Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wishing I was In Japan

The Shoto Club would have been the perfect place for me to drown my sorrows after a lousy day at work.  Unfortunately, it is in Tokyo...and I am here.  

I was in a surprisingly foul mood today for no real reason that I know of and it got worse after a meeting with my company accountants.  Dudes, we're in the middle of a worldwide financial crisis and our largest client is (was?) an auto manufacturer.  Give me a break.  Get over yourselves.  We'll figure it out.  We always do.

So I came home and all I wanted to do was open a bottle of wine and forget about it, but I had to eat, so I started off pan frying some fresh corn in a bit of butter and olive oil, thinking I would have it with a fried egg and a tortilla.  But I found some leftover cold rice, threw that in the frying pan too, then chopped up some chiles, tomatoes and cilantro, threw in a little bit of salt and realized I was actually making some sort of fried rice.  When it was almost done, I added a tablespoon of fish sauce, and if not great, it was certainly good and fast.  And only about 500 calories.  I know that as the hot, dry season in the D.F. comes to an end and the rainy season begins, I will move away from so much Asian cooking, now that I can have the stove on for longer periods without being driven outside because of the heat in my kitchen, and this may be my last taste of it for a while.  Sort of a transitional dinner.

After the wine started to have some effect, I settled down a bit and checked my email.  A friend was asking for some Japan recommendations, and glad to have something to do, I wrote the following, which had a totally relaxing effect on me and my mood and gave me the opportunity to re-live a recent trip to Asia.

In Tokyon, Ryugin is an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience and IMHO, the chef is on the same level as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.  Just spectacular...and if you want to go anywhere great, I would say this should be the one place.  I can't say enough about it.  I don't even want to recommend anything else because everything pales in comparison.  


In Kyoto, a simple and amazing place for tempura is Tenyu...it is owned and run by the same people who own the Tawaraya ryokan...the famous Japanese inn (which I would not personally recommend for reasons I won't go into)...and the tempura is reputed to be among the best in Japan.  I find it pure and delicious.  Relatively cheap at about $US80 for the basic menu, a maximum of 12 guests sit around a U-shaped bar and focus on the father and son chef team as they demonstrate the zen of tempura perfected.

Another Kyoto experience that I would recommend is a visit to the Daitoku-ji Temple...actually a bunch of beautiful temples in a complex.  It's not on the same "top attraction" list as the Golden Pavillion, but well worth a stop, not only for the varied and beautiful temples, but the vegetarian restaurant in the complex is an experience in itself.  It is called Izusen...open only for lunch, and the set menu offers an amazing variety of delicious and healthy food for about $US40.  You sit on tatami mats...and fortunately, they serve sake and beer to help with the back pain.  The complex is a great place to wander around and then enjoy truly beautifully prepared food in a zen garden-like atmosphere.       
Also, check out these two links below to the Bon Apetit article about Tokyo becoming the mixology capital of the world.  We went to The Shoto Club and it was the most amazing bar experience of our lives.  Very hard to find, in the basement of an obscure apartment building, the amount of passion and creativity that goes into the cocktails is mind blowing.  Not a lot of English spoken, but if you just say "omakase"...I am in your hands....they will astound you with their cocktails.  If you go (and I would recommend doing this for any of the non-hotel bars), have the concierge call first to make sure they are open, not having a private event and to let them know that you are coming.

Speaking of hotel bars, the one that everyone who's seen Lost in Translation remembers is on the top of the Park Hyatt.  I would recommend avoiding that, and the one of the top of the Peninsula as well, and reserve a table at the Cerulean Tower bar.  The minimalist Zen-wood design accents the spectacular view over the city, and if you go at sunset, you may see the sun reflecting off Mt. Fuji just before the night takes over, the lights of the Shibuya district come up, and you watch the crowds below as they hurry home from work via the largest pedestrian crossing in the world.  

Friday, May 15, 2009

Where To Eat In The D.F.

Having lived and worked here for almost 20 years, I still consider myself to be a stranger in a strange land.  There are things I will never “get”, cultural barriers that I will never cross, and Mexican restaurants I think are quite good that no “chilango” would even consider frequenting, unless it is with me, who they would be humoring, because I am, after all a foreigner, who doesn’t understand “real” Mexican food.  There are people I have known for years, and eaten with on many occasions, who still begin every meal we have together with the question, “Do you like chile?”   

I do.  I arrived in Mexico without a centavo in my pocket and survived on street food and “splurging” on cheap restaurants for longer than I care to remember.  Chile helps dull hunger pains.   Padre Kino (probably the cheapest  Mexican wine there is) became my best friend.  With age and a bit more income, my eating habits have become more upscale, but on occasion, I can still be found in questionable condition, eating tacos al pastor at Selene at 3 in the morning. 

 I am constantly asked by friends, or friends of friends, or by people who got my name from someone who knows me, where to eat when they visit Mexico City, and I am only too happy to provide some recommendations.  But before I go on, I need to say again that the best Mexican food I have ever had is prepared by my housekeeper, who has kept me well fed and versed in Mexican cuisine for many years now, and once you have tasted her huachinango a la veracruzana, mole verde, sopes, chiliquiles, and my favorite, grilled pork ribs marinated in tequila and diced poblano chiles, a recipe we developed together, food in most local restaurants pales in comparison.  That is why I go to them infrequently, or when I have guests in town who want to eat “authentic” Mexican.  But when I do go out locally, I tend to go to the places that are listed in guidebooks and discussed on boards like Chowhound; Izote, Fonda del Recuerdo, Villa Maria, La Valentina and Contramar continue to wow me on occasion and almost always leave me feeling satisfied.  For tacos, I like El Tizoncito in Condesa and Lago de los Cisnes in Lomas (especially on Sunday afternoon, the official maid’s day off,, where upscale housewives who have no idea how to boil water can be seen devouring tacos along with their families).  My corner taqueria, Las Costillas on Juan Escutia and Pachuca, makes great quesadillas and their pork chop tacos are always a hit with me as well, as is the friendly staff.  

Eating in traditional “international” restaurants that include some Mexican dishes on the menu  (Bellinghausen in the Zona Rosa and Danubio in the Centro) is like slipping into a pair of sweats and beat up sneakers…comfortable, easy and familiar.  For more modern Mexican, I also like Los Canarios in Sta. Fe, especially the duck tacos, as well as La Guadiana.   

For non-Mexican dining, Jaso in Polanco is about is good as it gets, and the understated Basque restaurant Bakea in Lomas de Barrilaco always leaves me wishing I was back in San Sebastian and wondering whether it is in fact, the best restaurant in the D.F.

L’atelier de Quim Jardi in Colonia Roma is the perfect bohemian pizza joint run by a quirky, unique and talented chef; I go about once a week and usually order “The Lynch”, named after the famous director, which is not yet on the menu but will be whenever they print a new one.  The jazz is always hot, the pizza at times, not.  Still my favorite pizza place though.  50 Friends in both Condesa and Polanco has good pizza as well, always with a large crowd that is reflective of each neighborhood.  

I try not to eat much beef these days, but when I do, El Zorzal on the corner of Alfonso Reyes and Tamaulipas is a fine place to do it.  I prefer their casual, neighborhood vibe to the big ticket Argentine places like Rincon de Argentina, which always feels to me like a huge Rustler.

All that said, here are three simple places that don’t make all the discussion boards or guidebooks (although occasionally they do turn up) that I find myself returning to for Mexican food and always enjoying.  I can recommend them to just about anyone and everyone.


Selene (behind the Camino Real in Anzures).  Go very late and very drunk.  You will fit right in….and you probably won’t notice (or at least remember) the cleanliness factor.  It's all about the tacos al pastor here, although I have ordered a "milanesa" taco from time to time and loved every greasy bite.


El Turix (Emilio Castelar 210 in Polanco).  Stuff yourself on cochinita pibil tacos and panuchos, down a few Montejo beers, and bliss out.



La Gurufa (Michoacan 91, Condesa).  I don’t know why I like this place so much, but I do.  Sit outside, watch the happening locals, order the blue corn quesadillas with goat cheese or another contemporary Mexican option and chill.  Saturday and Sunday late mornings are best, because you are sure to spot someone more hungover than you are.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


"Don't blame it on me, blame it on your hog farms".   

This is my first week back in Mexico since I left on the 28th of April.  We decided to not take any chances, close the company and work remotely for a week, so I headed to San Francisco to spend a few days with friends and then had a work-related trip to Atlanta scheduled for last week.  I finally made it back to the D.F. on Sunday and have spent the last few days getting caught up at work and moving my blog from a previous location to this one, so please bear with me while I figure out the new format/software and get comfortable with it. 

So, do I think the whole swine thing was overblown?  Yeah, I do.  Way overblown in fact.  But I have to say I think the government did a great job of shutting down the city and responding to the threat.  It was amazing to see the city totally shuttered, no traffic and almost nobody on the streets.  It is something I won't forget for a long time.

In San Francisco, I re-visited a place on Potrero Hill (Aperto) I had been to before on several occasions and found it to be better than ever and left amazed at the price tag of $US135 for 4, including a bottle of wine.  There is no way you could find the same innovation and thinking here for the same price.  There have been several articles in major magazines and newspapers over the past few years about Mexico City becoming a world food capital/destination, including this WSJ article , but I think it pales in comparison to places like San Francisco, Bangkok, Paris, New York and my all time favorite, San Sebastian, where I am headed next month, especially when it comes to walking into just about anywhere and getting great food.  It is EASY to get a bad meal here. Peas were in season in SF, and Aperto took full advantage of the fact.  In two of our entrees (Osso Bucco and Braised Lamb Shank), both the peas and their shoots played prominent roles, infusing the dishes with an unexpected first-taste-of-summer freshness.  While the seasonality of fruits and vegetables here is quite different and less pronounced than in the U.S., chefs don't really seem to pay much attention to it on their menus.  For example, Manila mangos are in season right now and they are never featured in any of the places I frequent.  And they are good. As good as Thailand's mangos.  Which is really saying something.

Also in San Francisco, I went with a 12 year old vegetarian to a simple Chinese place on Church Street in Noe Valley (Hunan), where I had some fiery smoked ham that literally and figuratively took my breath away.  The vegetarian dishes were outstanding as well, and again, the price was so reasonable for the quality...even with the peso devaluation against the dollar I still found it reasonable.  And San Francisco kids seem so sophisticated when it comes to food in comparison to kids here...or just about anywhere else I guess.  When I asked my friend's daughter where we should eat, she came up with a range of interesting places, and when I left the decision up to her, she chose Hunan because of their hot and sour soup, warning me in advance it was very spicy. 

My friends' kitchen is being remodeled and we were cooking out of a makeshift one in the basement.  Asparagus is also in season in the U.S., so inspired by the lunch at Hunan, one evening I made an asparagus stir-fry (recipe below) that I make frequently here.  We steamed carry-out dumplings from King of Dumplings on Noriega (the best carry-out dumplings in the U.S. IMHO...and you can watch the Chinese ladies in the back room of the store making them...always a treat) and poured some hot oil on a piece of sea bass, lightly steamed and topped with chopped scallions and ginger.  Not bad for a basement cooked meal.

I had never been outside of the Atlanta airport before this trip, and only had one meal outside of the hotel, which was in an adequate Middle Eastern place.  Lots of sweetened iced tea and sandwiches.  As I was in a hotel in a suburb, I saw very little of the town, but what I did see left me with no burning desire to go back.  But everyone was so damn friendly, it made up for the lackluster food.

"Hunan" Stir-Fried Asparagus
-1 tablespoon neutral oil
-1 bunch asparagus (about 1.5 lbs.), tough stems chopped off and then chopped in 2" lengths
-3 large cloves garlic, sliced thinly lengthwise
-4 dried red chile peppers, broken into 1/4" lengths
-1/2 cup Shaoxing wine (or sake, or chicken broth, or white wine)
-3 tblsp. oyster sauce
-2 tsp. sesame oil

-Stir oyster sauce into wine, set aside
-Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat until smoking, and add oil.  Swirl to coat.  Add garlic and stir fry for about 30 seconds, then add chile and stir fry for another 30 seconds.
-Add asparagus and stir fry for about 2 minutes, or until just beginning to lose its crispness
-Add wine/oyster sauce mixture, lower heat slightly, and let it bubble away, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a light glaze, about 8-10 minutes
-Stir in sesame oil just before serving.

Serves 4 as part of a larger meal


What to Do With Leftover Ikura and Tobiko

http://kyotofoodie.com/home-cooking-uni-ikura-donburi-on-soba-gohan/ Ikura (salmon roe) makes a great topping for a fast and light green fried rice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I had some friends and colleagues over this weekend to drink some sake that I brought back from Japan a couple of months ago and compare it to what is available locally (consensus: no comparison whatsoever.  Further consensus among most the next morning: better just to stick to Sapporo and Albarino.)   To go with the sake, I had a sushi chef from one of the better local sushi places come in and prepare what turned out to be a huge sushi and sashimi feast.  There was so much leftover, everybody took home a large package and I still had more than there was room in the refrigerator to store, so my housekeeper, building manager and several neighbors were gifted large foil packages as well.  In the end, I was left with a few pieces of hamachi and big styrofoam cups of ikura and tobiko (flying fish roe).  I spent all of yesterday wondering what I could do with the salmon roe and came up with the following recipe last night.  It was so good, I had it again tonight, polishing the recipe and polishing off the ikura at the same time.  I am still working on what to do with the tobiko.  I’m thinking pizza with wasabi creme fraiche and chives.

Green Fried Rice with Ikura (salmon roe)

Serves 1 as a main course, 2 as a side dish

-2 tblsp. canola oil or other oil with high smoke point

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-2-4 serrano chiles, minced

-1 egg

-1 cup steamed white rice (preferably leftover Jasmine and cold)

-1/3 cup each minced cilantro, cucumber and scallions

-1 tblsp. fish sauce or soy sauce

-2 tblsp. salmon roe

-Tomato wedges and scallions for garnish, lime wedge for squeezing

Heat a wok over high heat until smoking, then add oil, swirling to coat.  Add garlic and chile, stir fry for about 30 seconds.  Push garlic and chile to one side, add egg and fry until barely set.  Add rice and breaking up egg, stir fry for another 30 seconds.  Add cilantro, cucumber and parsley, and stir fry 30 seconds, add fish sauce or soy sauce, and stir fry for about 90 seconds more, adding a little more sauce if it seems too dry.

Serve rice topped with salmon roe and garnished with tomato and scallions.  Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top. 

Some Food Moments Remembered

Entrance to Ryugin in Tokyo...site of my last food moment.  For me,  food moments are those rare, few and far between times when you know that you are tasting perfection.  Everything else drops away and it is just about  you and the food. 

The most powerful food moment I remember having was in a restaurant in Napa called Terra.  It was in the 80’s.  I don’t know what it was I was having, but I still remember the exact sensation.  I was sitting with some friends and suddenly, they faded into the background .  I entered a state of heightened reality where it was nothing but me and the food I was tasting.  I knew there was true genius at work in the kitchen and his or her cooking was not only having an effect on my taste, but on my entire body.  It generated a physical and mental buzz that lasted for maybe a minute.  The sensation was so strong and my withdrawal from the moment so apparent, my friends asked me, ‘What’s wrong?”  And no, I was not stoned.  I have been back to Terra since, and the experience was not repeated.

Another powerful food moment was in Rio, at a restaurant called Siri Mole, when I first tasted moqueca.  I was with the same friends, so they knew what was happening.

I have had two food moments in Bangkok, the first at Supatra River House.  When asked, locals and ex-pat foodies will tell you the food is for tourists and there is much, much better food to be had in Bangkok.  But the thing about food moments is they don’t discriminate.  They can happen anywhere and anytime.  I think it was the sauteed morning glory, a pedestrian dish I had eaten many times before and have eaten many times since, that caused it, but it has never had that effect on me again.  And I’ve had it several times since at Supatra.

The second experience in Bangkok was when I was walking along the stretch of Chareon Krung Road between Silom and the Saphan Taksin skytrain.  I saw some fried chicken at a street vendor stall that just called out to me.  As much as I like Thai food, fried chicken isn’t my favorite, and there is a famous place in Bangkok called Soi Polo Fried Chicken where I had eaten before and had what was reputed to the best fried chicken in town.  I found it good but not exciting.  So when I saw this chicken and stopped, I was surprised that  I even considered it.  But I did.  I bought a breast, who knows why, since they tend to dry out when fried.  And it happened again.  The entire street scene, which is extraordinarily hectic and hot, dropped away and it was just me and the most perfect piece of chicken I have ever eaten.  

Speaking of chicken, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris is L’ami Louis, and yes, I know what other foodies and experts have to say about it, and I don’t care, and I continue to go back and pay astronomical prices for roast chicken that most people say is better elsewhere.  I was there one time with a friend who is a chef and who never been a fan of roast chicken...until he tried it there and found it to be a revelation.   I was glad to have helped to bring about a food moment for him and only hope it was as powerful and intense as mine are. 

I think food moments may run in the family, at least my family.  My 19 year old niece is the only other person in the family with a passion for food, and I am sure she was born with it just as I was.  I have had the blessing (and curse, she is after all, a teenager) of being able to travel with her and try some fantastic restaurants around the world, where I have witnessed her having food moments of her own.  I can tell when the same state of being that overtakes me overtakes her as well; her eyes widen, and she says to me, when I look at her knowingly, “you don’t know, you just don’t know.”  But yes, I do.  Raw oysters tend to provoke food moments for her, as does Porcao in Rio and my spaghetti carbonara.  Unlike me, she has repeat moments at the same places and with the same foods.  I was expecting her to have one at Pre Catalan in Paris, but as much as she liked it, she didn't.  You just never know.

My most recent food moment was in December at Ryugin in Tokyo.  It was one of the best meals of my life, the tasting menu thrilling, and the chef, Seiji Yamamoto, is a genius in the same league as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria.  But the dish that caused the food moment came towards the end and was perhaps the simplest on the menu: "Steamed Rice with Cherry Blossom Tea Topped with Aromatic Sakura Shrimp from Shizuoka".

The best thing about food moments is you never know where or when they are going to hit.  But when they do, they are always worth the wait.  And I can’t wait for the next one.  

Review: Primos


Primos in the Condesa is a bustling Mediterranean-style bistro with above average food and a pleasant buzz.  The jamon serrano with their outstanding crusty bread is always a pleasant ‘tapa’.  They also have a retail bakery on Alfonso Reyes in the Condesa, a block or two away from Quilmes, where you can buy the bread to take home. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You won’t find many tourists at Primos, or much of the stereotypical Condesa crowd either, although its location would suggest otherwise.  Right on the corner of Mazatlan and Michoacan, not far from the Turibus stop, Primos is a small (maybe 30 table) Mediterranean-style bistro with a white and black tile floor and white cloth covered tables that attracts well dressed professionals at both lunch and dinner with a varied, Spanish-influenced menu that goes from tapas and “revueltitos” to hot dogs and hamburgers.  I have been going regularly since it opened, over two years ago, and find it one of the most pleasant and consistently good places to eat in the neighborhood.  Last night was a typical experience.

Calling to reserve for 4 at 9pm, I was offered 8:45 with 15 minutes of “tolerance”, a testament to Primos’ ongoing popularity.  My friends arrived before I did, and were seated at a table just inside the restaurant, overlooking diners seated on the outdoor terrace, which is extremely pleasant when the weather is good, with a view towards the tree-shaded pathway that divides Mazatlan.  The restaurant was busy with almost all tables occupied by an older (35+) group of well heeled chilangos.  We ordered drinks and a bottle of wine, a Spanish tempranillo/cabernet blend at a reasonable $MXP250.  It was nothing special, but we weren’t there to drink anything special.  For $MXP390, an Altos Las Hormigas 2006 Malbec would have been the better choice, despite the almost 300% markup from U.S. prices.

To begin, we decided on some appetizers for the “centro”.  Patatas bravas, jamon Serrano and some Manchego cheese were quickly served, as was another bottle of the same wine, which we found improved with a bit of air.  The four large, thick spears of crusty, fried potatoes were topped with a chipotle mayonnaise that one of my companions thought a bit too much in the heat department, although I found relatively tame.  About fifteen wafer thin slices of aged Manchego went well (and quickly) with the wine, and the ham arrived glistening and moist.  I didn’t try the ham, but the general agreement was that the appetizers were quite good.

My “tacos de dorado”, three flour tortillas, each with a piece of battered and deep fried mahi-mahi topped with chipotle mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and cilantro, were not what I was expecting or hoping for, although I must not have paid attention to the menu description.  To my way of thinking, there is absolutely nothing like simply grilled fish in a corn tortilla, topped with salsa Mexicana, lime and perhaps a bit of guacamole, so I wasn’t prepared for anything other than that, but that’s just me.  Fried fish is the norm in many places serving fish tacos, and once I got over the idea of eating “fish fingers”, I found them to be fine, if a bit heavy, and two were more than enough; the third went uneaten.  I noticed my friend, who had also ordered the tacos, scraping off the chipotle mayonnaise, but she was the same one who had found the potatoes to be too spicy.   

Another friend’s steak frites made her very happy, the meat also topped by chipotle mayonnaise, and we all had a taste of the frites, which were thin, crisp and delicious.  The gnocchi with meat ragu was pronounced as “good”, although not with an excess of enthusiasm.  We finished the meal with a third bottle of wine and no dessert.

On another occasion, I ordered the “frankfurter”, which was a large hot dog, grilled and served in a toasted bun with frites.  Not only was it excellent, it was the envy of the table; everyone else having ordered something more “high end”, but lusting after my simple sausage.  During my last visit, it was everyone at my table, including me, staring at someone else’s frankfurter, wishing we had ordered it for ourselves.  It is quite seductive.  

Mention also has to be made of the “revueltitos” and “montaditos”, two typical Basque appetizers, the first being scrambled eggs with a chosen ingredient (mushrooms, chorizo, cheese, to name a few available) served atop roasted potato.  “Montaditos” are the same  toppings, served on baguette slices.  When last ordered, two slices of thick, doughy bread, topped with crushed fresh tomato sauce and lots of anchovy filets made an enjoyable “tapa” to begin the meal.  

Nightly specials and monthly wine specials are listed on blackboards around the room.  One of my favorites, the Dorado With 3 Chiles, almost always arrives perfectly fresh and just barely cooked through.  It is prepared in a very spicy olive oil based sauce laced with both dry and fresh chiles and served with grilled asparagus and tomato on the side.  For the  most part, desserts are forgettable, so on those nights when I am not yet satisfied, I order a plate of cheese to finish the wine.

Primos has a lot going for it in addition to the above average (and frequently, way above average) food.  Most people are there to have a good time and enjoy the pleasant buzz the restaurant always seems to generate, especially when the weather is good, the terrace is active and the guests are well into their second or third drink of the evening.  

I find the service at Primos to be professional and very pleasant, although the waiters may get slightly harried at peak times and you will need to flag them down.  When you do, their response is courteous and prompt.  Prices are very reasonable…last night’s dinner for four, with a couple of drinks and 3 bottles of wine was in the $MXP2000 range, including tip.  You can of course spend more…or less.  A hot dog and a beer would set you back about $MXP100, and that is exactly what I will be ordering on my next visit.

Primos, Mazatlan 168, Colonia Condesa


M-T: 1:00pm-11pm

W-Sa: 1:00pm-12am

Su: 1pm-6pm

R.I.P Michael Mina

Lobster pot pie was one of the signature dishes at Michael Mina's recently shuttered restaurant in Polanco-Nemi.
Sunday, April 4, 2009

Another celebrity chef exits Mexico after less than a year.  I wrote an initial review of Nemi, the Michael Mina restaurant in Polanco in May of last year.  I was back in June and not much had changed, although the food was marginally better and the service still superb.  But it did not come as  a surprise when I heard that Nemi had closed.  I don’t know why it is that Mexico City can’t seem to support American celebrity chefs, but it probably has something to do with the chilango palate as well as their feeling about “American” food...I don’t have one Mexican foodie friend who really enjoys eating anywhere in the U.S.  (Ok, a few like Le Bernardin).  And to be fair, high-end chains like The Palm and now Morton’s, as well as all the lower end usual suspects (TGI Friday’s, Tony Roma’s, Outback Steakhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, etc.) seem to do fine.  Maybe it is just that people object to paying astronomical prices for average food and wine when the name of the chef doesn’t mean anything to them.  Can’t say I blame them.  There is one place that serves “Contemporary American” that seems to be doing very well  and which I love, but won’t mention by name because I don’t want to curse it.  Fortunately, the chef isn’t a celebrity...yet.  But if he keeps on putting out food like he currently does, he’s well on his way to being one.

Nemi was supposed to be the cornerstone restaurant of the new boutique hotel, Las Alcobas, due to open in February, but to the best of my knowledge, has not yet started operating.  Also designed by Nemi’s firm (Yabu Pushelberg), rooms were published to start at $US450.  Perhaps the closing of Nemi and the delay in the opening are coincidental, or perhaps not.  These are tough times in Mexico for $US100 dinners and $US450 hotels.  

NEMI (May 2008)

I recently returned to the DF after a 6 month leave of absence.  The first thing I did was go back to the places I missed the most; Danubio and Contramar for seafood and Izote for Mexican (given the temporary closure of Aguila y Sol). All were excellent, and Izote, with which I have had an on-again, off-again relationship based on their inconsistency over the years, blew me away. The next thing on my list was to try the new Michael Mina restaurant, Nemi, which recently opened in Polanco. I went on a quiet Tuesday night with a Welsh-Canadian companion. At 8pm, we were the only ones in the restaurant, which isn’t surprising, considering this is Mexico. When we left at 10:30, two other couples were there, again, not surprising, since the restaurant had only been open two weeks.

The address of the restaurant is on Masaryk, however, the dark entrance is around the corner and a bit hard to find. Once found, I was greeted warmly and shown to my table, where my companion was waiting. The Yabu Pushelberg design seems as though they put their junior team on it, however, in all fairness, the coldness and lack of intimacy it projected may have been due to the emptiness of the restaurant and not the design itself. The restaurant itself it small…perhaps 30 tables, with no bar. We were offered a glass of complimentary sparkling wine while we reviewed the menu and wine list. I have been a fan of Michael Mina since he was the chef at Aqua in San Francisco, where many years ago I had one of the most memorable fish dishes of my life. I was looking forward to a similar experience at Nemi. Unfortunately, it was not to be had.

The menu, which is heavily seafood based, was nothing spectacular in terms of innovation or uniqueness, but the genius of Mina is in the execution. I plan to go back several more times and will report in detail on the menu offerings, but for the moment, will concentrate on what we had and our experience on this one particular night. The very pricey wine list, which is also nothing special, was heavy on the usual suspects, all of them good wines, but not in line with the offerings at Mina’s U.S. restaurants. It is understandable considering the difficulty in sourcing wines in Mexico and the Mexican preference for French and Spanish wines vs. U.S. and New World wines. We chose a 2005 Descendientes de J. Palacios Petalos at $US65. It retails for about $US25 in the U.S. and tasted like a good $25 bottle of wine.

There were two options on the menu…a 7 course prix fixe menu at approx. $US100 or a 3 course menu at approx. $US75. We choose the 3 course option given that I am trying to eat less meat and the otherwise very accommodating and professional staff was not too keen on substitutions for the beef and chicken on the prix fixe. For appetizers, we chose the tuna tartare with habanero chiles and the foie gras 3 ways ($US20 supplement); for the main course, lobster pot pie ($US 40 supplement) and beef 3 ways.

The first amuse we were offered was a perfectly grilled scallop on a bed of perfectly bland vegetable/herb puree. Not a hit, but quite acceptable. The second was a selection of 3 small bites…lobster poached in butter (served cold, which seems to negate the butter poaching, and not a lot of flavor), a bit of fried lobster atop grain mustard sauce (very interesting, especially the sauce) and a third preparation that escapes me.

My tuna tartare was prepared tableside and served with Pan Bimbo (Wonder Bread) toast. While I appreciated the extra bite that the habanero brought to the dish, it was nothing above average, although there was quite a bit of it. I did not eat the toast. My friend’s appetizer was the hit of the evening…three bits of sautéed foie gras paired with three very sweet and different fruit compotes..  His beef was grilled as requested, three generous slices paired with mashed potatoes, a very small baked potato with sour cream, bacon and chives…the third preparation once again escapes me. The two bites I tasted, hoping for something along the lines of what Mina serves at Stripsteak in Vegas, were just ok and quite unimaginative. The beef quality was nothing special and not as good as what you can get in the better Argentine restaurants around town.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the lobster pot pie, which I have loved at Michael Mina in both San Francisco and Las Vegas. The pie was presented tableside, the crust broken, then the whole lobster reconstructed and plated on top of the crust, surrounded by vegetables in a truffled cream sauce. The lobster itself was a large one, justifying the supplement, but stringy and overcooked. The vegetables were nicely done, but bland, and I did not detect any scent or taste of truffle whatsoever. The crust was boring and I left mine almost untouched.

Dessert was also disappointing. My passion fruit panna cotta was a waste of effort, bland and uninspired. The same molten chocolate cake with ice cream my companion ordered can be found in many restaurants around town.

The service was excellent; the friendly, English fluent staff aims to please and answer questions, obviously quite proud of their new restaurant. The maitre’d has worked with Mina in the U.S. and is upbeat and easygoing. We did not have the heart to tell the staff how disappointed we were, only that we would be back soon, which we will. While I did not pay the bill, I know that it approached $US200 per person, with one bottle of wine, thanks in large part to the supplemental charges, making Nemi one of the most expensive restaurants in town. I am hoping that in a short time, they get their act together and begin putting out dishes that are worthy of the Michael Mina name and the prices they are charging. They are clearly having a “soft” opening and getting their feet wet, and we were told that they have done no P.R. yet, save for a few efforts with hotel concierges. It would be a smart move to have someone very senior from the Mina organization come down here and supervise the kitchen until they get it right.

I have every desire to see Nemi succeed. The Mexico City dining scene needs more innovation and it would be great if more chefs like Mina would come to town. The city seems to be inflexible in what it will and will not accept, and unfortunately, the precedent for U.S. celebrity chefs is not good. Both Wolfgang Puck and Jean George Vongerichten have tried and not made it work; Spago closed after 3 years, and Vong after about 2. In its last few months, Vong lowered prices and “Mexicanized” its menu…it still didn’t survive. And both of them put out food that was excellent and true to their chefs from the beginning. Nemi needs some immediate improvement if it plans to stay around for long.

Keeping It Simple

Canned alubias...white beans...from Spain make a quick, easy and satisfying  dinner when I don’t have the energy or desire to actually cook something.
Monday, March 30

I was tired today from a long weekend.  On Friday, I had some colleagues over for Chinese food and a lot of wine.  It went late into the night.  On Saturday, I recovered and watched movies at home, eating leftovers.  Yesterday, I was invited for a traditional Sunday meal at my Welsh friend’s house, which meant lamb with mint sauce and roasted potatoes, among other things.  And a lot of wine.  The weather is perfect right now for some rose and white options in the sunny afternoon, before moving on to reds with dinner and sunset.  And of course, there was the after dinner bottle to go with the Amazing Race.  They were in Phuket this week, and I wanted to email all the contestants and tell them not to leave without trying the incredible local oysters at Kan Eang, but they probably have other things on their minds, like the $1 million.

This morning I hauled myself out of bed and went to work.  At lunchtime, I picked up a baguette, thinking a banh mi with the leftover sesame pork from Friday would be perfect.  But Mari hadn’t gone shopping, and we didn’t have carrots or any cilantro, so I just told her to throw together whatever we had.  Turned out to be an excellent banh mi variation....with butter lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions on the crunchy baguette spread with 1 tablespoon of mayo and a squirt of Sri Racha.  And of course the pork.

In addition to the bread, I picked up a bottle of Fuzion, an Argentine tempranillo/malbec blend at La Naval on Insurgentes Sur, where I also bought a can of alubias, white beans from Spain.  When I got home from work, I opened and drained the beans, sliced some onions, chopped some fresh rosemary and parsley, and threw them all together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil with lots of salt and pepper.  It took all of 5 minutes.  I let the flavors meld for about 30 minutes.  With what was left of the lunch baguette, dinner couldn’t have been better...or cheaper.  

The Mile High Wine Club-And One On The Ground

Some of the most unexpected wine experiences can be ahead above the clouds rather than below them.  On the ground, The Vintage Club is Mexico's best option.

Several years ago on a flight from Mexico to Toronto , I was sitting next to the Mexican ambassador to Canada, a descendent of the family that founded the Casa Madero Winery, which happens to be the oldest winery in the Americas (founded in 1574).  The airline happened to be serving two Casa Madero wines, a red and a white, and my seatmate also made an excellent ambassador for the winery, explaining to me the history and encouraging me to continue sampling both offerings.  While the Mexican wineries that are currently getting all the press are from Baja California, Casa Madero is located in the north of the country, in the Valle de Parras, not far from Monterrey.  I arrived in Toronto a bit more buzzed than planned, but with a respect for a winery I had previously known little about.  I have been drinking Casa Madero wines sporadically ever since, and I think that both the chenin blanc and merlot are well worth the reasonable price, as well as the slight rush that comes with drinking wine from the oldest winery in the Americas.  Take that, overpriced Napa whites.

The first time I ever tried Duetto was on a flight from JFK to Mexico, more than ten years ago, and from that moment on, I knew I was on to something special.  Originally, Duetto was a wine produced in Baja California with a combination of grapes grown north of the border and locally.  It was positioned as a joint venture between California’s Wente Brothers and Santo Tomas, the Mexican winery founded in 1888, and the northern grapes were brought in to temper the somewhat unrefined local grapes.  Or something like that.  I have had a lot of Duetto since then, as it appears on many good restaurant wine lists, and it has doubled, and in some case tripled, in cost.  A bottle of Duetto here in Mexico now costs about $US50 in a retail store like El Naval, and about $US100 on restaurant wine lists.  I am not sure when they stopped using the grapes from north of the border, but the 2005 I drank this evening was a combination of tempranillo (60%0) from the Valle de San Vicente and cabernet sauvignon (40%) from the Valle de Santo Tomas, both in Baja California.  It has a nose of mature fruit with background notes of cinnamon and vanilla and a taste of structured tannins with an elegant and smooth finish.  Is Duetto worth the cost compared to similarly priced reds?  Sometimes.  Depends on the moment.  

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to fly in first class from time to time on some of the world’s better airlines and I think there is a special pleasure in drinking well or making a new discovery while flying.  It certainly helps the time pass.  For me, food on planes is rarely memorable, and when it is, it is for how bad it was rather than how good.  But airlines can’t really screw up wines and when they actually try and invest a bit of time, effort and money, it leaves a very good taste in your mouth.  Thanks to Lufthansa, I have learned a bit about German wines, especially riesling, which is always pleasant to drink above the clouds, especially during the daytime.  I never would have thought it would pair well with caviar, but it does.  It also goes beautifully with the Asian chicken recipe below.  And then there is Weissherbst, which I have looked for and tried to find after sampling it on one flight, but without success.  It is a rose usually made from pinot noir grapes grown in the German regions of Baden and Wurtteberg.  On Singapore, there is always a choice between Dom Perignon and Krug,  And on my all time favorite, ANA, I have had amazing sakes, Japanese scotch and a rose champagne that was quite exceptional; Duval-Leroy Rose du Saignee.  I hear wine tastes different at higher altitudes, some say not as good as on the ground, but I can’t imagine this champagne tasting better than it did when I tried it on a flight from Washington to Tokyo a couple of years ago.  Perfect with sushi.

Speaking of wine clubs, I belong to The Vintage Club (www.thevintageclub.com.mx) , owned and run Mark Galindo Herrera, who is one of the most knowledgeable and likable people on the wine scene in Mexico.  In the short time I have known him, Mark has turned me on to some amazing wines from Spain, Italy, Argentina and Mexico that are unavailable at retail stores here.  If you live in Mexico and love wine, I highly recommend a membership.  The 2005 Duetto was one of this month’s club selections.  

This past weekend, I had some colleagues over for Chinese food, and this simple recipe was a serious hit.  Try it with a dry riesling (if you can find one...not easy in Mexico).  Might work with some rose champagne as well.

Steamed Chinese Chicken Breasts

-2 bone-in chicken breasts, skin left on

-4 tablespoons soy sauce

-2 teaspoon sesame oil

-1/2 cup scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped and 3 additional, left whole

-1/2 cup canola or grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil with high smoke point)

-2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

-1/4 cup minced ginger

-1 cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

-Steam the chicken breasts for about 20 minutes, then plunge them into ice cold water to stop the cooking.  Dry with cloth and set aside.

-Mix soy sauce with sesame oil.

-Combine the chopped scallions with the ginger and salt in a small bowl.

-Heat the oil until just barely smoking, then pour over scallions, ginger and salt

-Using your fingers or a knife, debone breasts, cut them lengthwise down the middle and crosswise into 1/2” pieces.  Place the sliced cucumber on a serving platter and the chicken over them.

-Pour the soy/sesame oil evenly over the chicken

-Cut the white ends off the 3 scallions and reserve for other use.  With a sharp knife, cut the remaining greens into 2” lengths, shred them lengthwise into ribbons and scatter over chicken

-Serve chicken with ginger scallion sauce on the side

-Serves 4-6 as appetizer.

A Hot Brown Time in Lousiville

The Hot Brown is Louisville's famous local sandwich.  It's worth a try if you are in town but keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed.

I just returned from 3 days in Louisville, KY, attending the largest truck show in the world.  It was an interesting experience to say the least, since my exposure to truckers has been pretty limited.  This was my fourth or fifth trip to Louisville, the previous ones many years ago to attend the Derby several times and my best friend’s wedding in 1978.  Needless to say, the trucker crowd was a bit different than the Derby crowd.  I stayed downtown and found the city to be boring, both foodwise and entertainment wise.  Cab drivers complained bitterly about the local economy, the downtown area seemed empty except for the truck show attendees, and the only sign of nightlife was in the 4th Street Live area....featuring several expected chain restaurants (Hard Rock, TGI Friday’s) as well as a few local places.  To be fair, I had some shrimp and grits at one of the local places.  Although nothing special, it was good enough.  The truckers (and those who were there to sell  stuff to them) seemed to be enjoying themselves in the bars and restaurants though.

I had heard that the famous Louisville local food was the Hot Brown, a sandwich originally developed at the Brown Hotel to help partiers absorb the alcohol after a long night of drinking.  Basically, it is an open faced turkey sandwich with bacon and tomato, drenched in Mornay sauce.  They are on menus everywhere, though, and the version I had was at the Galt House Hotel.  I was unimpressed.  The turkey was processed, the toasted bread greasy, the tomatoes tasteless winter hothouse, and the Mornay sauce gloppy with close too 1000 calories of fat.  Maybe there are better versions to be had or perhaps I should have been drunker when I tried it, but I am in no hurry to go back and have another.

To help absorb the grease after a late night of drinking or begin the morning after, nothing comes close to Mexican chilaquiles.  I have never made them myself but my housekeeper makes a killer version.  I will watch her make them and try and develop a recipe to post sometime soon.  But if you find yourself with a terrible hangover or the need to avoid one, hit the best local Mexican restaurant you can find and order them.  They are a miracle cure.  And way hotter than a Hot Brown.

The Imperial City

Crab Imperial is a more luxurious and IMHO, a better tasting alternative to crab cakes. 
Not much happened in Baltimore between the time Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner and they built a mall on the murky harbor and called it an urban rennaissance.   A lot of crabs were consumed, people went to work at the shipyards and Alex Brown and took summer trips “down da’ oshun” to get “f$&%ed up”.  All in all, it was just another industrial east coast town, living in the shadow of Washington to the south and Philadelphia to the north.  

I never really lived in Baltimore again after college...well, there was a 6 month experiment living with the John Waters crowd, but it is probably better not to mention it....however, I have come back, time and time again over the past 30 years.  In fact, I’ve been here for the past week.  And I haven’t eaten crab once.  When I do, I will make the recipe below.

I like crab, I really do.  I make a mean crab salad canape.  But the obsession Marylander’s have with it is lost on me.  Debates on where to get the best crab cake?  Leave me out...they all taste about the same to me and yes, I’ve been to both G&M and Faidley’s.  Steamed crabs?  Forget it...they’re messy and bit yucky, especially the yellow stuff and that squishy, lungy part.  Maryland Is For Crabs T-shirts and other memorabilia?  Don’t get me started.

When I was a kid, my family, or at least the semi-functional part of it, used to go “down d’oshun” every summer for two weeks when I got home from summer camp,  Ocean City, Maryland to be a bit more specific.  And once or twice during that time, we would take the obligatory trip to Phillip’s Crab House instead of eating in the big, formal dining room of The Commander Hotel after the adults had finished multiple cocktails on the hotel porch.

Phillip’s was a flip flop and t-shirt kind of place where the owners seemed to know everyone and it was always crowded and the crab cakes were supposed to be the very best in the world.  To be honest, I don’t remember them...I just remember the place itself.  And of course the name.

Today Phillip’s is a seafood dynasty with multiple restaurants all over the east coast, including airports.  They also sell their products in supermarkets throughout the US.  The last time I was in a Phillip’s was in Philadelphia...I sat alone at the bar, had some oysters and crab cakes and paid an exorbitant amount of money for them, but I was in the mood for a taste of home and a little stroll down memory lane.  It was terrible.  Having started the original restaurant as an outlet for the family’s Chesapeake Bay wholesale crab business, the crab they now sell comes from Asia or Venezuela.  I bought a can in a California supermarket one day and it was pasteurized, homogenized and sanitized.  It tasted nothing like Chesapeake Bay backfin lump.  Neither does what they serve in their restaurants.  Because it isn’t.  I find it sad, especially considering their heritage.  But I guess that’s what it takes to go from small family business to a corporate crab empire.  

To have a real Baltimore crab experience and get away from the expected crab cake, try my grandfather’s recipe for Crab Imperial.  And if you can avoid it, don’t use Phillip’s canned crab.  Look for real Chesapeake Bay jumbo backfin lump.  North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas produce very good alternatives as well.  

Crab Imperial
1/2 cup mayonnaise + 1 tsp, for each serving

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning (optional)

1 egg, beaten

2 Tbsp. cream or half and half
1 lb. lump crab

4 saltine crackers, crushed
1/2 cup pimiento, chopped (or red pepper, parboiled and chopped)
salt and pepper

paprika or Old Bay

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix the first five ingredients together, then fold in next 3 ingredients.  Season with salt and pepper.  Put mixture into 6 individual crab shells, scallop baking shells or baking dishes.  Top each with 1 tsp. mayonnaise.  Dust with paprika or Old Bay and bake in a 350º oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Makes 6 servings.