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The Dining Experience
I was reading this morning about someone being asked about what was their best restaurant meal in a particular city. It got me thinking as I am not a regular restaurant fiend to start with, as most of the time the food is better at home than in most restaurants, and there is more to the dining experience than the actual food. I have the same problem answering the question ‘What Is My Favorite Food’, as it always depends on my mood at the moment I am asked, how hungry I am, the phase of the moon, and velocity of the wind, and other more esoteric factors.
I have eaten in revered restaurants where the cooking was so good that there is no hope in this lifetime that I will ever be able to attain this perfection in my kitchen, in overrated restaurants living only on their reputation and / or ‘Inness’ factor, in restaurants that serve solid-but-uninspired food, in fast-food joints, in food stalls on the street or in markets where I ended up with food poisoning, and in places that fit anywhere in or out of this spectrum. What makes the dining experience is not the food itself, though it is a major part of it, but it is a combination of food, service, atmosphere, and who you are sharing the meal with.
By nature I tend to stay away from the new ‘Trendy’ places as from past experiences they seem to rely on glitziness, gimmicks, and at times shock food to generate their often undeserved reputations. I know that it is difficult to differentiate yourself from the crowds, but spending millions in decor and nada in the kitchen does not make for a nice restaurant. Also the noise level in a lot of trendy places makes enjoying even the best food in the world very difficult. I also dislike the fact that most of the times you have to reserve a long time ahead to get in. Since most of the time I have no idea what I will be doing in the next hour, let alone in 3 months time, and if I will even be in the mood to go out for that type of food that night. I normally go the reservation route only when I am traveling out of town and I know I will be in need of a restaurant on such and such dates, thus reserving is a no-brainer at those times.
Back to the subject of the dining experience, I have noticed that to have an exceptional experience you need to first have well prepared and presented good food that is pleasant to eat. If for shock value the chef is into weird combinations of food, just for sake of being different, I tend to stay away from their place. The same is for experimental cooking, I am all for experimentation, but if you cannot find focus in a dish you should not serve it to paying clients until you finish playing with the ingredients. I have seen chefs bringing you small serving of dishes they are working on to get feedback, and I am all for that, but I would not build a menu with untried recipes, just as I would not serve untried recipes to guests at home. I have ranted already about dishes that are presented for the ‘Picture’ look, but that are difficult to eat and enjoy, so I will not go there today.
I also tend to stay away from the cult of the ‘Star Chef’. Some of their restaurants are stunning and serve sublime food, but a lot tend to lack in the personal touches. If they are at the head of a culinary empire, chances are that they are not the ones supervising the daily running of their restaurants, and whoever is doing a stellar job at it does not get the recognition they deserve, and normally stays in the background as not to take the stardom from the ‘Star Chef’. It is nice to think about your favorite TV Chef preparing your meal for you in the kitchen, but they are probably at some cocktail party, on the set of their TV show, or on another continent when your visit their restaurants. That does not mean that I have not had exceptional dining experiences in their restaurants…
Now that we have a nicely prepared meal on our plates, we now need good service. The staff should be attentive, and not overbearing. They also should know about the food and the chef’s philosophy. There is nothing more annoying than asking how a dish is prepared, or what an advertised ingredient in a recipe is is, and seeing the staff running to the kitchen to ask. If the menu specifies an ingredient it would be good idea to let the staff know what it is before letting them loose on the public. That is, as long as it does not go to the other extreme and they start pontificating about the type of salt they use, or refuse to bring you salt because the chef does not want you to ruin his dishes with it.
Where was I? A plate of nice food, attentive-but-not-overbearing staff… Next on the list is atmosphere. I tend to prefer a quiet relaxed atmosphere, to a frantic noisy one. That is in my nature, as I abhor noise and hyperactivity. If you have to shout to your dinner companions to get heard, it is does not make for a nice dining experience. I’m not really crazy about church-like atmospheres either, as they make you uncomfortable about having any conversation during the meal. I used to be more tolerant of this in the past, as before I met Normita, I used to travel the world on business alone, and dine in the best places by myself. I could concentrate more on the food, at the detriment of not sharing the experience in those days, but I would not go back to them. Your preference of atmosphere may vary, but you have to be comfortable to enjoy the meal.
Dining companions are important too. I find business meals, especially with new business acquaintances, to be normally strained, as you do not know the people, their tastes, and their ideas. It is a great way to get to know people, and it is one of my prime factors in doing business with anybody. I need to share a nice meal with them so that we can appreciate it together. I tend to stay away from doing business with people who do not share my love of food and wine, and the few times that I have not done so in the past, I paid for it dearly in the long run. Dining with loved ones and close friends is a rewarding experience, and it is one of the nicest things in life.
So, when faced with a question like ‘The Best Restaurant Meal You’ve Ever Had In…’ my answer might disappoint the Trendy Foodies, as the place would most likely not be the latest trendy place or the place to be seen by the proper Foodie crowd. It would likely be a place where I had great food and service, in a relaxed atmosphere, with the people I love. I tend to collect restaurant experiences in my mind as the whole experience, not just the badge of being at the right address. I have been in great restaurants on bad nights, some of my favorite places have also disappointed me at times, and I might have just made the wrong choice on the menu, so the right address is not always the best. The reverse is true and I have had exceptional meals in places where you would expect it the least. With all the ingredients that make a great dining experience put in the equation, the answer might be a big surprise even to you. It is just where you did enjoy yourself the most. What else is there?
539 Vista Bella
Oceanside, CA 92057
Established in 1985
The idea of Grandma’s was established in June of 1985 by Richard and Ellen Truelove. In 1987 they partnered up with Grant & Betty Allen. they kept it until selling to Bob & Lita wisely in January of 1994. Grandma’s was under the ownership for almost a decade until it’s closing down in June of 1999. In August it was re-opened as Grandma BB’s by Mark Schulman and his partner Christine Moore. After a few years it was sold to Art and Debbie Coleman in Sept. 2005 and became Grandma’s Hilltop Hideaway Cafe. A year later Faustino Hernandez took over in Oct. 2006 and has been there since and hope to bring the same great food and hospitality that everyone has fallen in love with.
It seems that in the last month we went to more restaurants than we have been in the last 3 years. As mentioned yesterday we went to eat some goat with the in-laws at a restaurant about 20 minutes from home, when there is not traffic. The place is called ‘La Ribera’ and it is located in the Colonia Doctores, on Avenida Cuauhtemoc. It has a reputation of being the best place in town for goat, and I have a feeling that the reputation is somewhat overrated, but since I have not had any other goat in town I have no real way to corroborate this.
The place is a nice large dining room and has the typical atmosphere of these kinds of places in Mexico, which means it is full of activity and noisy. Only part of the family showed up as Normita’s older brother could not make it as he was out of town. Both her parents were there and Normita’s younger sister, Marce, with her new husband and her two young kids. There is a varied menu of typical Mexican dishes, but the baby goat (cabrito) is the house’s specialty. Since this was the reason to be there, everybody had the cabrito, and most people opted for the leg (pierna), which would be the lower leg, but the lower leg bone was bare and the meaty part was actually the thigh, so I’m not sure why they called it like that.
The place was somewhat busy and there was a huge number of waiting staff, but despite that the service was slow and uneven. We waited a lot for the different course, and yet again at the end of the meal for the bill. The main course of goat comes with a bowl of shrimp broth as starters. The broth was flavorful, with a strong shrimp taste as it was made with dried shrimps. The consensus of the table was that it was too spicy, and I agree with that. I am not crazy about dried shrimps, as they can be overpowering, and they are so much a pain to eat that I preferred to leave them in the bowl and just eat the broth. It was a bit overpowering as the only thing that we had to drink at the time was tequila, as they took about half an hour to bring us the mineral water we had ordered.
The cabrito was accompanied with a small dish of grilled onions and jalapeños, and a small dish of guacamole per two people, and was simply a plate with the small leg, a chunk of shoulder, and half a baby goat’s head for the brain and tongue. There was no side dish to be had, but at least for me the leg was very juicy and tender. The guacamole was simply crushed unseasoned avocado, thus really not guacamole, and some of the batches we had were probably leftovers from the day before as it tasted stale. There was some ‘salsa roja’ that was served with the bread, but it was very liquid and flavorless. The plates were accompanied by small corn and flour tortillas to make tacos, but without any decent condiment to put in them they were really bland. My plate was luckily very nice and moist, but the meat was disapointingly devoid of any taste and seasoning. Normita’s was dry and not as tender, but she mentioned that there was a hint of garlic taste to the meat, which would have been welcome to mine.
While we were in the middle of the meal a decent Mariachi band started playing, but in a crowded busy room the noise level was deafening. Luckily they were good, but I ended up with a bad headache soon after they started. Even the kids thought it was too loud, so you can appreciate the noise level. After the Mariachis finished their show, as we were leaving, there was a magic show for the kids that was starting at a little stage by the entrance.
Overall the place is typically Mexican in both atmosphere and food, but we found the food overpriced, and the drinks definitely so. The service was uneven and very slow. The goat, that was supposed to be their specialty, was disappointing and boringly served with no side dish, and I would only recommend this restaurant for people visiting town who want to have an idea of what a typical local restaurant can be, but that in itself is not a recommendation. On Sunday afternoons the place is booming with local families on their weekly restaurant meal, and during the week I hear that there are a lot of regulars going there to play dominos. For people who want to eat goat I will try to find a better place, and also to try to find a better restaurant of that type to recommend, as I cannot give it a recommendation.
A few months back I had a bet going with Normita about something that I have totally forgotten about, and the loser was supposed to buy a nice restaurant meal for the other. I thought that I had fulfilled my duties last week, but it seems that the meal’s absolute fiasco did not comply with the nice meal part of the deal. This morning we went to see a movie at the World Trade Center (WTC) here in Mexico City, which happens to be about 5 minutes walk from home. The movie was a long one, and before someone asks it was Da Vinci’s Code, which was exactly like the book, very long, slow paced and boring. At least Normita somewhat enjoyed it despite the excessive length, but I think that they could have cut about an hour from it and made a better, tighter movie. I also had problems with the casting of the film as I always feel like Tom Hanks plays only one character, himself, in every movie he stars in. I did enjoy Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Sir Leigh Teabing, and thought that they underused Jean Reno one of my favorite actors, but this is not a movie review, so let’s move to other things…
On the way out, since the movie was so long, we both were starting to feel hungry and since the chicken that was defrosting in the refrigerator was sure not to be ready to cook for some more hours, we decided to look around for a place to eat. Since I still owed Normita that meal, we decided to try a new Italian restaurant that is located in the Crowne Plaza hotel next door to the WTC. A few clients she had sent there had reported that the restaurant was both good and inexpensive, so it was worth a try.
The hotel has only recently opened so the restaurant is a new operation. The decor is open and airy and the ambiance relaxed. At what would have been a busy lunchtime for locals (2pm), the place was mainly empty as the hotel caters to foreigner here on business. The service was attentive, but somewhat disorganized. I think that the newness of the restaurant was showing, and the waiter mentioned that he was very new in a very new restaurant so we will have to try again in a few months to see if the place has improved.
We ordered our meal, with the starters being for Normita carpaccio of salmon and for me carpaccio de vitello, veal in Italian, but strangely translated in the menu to Spanish and English as beef, for the main course linguini al pesto for Normita and spaghetti carbonara for me. We wanted some wine with the meal, and they failed to bring a wine list, and when the first course arrived I inquired again about the wine list and they told us that they had Italian wines by the bottle, but no wine list, and also had unnamed Italian house wines by the glass at a fairly high price of ~$7, which I would have like to know exactly what I was buying at that price. We wanted to know what wines they had by the bottle, and they could not tell us for a good 10 minutes while our first course was waiting for us, because nobody had the key to the nice cellar at one end of the room.
This reminded me of another restaurant incident, again with the Padrino, in New York City at Windows on the Worlds at the other WTC, where they could not find the key to the storage room to bring us some cheese at the end of the meal and where the waiter also brought us a bottle of 1975 Gruaud Larose shaken not stirred, but that story will have to wait for another day…
Luckily during the time we were waiting we enjoyed some of their delicious bread, baked on the premises, with a nice salsa of olive oil, tomatoes, onions, and basil. Of course, when they finally managed to find the person with the key to the cellar, the whites were at room temperature, so since our first course had already been served for 15 minutes, we did not want to wait for the wine to cool down. We decided to look at the reds. The waiter brought 3 random bottles to the table and asked for a choice without telling us the prices. A few more minutes were wasted while he found a price list, and when the offering were in the $40-55 range, and I really had nothing to compare in price with a known value to assess if the price was fair, we decided to forego the wines entirely.
We started on our carpaccio and noticed that they did not bring us the usual thin toasts to eat it with. The waiter told us that they might have to get their storeroom open as they only had their regular bread. The problem was fixed quickly though, when he brought us some toast, that unluckily was somewhat limp instead of crisp, as it had been serve in a towel on the bread plate, where it steamed itself.
The quality of both the veal/beef and salmon was excellent, but strangely enough the delicate thin slices were not dressed at all. Even a few drops of olive oil would have given an extra dimension to the plate. Mine had a small dab of what seemed like a mixture of mayonnaise and mustard on one side and a nice pile of chopped mushrooms in the middle, and Normita had some chopped onions, chopped parsley, chopped capers, and chopped egg yolks, a nice combination, but a tad dry without any dressing. We remedied the problem by drizzling some of the nice olive oil from the salsa and using some of their nice thin house bread instead of the limp toasts.
While we were starting the first course, the waiter brought each of us a courtesy glass of white wine, because of out problems with the inexistent wine list. The wine was crisp and somewhat vegetal in taste, reminding me a bit of a Pinot Grigio, but I might be wrong there. There was a faint hint of oxidation on the finish, but we were not about to complain… I hope that the poor waiter did not get into trouble because of this, as he was swept away to a meeting with what I think was a supervisor near the end of our meal.
The main course was solid fare with nice al dente homemade pasta, and a delectable sauce though not exceptionally so. Luckily the portions were not overwhelming like they tend to be in some Italian restaurant and we finished our meal well fed, but not stuffed. I definitely was not in the mood for a dessert, but Normita was and asked for some Baileys ice cream and I settled for an espresso. The espresso was concentrated and bitter the way I like it, and while I was finishing it, they told Normita that they did not have the Baileys ice cream, so she decided to go without her dessert.
Overall the restaurant definitely shows some promise, but is in a definite need of organization. The quality of the food is high, but a bit of refining of the recipes is in order, and definitely they have a serious need of creating a decent wine list, as their haphazard method of presenting their wines will lead to lost clients. Another peeve was that I though it was a bit excessive to charge $2.50 for a can of mineral water. I think that we will give them a few more months to get their act in order and try again before making out final judgment. The food is good now and could easily become great, especially since the basic constituents are of good quality, but I will withhold my recommendation until they have straightened their organizational problems. It was good enough though to count as the nice restaurant meal I owed Normita. Maybe we just caught them on a bad day…
PS. While I was writing this, Normita had another bet with me about another Tom Hanks movie, as she thought he was working for DHL in Castaway, and I was sure he was working for FedEx. I am glad that I did indeed win my bet, and now she is the one who owes me a nice restaurant meal.
I have just returned home with Normita and I am on my way out the door to a business meeting as I start to write this, but I need to put some of my thoughts down right away when the experience is still fresh. I was returning from Colonia Polanco, where Normita works, back home and we were looking for a place to have a nice lunch, our main meal of the day. My parents left back to Canada this morning and we did not have much to eat at home, and I was too tired to cook as I had a very long and tiring week.
We were on our way to fill-up the car, as we were running on empty, and we passed in front of a very popular fish and seafood restaurant in our neighborhood. The place is called Fisher’s and it is part of a chain of restaurants. There is always a crowd there, so we assumed that it might be decent. Trouble started when we left the car at the valet parking, and they promptly took the car somewhere else to park it. Normita is very protective of her new car, so she was upset, but I managed to calm her down as they were doing the same with all smaller cars as their main parking lot was full.
The place was very busy and most of all extremely noisy due to the poor acoustics of the various rooms. The center of the restaurant is some form of geodesic dome with prep area and bar in the center, and various rooms around the periphery. The decor is in white and blue maritime tones and the ambiance frenetic and noisy. Not a good start if you are tired and want to relax for a meal. The noise level was so high that there was no way to talk at the table unless you shouted.
We were passed from one staff person to another until we were seating in a corner table that was probably one of the quietest places in the whole restaurant, but this was not saying much as it was still very noisy. They have system for the waiters that seems to have been designed to look like it is efficient to the patrons, but overall it leads to some of the worse service we have ever had in any restaurant, including a certain fish place in Vancouver years ago when we were there with the Padrino and we were inflicted with the most stupid waitress in the Universe. That was a totally different experience as it was mainly the stupidity of a single person, not an entire restaurant system designed to be totally inefficient.
Their serving system rotates around the writing pad where they take the orders, and they leave it on the corner of your table. Various waiters and waitresses come and go and grab it and look into it and make notes in it and generally make a nuisance of themselves throughout the meal. At the end of the meal I looked at the pad to see what secrets it held, and there was simply a checklist of table preparation and opening, as well as service, and an individual sheet for each single item ordered. They seem to be making everything in triplicate and bringing a copy to the kitchen to place the order. The system must have been designed by a bureaucrat…
As we were waiting to be served we noticed the service at the neighboring tables, and in most tables the service was very strange. For example at the table on our left there were 3 people waiting for their main course. The woman at the table got hers first, then the gentleman on her left got his about 10 minutes later, and the one on her right resorted to nibbling at her plate until he got served about 20 minutes later. A very nice way to share a meal…
During that time about 5 different waiters passed in our areas with plates and they were looking at the order pads at each table, including ours, to find out which table the plate they were carrying belonged to. At times it belonged to a table totally across the room. I have never seen such confused service in my life. I can see one new person being lost, but not the entire staff. Also the fact that about 5 different waiters and waitresses attended us added a lot to the total confusion in the place. Luckily we were served at the same time so one of us did not have to wait for the other while his or her plate cooled down.
Another trait of the place, where they want to make it look like they are attending to you closely, is that they come and look at your table every few minutes and remove every little bit of stuff you put aside. I do not mind that if it is done smoothly, but the various waiters just nose over the table to check and intrude in your privacy and normally reach across the table in front of you to grab things at the other end. That is not very polite. Add to that that at least 5-6 times during the meal some janitorial person came and swept some crumbs from under the tables with a broom between your feet, making it impossible to relax from the constant distraction. I like the idea that they keep the place spotless, but they could at least let you finish your meal before cleaning the breadcrumbs from under the table.
As you have noticed I have rambling on and on and I have yet to talk of the food. If the food had been exceptional I would have been more lenient on the entire experience. As it stood we had some seafood and it was very fresh but totally uninspired. Normita had some ‘camarones al mojo de ajo’, some large shrimps with butter and garlic, and the shrimps were decent, but the portion was small for the price, and the side dish of white rice, seemed like microwaved precooked rice and was not very nice. Not a great meal for the price as the portion was pretty small. I had some stone crab cakes, and the cakes themselves were more of an appetizer portion at a main course price. There were three small crab cakes less than half an inch thick, that were presented on 3 slices of tomatoes and some slices of tomatillos, with a bit of shredded lettuce in between. There was a bit of something that looked like soy sauce on the tomatoes, but I did not even taste it as the tomatoes looked horrible and the plate looked like a mess and very unappetizing. The lettuce was undressed and totally bland so I did not touch it either. The three small crab cakes were actually quite good, though they had some pieces of shell and cartilage in them. As you might have guessed both Normita and I were still hungry after that, but we did not want to spend more money there.
We asked for the check and they brought it about 20 minutes later. I gave them my debit card to pay, and then the girl had to go get their wireless terminal and swiped it and show me that they inputted the right amount and she returned my card. This is nice in itself, but then she left with the terminal and returned about 10 minutes later with the card receipt to sign. I have no idea why they invested in the wireless technology if it actually makes the transaction much slower than the usual method. I assume that it is to show you that they care and do not screw you with the card, but…
Of course when we went out it took over 20 minutes to get our car from the valet parking, even though everybody else got their’s in a few minutes. I guess that the gods were not in my favor today.
I just returned from my business meeting as I am writing those last lines and it seems that the bad luck in the restaurant was nullified by a good meeting and some potential contracts and on top of that another contract signed by a distributor today, and even better paid next Monday. I’ll gladly take the bad meal in stride, except that the hunger I had when we left the restaurant is now converted into starvation.
To resume things, Fisher’s is a seafood restaurant that is mainly flash and show, where they do a lot of needless things to make it look like they are serving you well, but where the substance of that leads to horrible service. The food seems of good quality for the fish and seafood, but uninspired and pricy for what you actually get. It seems to be very popular as there is always huge lines, but I think the people going there are more interested in the show and to be seen there, than actually wanting a good dining experience. Like those perennial movie reviewers would say I gave them two thumbs down.
In olden days before train or automobile became common, transportation was mainly by carriages pulled by horses. While this was quite feasible for shorter distances, like going from your rural farm to market or the village pub and back, it was a pin for long distances as it took a lot of time. This in return resulted in a lot of inns and roadhouses along well-traveled roads where people would stop overnight during their travels.
Even for shorter trips, like a trip to the countryside on the weekend, it was quite common to take one way trip on Friday, then have an extensive meal and stay over night, only to return the next day. This was not only done to more extensively enjoy the countryside, but for practical reasons, comfort and safety. After all there were no well-paved roads, broken wheels were common, no illumination along the roads and thieves and thugs roamed many parts of the countries. Add to that the fact that many overnight trips to the countryside had a certain gallant element; this was a very viable model.
Today the need to stay over night after a dinner in the countryside is not as pressing anymore, though it still can have its advantages. As thugs and thieves have been replaced by police testing for alcohol it allows for adequate consumption of fermented beverages to accompany a nice meal without fear or guilt. The comfort factor holds still true – walk up a flight of stairs and collapse in a well made bed instead of driving back late on unknown roads for an hour or two and top it of with breakfast being ready for you the next morning. Pair that with the gallant element that still applies today and you get the picture.
This said, yes, we do enjoy it occasionally, whenever our schedule permits it and we get a little incentive (that usually has to do with fine food or wine or both). It’s nice to flee out of the hectic city and enjoy a stay outside our busy lives. Last Thursday we had the latest of those escapades and it’s what I’m writing about today – after an admittedly long start. It is still winter in Vienna, unusually enough as normally at that time we get tulips and daffodils instead of this year’s ice and snow. Still we decided it was time for a road trip again, overdue actually, the last had been October 31st last year.
The incentive was easy enough to find. A quite well-known inn about 1 hours from Vienna, Jeitler by name, had received it’s first Michelin star and has been celebrating this every Thursday with a ‘star menu’, a degustation menu with many samples of dishes that had helped the Chef, Gerald Jeitler, win the desired star. The one last Thursday was supposed to be the final one, though eventually they decided to do 2 more. Nevertheless we didn’t want to miss and took to the road.
As we live in the North of Vienna and left around afternoon rush hour we took about 2 hours to get to the place. It’s located on the Eastern outskirts of the alps, an area that is looking quite alpine with lots of hills and smaller mountains, woods and an overload of nature. Beautiful in summer, but in winter a little challenging. Luckily it only started snowing when we were within 15 minutes of the target. We arrived, carried our suitcase up to the room and went for the dinner.
We nicely started it off with a glass or local sparkling wine, nice, crispy, lightish, a very good aperitif. As if we needed anything to whet our appetites – we were all but starving as we hadn’t had a bite since morning. Of course they could help us there – with then aperitif, as if to keep us from starving, they served fresh cuts of baguettes with different herbs in them and little plates with butter, pumpkin seed spread and homemade ‘tapenade’ of black olives. The later was a very good preview of the kitchen’s talents as it was the best I ever had outside of those regions of France where they invented it.
Politely they inquired whether we wanted the ‘star menu’ or would like to choose our own dishes. Well, we came for the ‘star menu’ so there was no discussion. Next they brought the amuse bouche or, as it’s called over here, ‘Regards from the chef’. A nice lengthy plate with three delicious samples: left to right vegetable timbale with thyme, crème of sweet bell peppers and white fish carpaccio with fig confit. Each of them very distinctive and an explosion of taste on the tongue. Investigating why the tastes were so abundant we found out that they are using 100% natural ingredients, no substitutes or taste enhancers and prepare everything from scratch. Obviously a great idea in the age of convenience products and artificial flavors.
The menu started with a seared scallop on balsamic-spinach. Daring at first look, as good scallops are very delicate and their taste can easily be overwhelmed by strong aromas. The combination turned out stunning, not only for the eye as the pearly white of the scallop contrasts nicely with the dark leafy green, but also to the tongue. The scallops themselves were premium quality and prepared to the point and the balsamic aroma was discrete enough to underline them. We had a glass of nice local Muskateller wine, a very aromatic yet light and dry white made by a vintner named Broli from Gamlitz, Styria (Southern Austria).
Next up was another stunner: goose liver crème brulÃ©e. Rich, soft, creamy with a crisp crust of caramelized brown sugar on top, properly burned. We enjoyed a very nice Austrian sweet wine with that, a Traminer Auslese from one of the great ones, Ernst ‘E.T.’ Triebaumer of Rust at the Lake Neusiedl.
The third course was a crème of leek. Actually it was creamy but lighter, more like a foam or froth, topped with a hint of sweat crème. Again we were enticed by the intensity and naturalness of the aromas. We finished the glass of Muskateller with it.
Next up was a filet of St-Pierre with an allspice and citrus nage. The St-Pierre was served a little bit of mashed potatoes and – surprise – a slice of black pudding pancake. While the fish and the black pudding don’t combine directly, they formed an interesting contrast, while each of them combined surprisingly well with the aromatic nage. We started a bottle of white with that, a chardonnay from the wine growing region South of Vienna called ‘Thermenregion’, vintage 97 and made by well-known vintner Reinisch of Johanneshof. A real whopper, broad, full-bodied with nice oak and lively acidity. It reminded us a lot of a very good Merseault once it opened up.
The meal continued with slightly smoked catfish (the European variety which doesn’t have red meat and is a tad more delicate in aroma) served with crème of potatoes and wasabi caviar. Again an explosion of flavors and aromas that combines formidably. The wasabi caviar turned out to be greenish in color with a hint of wasabi aroma but no spiciness and was similar to flying fish roe in size and consistency. The catfish had the most complex smoke aromas I’ve tasted in a long time and that in turn combined very nicely with the vegetable side.
To spoil us further, the next course was quail breast, crisply grilled, on a risotto with sweet and sour mushrooms. While I usually prefer a red, a good Pinot if possible or it’s Austrian cousin, St-Laurent, with quail, the delicate sweet and sour aromas of the mushroom risotto found a wonderful partner in the chardonnay that had opened up by now. What else, as expected, the consistency of the risotto was perfect, the proper bite and the right creaminess.
The next course – and it was starting to get tough – was an Eastern Austrian specialty called ‘Kalbsbeuscherl’, a ragout containing calf lungs and heart that have been marinated in Riesling. Typically it’s finished with cream and served with some type of dumpling. The dish was delicious though abundant for a degustation menu.
To cool things off we were next served a very intense pear sorbet that helped us consider any further food – the true purpose of a sorbet as alternative to the ‘Trou Normand’. We joked about the next course mentioning just young lamb, not which cut so I teased my wife about a full lamb to come.
Of course it wasn’t, instead it was a nice, perfectly cooked, medaillon on the bone with a crispy olive crust and ‘topinambour’, a slightly sweetish root vegetable that has been widely replaced by more versatile and better producing potatoes centuries ago. The lamb was to the point, actually to my preferred point which is medium rare, juicy, tender and delicate in taste. I had a glass of wonderful Barbera with it, from Alba, the Italian truffle capital in Piedmont- a good idea as it turned out with the next surprise course.
Not mentioned in the menu list was the surprise cheese course. A dish that reminded me of Lucito’s legendary Pommes Salardaise. They took a nice, not too salty blue cheese, put several slices of truffles on it, next a buttery Gouda-like cheese, again a few slices of truffles, and topped it off with a ripe goat cheese, white culture, and again truffle and some truffle oil. As the top was warm and slightly melting I suspect they briefly put the plate under top heat. The result was unbelievable and the different cheese aromas and the truffle flavor mixed stunningly. As indicated, the Barbera was a perfect match here.
As Austria is a desert country the degustation menu ended with two instead of one deserts. First was a Mille Feuilles with very nice coffee crème and baby pineapples and sliced figs and finally, more traditional, cheese dumplings with homemade plum compote. By then it was eleven and we were both, stuffed and tired so we retired upstairs and fell into bed. We slept very well until about 8:30 – usually we both work already at 8:30! The bathroom held another surprise for us – a wonderful whirlpool with air jets that helped to wake us up properly. Surprisingly we were not stuffed anymore and as breakfast was included with the room we went downstairs.
The breakfast kept up with the dinner indeed. Choice of coffee, tea or espresso, assorted bread, homemade jams, fine cold cuts and chesses and what they called ‘a few little side dishes from the kitchen’. This turned out to be a bit of a understatement, what they brought was delicious and rich in flavor again. First was mashed potatoes with two colors of fish roe and crème fraiche, next some truffled scrambled eggs and to finish the ‘light’ breakfast off the richest and most intense chocolate mousse cake I had in ages. I’m afraid that asking for the recipe specifies something like ’23 egg yolks per head’ but it was worth it, I won’t take a blood test for the next week. As this final tidbit was a bit intense they served a glass of champagne with it. As you can imagine after a breakfast like that the first idea is to return to the room and dream off another cold and gray late winter day…
Yesterday we were supposed to receive our new car, as the dealer had told us they received it earlier in the week and they would prepare it for either Friday or Saturday. It seems that they lied to us as the car was arriving in the country from Brazil early in the week, and won’t be at the dealership until Monday or later in the week. We had planned a mini-holiday for the long weekend as it is a holiday here on Tuesday and Normita decided to take Monday off to make a long weekend out of it. As you might think from the above story, we were not in too good of a mood yesterday, but we decided to enjoy the nice windy weather and walk around the neighborhood for part of the afternoon. During our extended walk we came across a nice restaurant that looked very inviting. It is called El Habanero in honor of this most powerful of ‘chiles’ from Yucatan. They specialize in authentic Mayan cooking from Yucatan, and after looking at the menu we decided to return after a bit of freshening up at home.
The restaurant ambiance is pretty informal with a decor inspired by Mayan traditions. It seems that they cater to the business workers during the week and to families and regular client on the weekends. As with most restaurants that cater to local crowds it is not open in the evening, because the main meal here is at 2-3pm. They are open from 8am to 6:30pm from Monday to Sunday. There is a wonderful group ‘el Trio Los Faisanes’ that plays beautiful traditional Mexican trio music daily from 3 to 6pm.
The relaxing atmosphere and beautiful music made us forget our problems and we came out of the restaurant 3 hours later feeling 100% better and in a perfect mood. The wonderful food was a great mood enhancer too.
We started with a ‘sopa de lima’, a traditional Mayan soup consisting of chicken broth, sour limes, lots of shredded chicken breast meat, and fried tortillas. It was exquisite and settled our stomachs for the rest of the meal. The manager recommended that we start with a mixed Mayan platter consisting of two ‘panuchos de cochinita pibil’, two papadzules, and two ‘garnachas de lechon’.
The ‘panuchos’ are miniature corn tortillas served with a layer of refried beans on top, then a serving of ‘cochinita pibil’ a delicious dish made with slow roasted pork with spices and ‘achiote’, an intensely red seed that is ground into a paste then mixed with spices that is a traditional seasoning of Mayan cooking. The ‘panuchos’ are then topped with some spicy marinated red onions.
The ‘garnachas’ are made with some of the same miniature tortillas that are deep fried, and then well drained of the oil after frying. When the tortilla fry they inflate into flat globes and the top thin layer is removed to create a nice little nest to put a filling. The ones we had were made with some ‘lechon’, an exquisitely tender slow roasted suckling pig. They were topped with marinated white onions.
The ‘papadzules’ were again miniature corm tortillas filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs like miniature crepes, and topped with a delicious creamy sauce of green pumpkin seeds.
After this nice sampling we decided to share an order of ‘panuchos’ and one of ‘garnachas’ to finish the meal. They were so nice that we both wanted more after the sampling platter. As is the custom in most Mexican restaurants and homes, various homemade sauces are placed on the table to accompany the dish. What we had was some chopped onions with finely chopped chile habanero, the most potent chiles in the world, and a staple of Yucateca cooking. This very spicy condiment was a great complement to the soup. The other salsa looked like the typical ‘salsa verde’ that is a staple on all tables here. Normita lives for her ‘salsa verde’, but I normally shy away from it as I find the ‘tomatillos’ (green ground tomatoes) and onions in it a tad bitter and at time there is an excess of jalapeños that tends to make it unbalanced. This time the sauce was stunning, with a beautiful green flavor that was exquisite. I thought that instead of the jalapeños they were using habaneros, as the extreme spiciness and the taste hinted to that. We liked it so much that we emptied the bowl as a topping to the ‘panuchos’ and ‘granachas’. We were very surprised to learn that the sauce was simply finely chopped green habaneros in vinegar. The manager told us that he stays away from it as he finds it too spicy, but both Normita and I liked it so much, despite the spiciness, because of the very nice flavor it gave to the food. In any case after the first half of the bowl our mouths were so used to it that we were not noticing the heat. We kind of paid for it this morning when we went to the bathroom, but this is the price you have to pay for eating great spicy food.
Normita had a michelada (beer with lime juice, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce) made with a nice blond beer from Yucatan, and I had a few chilled tequilas with the meal and a mineral water to wash everything down. We ended the meal with some flan for Normita and a little piece of cake for me, with an espresso chaser. We both are still full a day later. I guess that it was depression eating, but it surely did the trick…
Pricing was reasonable at around MX$300/person (~US$28) including drinks and tips, and we definitely recommend visiting this charming restaurant if you are ever in Mexico City. We definitely will be returning to try some of the venison dishes and other Yucatan specialties.
El Habanero, Louisiana #24, Corner Montana, Col. NÃ¡poles, C.P. 03810, MÃ©xico, D.F., Tel: 5523 2624