carrots, "haricot vert," and polenta. The lady from Michigan remarked that this was not mashed potato. No indeed: it was polenta.

Dessert: "Dulce de Leché", with the acute accent, caramel, and raspberry sauce, and of course half a big unripe strawberry.

And then we danced, the contessa and I, not expertly, but with pleasure.

Chardonnay, Stone Cellars, 2014
•Los Angeles Airport Marriott, 5855 West Century Boulevard, Los Angeles; 310-641-5700

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016
(2015 restaurants)

Saturday, September 10, 2016


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Los Angeles, September 9, 2016—
WE STOPPED OFF late in the afternoon to drop in on an old friend not seen for years. What a pleasure to find him virtually unchanged, healthy and happy, in a fine typical West L.A. bungalow filled with vintage photographs and comfortable furniture, with a cold bottle of Prosecco, bread and olive oil, and cheese and strawberries! That does not quite a dinner make, though, so we discussed the matter along with others, and then walked three-quarters of a mile to a favorite place of his on Westwood Boulevard, in what seems to be a middle-East enclave peppered with Persians and Lebanese. The menu was enticing, but I simply took Jim's advice: Fesenjan. This turned out to be a sort of mid-East mole, a stew rich with grated walnuts, pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, with a braised lamb shank drowning in it. I've never had anything like it, and would willingly have it again, perhaps on a cooler evening. The portions here are enormous; there was no way I could finish the plate, or the equally generous serving of Basmati rice, half of it richly colored with saffron. There was also a Shirazi salad: diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. Not to mention flatbread, and a fine amuse-bouche of lemon and mint. Interesting and savory, this place…
Pinot noir, Beringer "Founders' Estate", 2014
•Shamshiri Grill, 1712 Westwood Boulevard, Los Angeles; 310-474-1410

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016
(2015 restaurants)

Country roadhouse

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Nicasio, California, September 8, 2016——
WE ENJOY DINING in country roadhouses, and fortunately a few of our friends do as well. John and Susan know of this little pleasure, and after they'd run across rather a surprising place out in west Marin county they got in touch and we made a date.

It was dark by the time we drove into town, if you can call perhaps a dozen buildings a town, and we hadn't been in Nicasio for years. But it didn't seem to have changed. The same handsome white church standing alone on the east end of what must have been intended, a century ago, to be a town commons. The same rambling old commercial building on the north side. Otherwise not much to be seen.

The building houses the Rancho Nicasio Bar and Restaurant, with wood floors, taxidermy on the walls, an old-fashioned bar, and a few tables scattered arouund the room. That's the roadhouse, John clarified: we'd been shown to an adjacent dining room, rather more upscale; and we'd been brought menus that announced this was no ordinary country beef, beer, and bourbon operation.

I began, for example, with these rabbit tortelloni, the rather wonton-like pastry filled with tasty braised rabbit on a plate featuring gobs of Parmesan foam, a slather of pesto foam, a dollop of heirloom tomato foam, and a shingling of bok choi. I'm not a foam kind of guy, but I couldn't deny the flavor here; only the dense pasta itself seemed a little out of kilter.

I went on to the delicious, generous roast chicken, served with mushrooms, potato "confit" (pan-roasted, I'd say), and nicely al dente small zucchini. And the dessert! A chocolate marquise, I'd call it, a chocolate pudding that is very dense and sticky, rich, solid. It was sprinkled with little huckleberries and crumbled curried pistachio: a truly fine dessert. IMG 9731

Best of all, the wine: Bandol, Domaine Tempier La Migoua, 1919198080: Perfectly mature, deeply satisfying. Thanks, John!
•Western Room at Rancho Nicasio, 1 Old Rancheria Road, Nicasio; 415-662-2219

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016
(2015 restaurants)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Salade niçoise

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Eastside Road, September 7, 2016—

CLEARLY ONE OF the Hundred Plates and indispensable in hot weather — and it hit one hundred degrees Fahrenheit here today — the Salade Niçoise is a glorious thing. Cook made it today with the usual ingredients: lettuce, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs, tuna, olives, green beans. I'm not sure exactly how she dressed it and I'm not about to ask at the moment. It was delicious.

No green salad afterward, of course, but some ice cream and fruit for dessert…

Rosé, La Ferme Julien, 2014: cheap; acceptable

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dinner at Alice's

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Berkeley, September 6, 2016—
EIGHT OF US at table, and the handsome oval slate-topped table was covered with delicious dishes brought in from and by Cosecha: Tamales, Carne de Res con Chile Morita y Tomatillo, rice and beans, roasted yam with cumin, guacamole, pico de gallo, and tortillas; crema for dessert, which alas we could not stay for. ¡Ay caramba lo que una cena!
Manzanilla, B. Rodríguez "La Cave": unfined, unfiltered, absolutely true to type and absolutely delicious: thanks, Michael!

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Al Amatriciana

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Eastside Road, September 5, 2016—
YESTERDAY'S SERMON was about cosmopolitan cuisine; tonight we celebrate the provincial. Since the disastrous earthquake of a week or two ago the Italian town Amatrice, so badly hit, has been on my mind, and I realized I wasn't entirely certain about the pasta sauce named for it, presumably because it originated there. So I did a little lazy research, and settled on my favorite Italian cookbook, Ada Boni's Italian Regional Cooking (1969, Crescent Books): Boni is reliable and straightforward.

All the research agreed on guanciale as a primary ingredient, though most allowed the substitution of pancetta. Franco was selling his marvelous pancetta at the Healdsburg Farm Market on Saturday, and we'd bought some, so yesterday I bought a pound of fusilli* and a few cipollini and we were all set.

One source, I forget which, allowed as how the original recipe no doubt lacked tomatos, as they weren't introduced to the New World until after Columbus's voyages (and weren't considered edible for a few decades after that). Just as I was deciding how true that could be, the same source said ditto onions, and I knew I could forget it; onions have existed in Italy since the beginning of time. (There's another controversial ingredient, which I suppress from these instructions: red pepper flakes, or, in our copy of Roma in bocca, peperoncini I think this cannot be authentic to Amatrice; it betrays the frequent Calabrese influence on Roman cooking. Another matter to research, preferably on site.)

So I followed Ada Boni, and I recommend you do the same: slice an onion (I used three good-sized cipollini) thin and cook it until soft in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, very slowly. When the onions are soft, add five or six ounces of pancetta cut into small dice and fry them for a little while. The object here is not crispness or browning; it's cooking, sweating out the pork-fat, melding the pancetta and the onions.

(This is controversial in our house. The Contessa has an exaggerated dislike for anything she dismisses as "fat," finding it "repulsive"; she prefers her bacon quite crisp. Ah well.)

Add half a glass of white wine and cook that down; then add a pound of ripe tomatoes, or canned tomatoes. (I used a quart of the marvelous roasted tomato sauce Cook made last fall.) Salt and pepper to taste. Cook this, but not too long; pour it over the cooked pasta; sprinkle grated Pecorino on top.

We had a couple of friends over, and in all the conversation and the cheeses-before-dinner and the apéritifs and the last-minute cooking I forgot to photograph the final dish, which is a pity, because it looked wonderful. Therefor the photos above: the pancetta and onions; the tomato sauce.

We had the obligatory green salad afterward, and then, since I'd picked some black figs this morning, Deborah Madison's fine baked figs with honey and butter and cinnamon. Pastry Chef cooked the figs, and they were spectacular.

*Bucatini is the more traditional pasta for the dish, but I love the soft, wheaty fusilli made by Maestri Pastai; their twisty shape holds this sauce very nicely.
Cabernet sauvignon, Husch (Mendocino), Reserve, 2009, deep and jammy and wonderful with the figs (Thanks, Mac)

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Thinking of sausage

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Eastside Road, September 4, 2016—

OUR SON-IN-LAW, who was born in Prague and so can't really help it, is a carnivore and a lover of sausage. He is so fond of sausage that when it is served — in his home, often heaped on a platter — he has been known to set the platter on the floor and lead the children in a little dance around it, hands linked, as in the game Ring-Around-a-Rosy, except that at the end there is no general collapse, he simply lifts the platter respectfully up from the floor, holds it aloft a few moments, and then returns it to the table. Whereupon all hands fall to.

We've been known to eat sausage here on Eastside Road, you may have noticed. Tonight it's a sausage new to us: Salamelle di Mantua: pork with clove, nutmeg, and garlic. I have never been to Mantua and am a little uncertain as to its history. This sausage, though — made by Franco Dunn, Healdsburg's master salumiere (or is he Geyserville? I'm not sure…) — seemed to me to have a Venetian tang to it. It got me to thinking: there's a sophistication to the cuisines of cosmopolitan centers, like Venice, where ideas and spices and other ingredients from many corners of the known world meet and mix.

I suppose it was simply the cloves and nutmeg brought this to mind. Whatever, this was another of Cook's marvelous dinners from local sources, for ours is the best of both kinds of terroir: open to ideas from everywhere, almost, but capable of growing the ingredients ourselves. (Well, maybe not the nutmeg and the cloves.)

So here you have Salamelle di Mantua, sliced heritage tomatoes, and delicious green beans cooked with butter and shallots; and in the center of the plate Cook's nod to her mother of Bavarian ethnicity, a fine potato salad.

Afterward, of course, green salad, and melon for dessert…

Barbera, Preston of Dry Creek, 2014

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Monday, September 5, 2016

Saturday salmon

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Eastside Road, September 3, 2016—

THE QUICK TRIP into town this morning. Cook calls the shots, of course: We go first to get lima beans, then fish. Afterward lettuce. Then we'll see.

So we go first to Middleton Gardens for those marvelous beans, which Cook will shell later in the day while watching her Cubs unfortunately lose a game to the Giants. Then to Dave Lebro: Dave's out at sea, I suppose, as usual, but his saucy daughter handles the stall with almost as much personality; I enjoy our efficient negotiation.

Then to Bert and Mary for lettuce and arugula. This is their last Saturday this year: as they always do, they leave soon for a month in France, to recharge batteries, lay in some seed for all I know, and continue their researches into cheese. We'll get together for dinner on their return.

Another head of lettuce from Renee Kiff, whose writing is so delightful and whose lettuces are too. Peaches from Gayle of Dry Creek Fish. A dozen eggs, a couple of ears of corn, and some garlic — my favorite, Rose de Lautrec — from Bernier Farms. Some padrones from Foggy River Farms, our neighbor up Eastside Road. Tomatoes and strawberries from Preston of Dry Creek, whose wines we also enjoy, on special occasions.

Cook prepared the salmon her usual way, and I was mistaken last time when I mentioned leeks, of course she doesn't use leeks this time of year: salmon, a dot of butter, a splash of vodka, a scallion or two on top; carefully wrapped up in aluminum foil; cooked on the grill over a wood fire until barely done.

IMG 9688 So there's dinner: corn on the cob, limas, salmon, sliced tomatoes. Green salad. Strawberries and ice cream. No complaints here!

Rosé, La Ferme Julien

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Stuffed peppers

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Eastside Road, September 2, 2016—

STUFFED PEPPERS: I think I mentioned them the other day. I was surprised today to see Cook with a recipe book open — well, not a book: the bound volume of Gourmet magazine for the year 1969. How we miss the old Gourmet, with its literate writing, innocent enthusiasm, and now-quaint advertisements… one day I'll catalog our collection, which runs back to…

(Gets up, walks to the bookcase, bends down to check the spines…)

…1949 at least. (It was a wonderful day when we found, in a junk shop in Los Alamos, five or six bound volumes, even though each was missing three summer months, which had to be made up through visits to second-hand magazine stores in Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Portland. But I digress.)

The peppers are ordinary Bell peppers, though these, being local, are delicious in their way. I much prefer the yellow and red ones to the green, which always taste too vegetative and grassy.

The stuffing involves tuna, bread crumbs, olives, garlic, and olive oil. I could check this out easily enough, but let's leave a little to the reader.

Green salad, of course; strawberries and ice cream for dessert.

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Cheap Nero d'Avola

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Really good pasta sauce

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Eastside Road, September 1, 2016—

IT'S REALLY SO simple: a little olive oil, a few cherry tomatoes, a few leaves of basil torn up, a couple of small cloves of garlic, some salt, all of it heated up, perhaps simply with the heat of the drained pasta. Enough pasta-cooking water inevitably left in the pasta to combine beautifully with the grated Parmesan cheese; you'd almost think a little cream was involved.

Of course it's absolutely excellent Parmesan cheese; the tomatoes are perfect and so is the garlic (both local); the pasta is whole-wheat pasta…

Afterward, braised broccoli, and green salad; melon for dessert.

Cheap Nero d'Avola

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015

Salmon from the grill

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Eastside Road, August 31, 2016—

TOO HOT TO COOK much in the house today, so I built a little fire on the grill outside and cooked salmon à la Hachisu. Cook put a bit of butter on top of two salmon steaks, moistened them with a little vodka, arranged small leeks on top, and sealed them up tight in aluminum foil.

I put the packages on the grill over the fire after it had burned mostly down, and in a few minutes they were done.

In the meantime Cook had her way with a few potatoes, slicing them and cooking them with salt, rosemary, and garlic, in a little olive oil, in the black iron skillet. (I really should make a keyboard shortcut for "black iron skillet.")

Some chopped broccoli, fairly long-braised. Sliced tomatoes. Green salad afterward, and then cheese: Marin French's truffled triple-crème. Excellent.

Cheap Pinot grigio
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RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating:  2016   2015