Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

Per Se – Twelve Steps to Heaven

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

Earlier this year Thomas Keller, the famed chef from The French Laundry in Napa Valley, opened Per Se in the new Time Warner Center in N.Y.C. The restaurant opened with much fanfare, and I am happy to report that it exceeded my expectations. Per Se is not a restaurant for dinner, it is a destination for a culinary experience.

The restaurant is chic and elegant with beautiful views of Central Park. It is quite small, and rather formal with white tablecloths, custom china, and the finest crystal. The wait staff is very well trained and attentive, but I am happy to say they’re not intrusive or without personality.

Per Se is a mecca for food. Before you even look at the menu, you are poured a glass of Champagne. The chef then sends out two “tastes” to awaken your palate. The first is a baked cheese puff that is so light it could float. Then you are served a tiny cone filled with crème fraiche and topped with salmon. The waiter then describes several tasting menus, with five courses being the smallest. We opted to let the chef decide, and we also gave the sommelier free reign to pair wines with each course. There were a total of twelve courses, fourteen if you count the two initial tastes, and the food was spectacular. What made it even more interesting is that although my wife and I were eating the same dishes, they were often prepared in two very different ways.

The simple dishes like the celery or winter squash soups excelled because they exploded with flavor. Although all twelve courses were each outstanding, two were truly special because of the unique food pairings. The first, called “Oysters and Pearls” , had two oysters the size of peas, that are cultivated specifically for Chef Keller, in a sabayon topped with Iranian Ossetra caviar. The other dish, “Macaroni n’ Cheese”, was a Nova Scotia Lobster tail with a creamy lobster broth served on a mascarpone – enriched orzo. Did I tell you I was in heaven?

What made this meal enter the stratosphere were the wine pairings. The wines were not extremely expensive, just well chosen. A few of the more unique pairings were: sake with caviar, sherry with the truffle dishes, late harvest viognier with foie gras, and sagrantino passito (red dessert wine) with chocolate.

Did we eat and drink too much? Absolutely. But this meal was amazing. I will remember this dining experience for the rest of my life. If you like food and wine half as much as I do, and have a special occasion to celebrate, then you must go to Per Se.

The Oyster Bar

Wednesday, September 29th, 2004

Last week I was in Grand Central in New York City around lunchtime and thought I would revisit The Oyster Bar. This restaurant first opened in 1913, and is a New York institution. I had this hankering for fried oysters, and I thought this would be a sure bet. I had not been to The Oyster Bar for over 20 years, but I thought if any place should excel at oysters, this must be it. Walking into this restaurant you can’t help but be in awe of the famed vaulted tile ceiling designed by Raphael Guastavino. The décor of the restaurant is “no frills” . The seating area to the left of the doorway has red checkered tablecloths. To the right is a simple linoleum countertop similar to a luncheonette. I thought it was a retro look, and it gave me the impression that the restaurant’s primary concern was not ambiance, but was about serving the best fresh seafood.

After a bit of a wait I received the menu, and as anticipated, it offered a wide selection of oysters and other seafood. I ordered the fried oysters that I had been craving. I also asked for a glass of Gruner Veltliner. The waitress asked “which wine?” Then she asked “what number is it?” My enthusiasm now plummeted very rapidly, as expectation was being overshadowed by reality.

The bottom line is that the oysters were barely better than the frozen ones you can buy at a supermarket, and the service was poor at best. What a shame!

Big Sur and The Post Ranch Inn

Thursday, August 19th, 2004

Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Coastline

I am constantly amazed by the ocean. This massive body of water harnesses incredible amounts of energy. I find it fascinating to watch waves form seemingly out of nowhere, at times reaching heights of over ten feet. They then unleash their power and come crashing onto shore, sounding almost like thunder. Although the ocean may appear violent, as waves break onto the sand, it is rather tame compared to those that explode onto rocky coasts. Black jagged rocks rise 20 feet out of the sand, and the waves crack up against these spires spraying seawater in every direction. The gnarly rock cliffs provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to the fearsome ocean, and it happens to be one of the most beautiful scenes in nature…welcome to Big Sur.

Along the California coast, just south of the Monterey peninsula, is the area best known as Big Sur. It’s a combination of beaches, mountains, and hundreds of acres of National Park that encompasses some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The shoreline is extremely rough, a real contrast to those flat, wide open beaches of southern California. In Big Sur, the mountains seem to rise right from the sea. These craggy cliffs form a dramatic segue to the Pacific Ocean. Along this coastline are a few inlets with spectacular small beaches. These tiny enclaves are never crowded because they can only be reached on foot – yet this remoteness only adds to their beauty. Big Sur is a nature lover’s paradise; a magnificent collection of mountains, canyons, beaches, waterfalls, and all types of wildlife and plants.

Experiencing Big Sur can be achieved on anyone’s budget. There are many campgrounds and RV parks for those wanting to get closest to nature. Quaint bed & breakfasts are available for those that prefer charming accommodations. And for a true mind-blowing experience, I recommend the Post Ranch Inn – perhaps my favorite resort in the entire world.

The Post Ranch Inn is understated elegance that cohabitates with the environment. It is a luxury resort with about 30 rooms, which were built with wood exteriors to blend into the surrounding redwoods and evergreens. Several rooms are built as tree houses, but I assure you they are a little more elegant than the tree houses we played in as children. Inside, the rooms are constructed of natural woods, stone floors, and large glass windows and doors. The rooms that face the ocean are designed so that you see no other rooms on the property – it is just you, a few deer, the cliffs, and the ocean. There is also a small stone terrace outside with a couple of Adirondack chairs. The furnishings in the room are simple, sleek, and of top quality. The marble bathroom is luxurious and warm with a huge slate tub. Each room has a large stone fireplace that roars on those chilly nights. Although there is a full spa at the resort, you may want to take full advantage of the fireplace and have a nightly massage in your room.

A Deer Grazing

A Deer Grazing

Besides a top-notch spa, Post Ranch has a few other enriching activities: morning yoga, guided nature walks with extensive discussions on the local plant life, and stargazing with the resident astronomer. The grounds are stunning; sculpture and reflecting ponds dot the landscape. There is also an infinity pool perched on the edge of a cliff with an unobstructed view of this awesome coastline. Hot tubs are also available, a nice amenity to soothe your aching muscles.

The Post Ranch Inn is a superb resort, and their restaurant, Sierra Mar, will delight any culinary aficionado. Their chef Craig von Foerster has been with Sierra Mar since 1994, and in 2003 the restaurant received the highest rating from Zagat for cuisine in California. The restaurant serves a 4-course prix fixed meal of organic/seasonal fare. A sample meal might include California red abalone with tomato-basil brown butter sauce to start; followed by a wild mushroom soup with nutmeg crème fraise; an entrée of pan roasted pheasant breast with potato puree and foie gras gravy; and for dessert a chocolate napoleon with espresso sauce.

Yucca Plant

Yucca Plant

The wine list is every bit as impressive as the food. The cellar has 22, 000 bottles with over 4, 000 selections. Wine connoisseurs will be in heaven. Everything is so good, it is hard not to over-imbibe. But the good news is that you don’t need to feel guilty, just get out and enjoy the outdoors in the morning.

The Ventana Wilderness of Big Sur straddles the Santa Lucia Mountains providing hundreds of miles of marked hiking trails for every level hiker. Sharp-crested ridges separate V-shaped valleys providing miles of spectacular scenery. These hikes vary greatly, from strenuous mountaintop treks to a leisurely stroll trough the redwoods just enjoying the fresh air. Vertical walled canyons and streams provide beautiful points of interest along the hikes. And if you have interest in the flora, you will see everything from cactus to wildflowers. Big Sur is also home to abundant wildlife. Bald eagles and condors are two truly majestic birds that call these mountains home.

The short hike to Pfiffer Falls is particularly rewarding, and it is easy enough for all to enjoy. It is only 1.4 miles round-trip over rather flat terrain. The trail meanders through a redwood grove and ends at a 60 foot waterfall. My favorite trek in Big Sur however, was on horseback. A guide takes you through a redwood forest, in which trees soar 50 feet into the air. The light is filtered by these skyscrapers providing a very serene ambiance. It was interesting to see evidence of several forest fires on our journey, and learn how this can actually help the forest by clearing out the existing brush and providing fertile soil for new plants. After a couple of miles the landscape changes, we exit the redwoods and enter a mix of sage brush and wild grasses, none reaching a height of over 4 feet. The sun is now blaring, you can smell the sea air, and hear the circling seagulls. Finally we reach the crest of a hill, and see a long sand beach 20 feet below us. Wow! The horses follow a path down to the beach and then prance along the water’s edge. The ride was so unbelievable because it encompassed so much diversity: the redwoods, diverse foliage, wildlife, and the ocean.

The Sun Sets on Big Sur

The Sun Sets on Big Sur

Although the hiking and horseback riding are tremendous, a must adventure is driving your car north on Highway One. It is a two lane road with hairpin turns that winds along the coastline offering dramatic views around every bend. Twenty six miles north of Big Sur Valley is the city of Carmel, which is just a few miles from Pebble Beach and the famous “17 mile drive”. Pebble Beach may be the most spectacular golf course in the country, and is a must for anyone that enjoys playing a round. 17 mile drive is breathtaking, with my favorite site being the famed Lone Cypress, perhaps the most popular tree ever painted. The scenery along this route is beautiful, and the wildlife on the rocks in the ocean is abundant: pelicans, sea otters, seals, and sea lions. After this drive, Carmel offers a nice change of pace. It is a picturesque town filled with boutiques, craft shops, many exquisite art galleries, and a wide selection of fine restaurants.

Big Sur is a sensational vacation destination because it offers a bit of something for everyone. It will offer you endless hours of the most intoxicating landscape imaginable. I have tried to capture the beauty of Big Sur in pictures, but the only way to fully appreciate all it has to offer is to visit in person. Perhaps it will become your favorite place too!

Worth Seeking Out…

Monday, August 16th, 2004
  • Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, N.Y. is having their annual tomato tasting on August 28th at 9am. It is a smorgasbord of heirlooms, with over 35 varieties available.
  • The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park of NYC is a retro food stand run by famed restaurateur Danny Meyer. They’ve stepped back into the ’50s by serving hamburgers, hotdogs, fries and shakes. The burgers are delicious, flavorful and juicy. The fries are also very good. The Chicago hotdog is unique; it is topped with among other things cucumber, pickle, and peppers…more toppings than I care for. But this is a fun way to enjoy lunch in the park.
  • Apples are just coming into season. It is a fun outing to go to an apple orchard and pick your own, but if that is inconvenient then a farmers markets will be your best choice.
  • Vento Trattoria recently opened in the hot meatpacking district, and it is a more casual spin-off of the 3-star Osteria Fiamma. It is a huge restaurant with over 150 seats outside alone. It’s quite a scene. The good news is that the food is quite good, especially the pizza and pastas. It is located at 675 Hudson St, NYC (212)699-2400

Bellagio in the Heart of Lake Como

Friday, July 30th, 2004

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Looking across the shimmering blue water of Lake Como you see the Alps form a wall around the lake’s perimeter. These majestic, craggy skyscrapers are very lush on the bottom, but are steep, bare grey cliffs near their apex. Among the cypress and pine trees, are thousands of flowers making the mountains look like botanical gardens. Small villages dot the landscape, and ochre and yellow villas with terracotta roofs illustrate the magnificence of yesteryear. Perched on the northern tip of a peninsula right in the heart of the lake, is the charming town of Bellagio, a true gem.

Bellagio has been a resort town for many, many years. It was the summer residence of the Roman patricians, and then of Lombardy’s noble families. They built mammoth villas overlooking the lake surrounded by perfectly manicured formal gardens. This town became an enchanting retreat for artists, writers, and musicians from around the world: Pliny the Younger, Longfellow, Twain, Shelly, and Toscanini. My expectation of Bellagio was that it would be very formal with a stuffy arrogance, but I was wrong. Yes there is significant wealth here, but the town, and the people in it, are charming and warm.

Lake Como is a massive lake located in the Lombardy area of northern Italy. It is shaped like an upside down Y. Although you can visit the villages along the lake by driving along very narrow one-lane roads, I found it more pleasant to travel by ferry. The ferries stop at all the major towns: Como (the largest) on the southwestern tip of the lake, Lecco on the southeastern tip, Tremmezzo, Varenna, and Bellagio all toward the center of the lake. These towns all provide interesting side trips from Bellagio, which is very centrally located.

As the ferry pulls into Bellagio you see a large open square on your left with tiny cobblestone streets winding up the hill away from the lake. The square is busy: people are waiting for the next ferry, a few vendors have stands set up selling arts & crafts, and others are just lazing while enjoying a gelato. Several hotels face out over this town square with pretty views of the lake. Although there are many lovely accommodations in Bellagio, the five-star hotel is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbolloni. It is a classic, built in the mid 19th century with elaborate interiors and formal gardens. It sits right on the lake with a huge pool, private sand beach, and a landing dock.

The main lobby of this Grande Dame is huge, decorated with chandeliers and period antiques. Although the reception area seems quite calm, the concierge desk is always bustling making dinner reservations or setting up excursions on the lake. Beyond this entry area is the grand ballroom and the main dinning room.

From the terrace of the main dinning room you can see the pool area one level down, with the lake and mountains in the distance. The pool is quite the people scene. Since it gets quite warm during the summer months, most guests spend at least a few hours there per day. The guests are a diverse mix of Europeans and Americans, a unique cross section of many cultures. Watching this cast of characters can provide hours of entertainment. The long pool is surrounded by white lounge chairs that overlook the lake. The scenery, and the boats moving about on the lake, can almost mesmerize you. Lunch, cocktails, or just a gelato can be enjoyed from your chaise lounge as you bask in the sun. On the far side of the pool, the hotel cleared away all the rocks at the lake’s edge and installed a sand beach. This provides another sun bathing area, as well as an easy access for those that want to swim in the lake.

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Prior to heading to dinner, you may want to visit the hotel’s beautiful terrace that overlooks the pool. It is the perfect place to start your evening…whether watching the sunset or enjoying the view while sipping a Prosecco. The hotel has excellent food, a combination of fresh regional cuisine and the classic high-end dishes you would anticipate at a five star resort. But as you may suspect, the restaurant is rather formal requiring a sport jacket. Just a few blocks from the hotel are a couple of great restaurants. Bilacus, our favorite, is a trattoria with an outdoor terrace. It is casual with a friendly staff and outstanding food. Typical dishes are melon with prosciutto, fresh pasta with garlic & olive oil, and fresh seafood like lake perch. Barchetta is another good restaurant focusing on the local flavors, with the specialty being lake fish. After dinner, Bellagio is a rather quiet town, don’t expect night clubs or casinos – it’s not Vegas. But the Hotel Villa Serbollini has a four piece band that plays every night in the ballroom. It provides a great place to unwind and reflect on the day.

The town, with its narrow windy cobblestone streets, is enchanting. Bellagio is surrounded on three sides by water, therefore it is not unusual to be constantly enamored by its beauty. The hilly streets are filled with shops: the salumaria, produce store, and wine shop are authentic, with abundant treasures for your palate. There are also many one of a kind craft stores selling pottery, artwork, jewelry, and other trinkets that you can’t do without. For those that didn’t pack enough clothes, don’t fret, there are enough boutiques to satisfy all your urges.

Although the center of Bellagio, and the majority of the village is north of the ferry dock, venturing to the south is rewarding. There is a long promenade that runs along the lake with trees lining the path on one side. It leads to Villa Melzi D’Eril, which contours along the lakefront. It’s a neoclassical villa, with a small Etruscan museum, and a gazebo that juts out over the water. The paths through the gardens are very tranquil, but also alive with bursts of color from the azaleas. It is a wonderful way to enjoy your afternoon. My favorite spot in Bellagio however, is the Villa Serbolloni,

Villa Serbollini

Villa Serbollini

which is on the hill behind the hotel. Note that this villa is not part of the hotel, but is a part of the Rockefeller Foundation, and it serves as a retreat for scholars and artists. Today, guided tours are held twice a day. As you climb up the hill, the path meanders through a combination of tall evergreens, sweeping lawns, and garden beds. You will pass a total of 12 tiny one-room buildings that have each been assigned to a visiting artist for the month. It is almost eerie how these buildings blend into the landscape. At the top there is a larger building, obviously for scholarly gettogethers. Although the trek to the top is a bit of a hike, you will be well rewarded. There is the remains of a building by Pliny the Younger, several formal gardens, and an unobstructed view that is unsurpassed.

Venturing beyond Bellagio is as easy as a ferryboat ride. Como is a medieval walled town that is larger than Bellagio. It has many chic shops, and the outdoor market in the Via Vittorio Emanuele II is fabulous. And just north of Como is the famed Villa d’Este. Varenna is another town that is an ancient gem. Being only a short boat ride from Bellagio makes it a must. As the ferry pulls into Varenna you would think the town was asleep. You walk along the lake on a narrow concrete path and pass dozens of small fishing boats. Finally you reach the beginning of town, and you begin to climb the cobblestone streets. It is a tiny town with a town square and a few charming shops, but the highlight is Villa Monastero. This villa used to house nuns, but now it is impeccably maintained by the town. What makes this villa different is the shape of the property, it is a long, sometimes very narrow, strip that runs along the lake. This 16th century garden is so varied and interesting. It has sculptures, pergolas, pools, a gazebo and several sitting areas overlooking the water.

Bellagio is a place that will warm your heart and dazzle expectations. If you can’t buy a villa overlooking the lake, do the next best thing…book a vacation and enjoy.