April 29, 2007

Guest Blog: Residenz Heinz Winkler (Austria)

I'm fortunate to have a fantastic guest blog entry from J on the experience he and Em had at the Residenz Heinz Winkler in Austria. I'm particularly excited by this entry because I've never seen J speak or write of food quite like this before... really cool to read. Enjoy his tale of an extravagant, wonderful food experience.
After having a glorious time in Greece with Lav & Jack, Emily and I headed off to Munich for a 3 day layover. Needless to say, Germany (and more specifically, the Bavarian region) is quite a different gastronomical experience than Greece, with fresh fish and great olive oil being replaced with hearty sausage and spicy mustards.

From Munich, we took a day trip to Dachau, a concentration camp not to far outside of Munich. It was a heart-wrenching experience to see the conditions people were forced to endure, and it was chilling to see how much thought, organization, and operational efficiency the Nazis put into implementing mass murder.

The next day, Emily and I took a day trip to Salzburg, about a two-hour train ride from Munich. We saw Mozart's birthplace and toured the apartment where he grew up. Quite a juxtaposition, going one day from seeing the lowest of lows of humanity in Dachau, to the highest of highs in the brilliance of the music of genius Mozart in Salzburg.

On our way back to Munich from Salzburg, we stopped in a little German town called Aschau, where there is a 3-star Michelin restaurant called Residenz Heinz Winkler. I had come across this restaurant online and thought it was a cool way for Emily and me to see a little more of the countryside and also get an incredible meal. And it was, by all measures, incredible.

I know I need to get on to the food (this is a food blog after all) but I have to start first with the service, which was, by far, the best service I have ever received anywhere. Let me give you some examples of the level of service:
  • Obviously they did simultaneous presentation of dishes to the table, always serving from the right side.
  • Three people were assigned to our table - our main waiter and two helpers. All were young, fluent in German and in English (we think French too) and incredibly friendly with no hint of pretentiousness.
  • Each round table has a small square table and a stool beside it. The small square table is a place for them to set, ice, and decant wines. The stool? It was a place for Emily to put her purse so it doesn't sit on the ground!
  • When I got up to use the restroom, one helper rushed up to escort me. Apparently that is customary, but I had gotten up too quickly so she had to scramble to catch up to me.
  • My favorite: I sneezed into my cloth napkin. Not blew my nose, mind you, just sneezed. Immediately, one helper came by with a brand new cloth napkin and took my old one away!
  • Not only did our waiter help us with the wine pairings, he gave us two extra (free!) wine pairings to show us how they tasted and melded with the courses. These were not just bottles already opened - he actually came by and opened new bottles for us.
  • The waiter would take a little pre-taste of each wine bottle, to make sure it had not gone bad. He used the remainder of what he poured in his tasting glass to rinse out the glasses he was preparing for us to drink from. His reasoning – the glasses could have dust or other residue on them, and why waste the tasting wine when he could use it to clean the glass? I thought it was a nice touch.
  • Because we were staying in Munich that night, we had to catch the last train from Prien, a 10-minute drive from Aschau. We were pushing close to the time, and our waiter coordinated getting us a taxi and instructing the driver to rush us to make the train on time. It was quite a taxi ride, but we made it!
Okay, on to the food.

When we first arrived we were seated outside on the patio, facing the snow-capped Alps, to begin our meal with bellinis made fresh with local peaches. These were amazing! They actually tasted like biting into a fresh peach on a warm summer day.

Once we were seated, we were served with a hearty consommé, compliments of the chef, paired with a 2005 Spanish sauvignon blanc, Palacio de Mande from Cuevas de Castillo. A simple fresh wine, with a slight metallic aftertaste, it balanced nicely with the heartiness of the consommé.

Then, another amuse bouche - smoked trout in olive oil with wasabi caviar. The trout was silky smooth, complemented by the caviar, which added a much different texture - a crunchy pop surprising the mouth. The trout was very lightly smoked. It reminded me of the homemade smoked salmon at Sushi Sho, La V & Jack's favorite sushi restaurant in Berkeley. The trout was served with a parsley root mousse and coriander foam. I am not a fan of parsley, I think it's overused, and usually as an afterthought. Here however, it was pronounced, but subtle, mixing nicely with the spice from the coriander. This is major theme of the dinner in my mind – understated, yet distinct flavors across nearly all the dishes.

Now to the 5-course chef’s tasting menu.

For the first course, I had the foie gras with nuts and raisins. The liver was silky smooth with a hint of red chili – it actually reminded me a bit of a hoisin sauce. Our waiter paired this with a 2003 Gewurtzraminer (Vendange Tardive, Henri Kieffer Fils, Alsaces France). An incredibly floral bouquet - smelling the glass was like smelling warm roses. The wine tasted lightly of rose petals with a strong hint lychee, with a really short finish.

Instead of the foie gras, Emily had the carpaccio of Sea Bass with basil sauce. This was beautifully arranged.

Next up was the Cassoulette of "Schrobenhausener" asparagus with morels – what turned out to be my favorite dish. Schrobenhausener is a white asparagus local to the region - thick spears with a lighter flavor than the green asparagus we’re used to. It reminded me of a classic meat and potatoes dish - the morels were so substantial, their texture was like that of a nice filet mignon, and the asparagus were cooked so perfectly, they melted in your mouth like creamy potatoes. Our waiter paired this dish with a 2005 Riesling (Dorsheimer Goldloch, Schlossgut Diehl, Nahe). Super clear, with a taste of honeysuckle, again very little aftertaste.

Next, I went off prix fixe menu (customization encouraged, at no extra charge!) and had the Lobster Medallions with saffron black noodles. This sounded so interesting, I had to try it, but ended up being not so special to me. The noodles were prepared very well, but the lobster was quite chewy.

Emily had "Filet of Angler Fish a L'Ancienne".

Here is an occasion where our waiter poured us wine on the house. It seemed as if he enjoyed sharing with us certain wines with specific dishes as much as we enjoyed having them. He saw our interest in tasting local wines, so this time he poured a 2005 Chardonnay Reserve (Weingut Markowitsch, Carnuntum, Austria). He served this in large glasses meant for red wine, explaining it helped to bring out the bouquet, which was very oaky. According to the waiter, this wine spends only 50% of its time in oak barrels, and 50% in steel. This wine really hit me on the back of the tongue, and in contrast to the wines we had earlier, had a long finish. Strong flavors of cinnamon and vanilla; seemed quite different to me to how buttery I feel most California chardonnays are.

Our waiter then recommended that we go off the menu, and instead of a Crepinette of Young Calf, we had a small cut of veal for two that was cut and prepared right at the table. It was served in a curry truffle sauce, with a side of some root vegetables and a little package of fried potato strings wrapped in bacon. Now on a meat course, we finally moved to a red wine, with a 2003 Pinot Noir Grand Select (Weingut Wieninger, Wien, Austria). This was a Vienna wine maker, a very dry, classic Pinot. It had a slight acidity and a very spicy finish that lingered on the back of the tongue.

For dessert, we had a Fried Chocolate Truffle with coconut ice cream. This might be one of my favorite desserts ever. I'm not sure if I was a little biased from my recent travels to Greece, but these rounds balls of chocolate had the wonderful consistency of a Loukamadi, a Greek fried donut usually served with honey. But whereas a loukamadi is just air inside, these were filled with a rich liquid chocolate. The coconut ice cream was so concentrated in flavor, but not overwhelming. The ice cream did a great job of cleansing the palette for the next bite of fried chocolate truffle. Here again our waiter served us a wine on the house, a Rogomme (Chateau de Chambert, Cohors, France). A sweet wine, with flavors of figs, plums, and raisins.

And finally, we were served a dish with homemade pralines, chocolates, dried fruit, and something that looked like a little boat of hazelnuts with orange zest.

This was our second three-start Michelin rated restaurant - French Laundry was the other. Both glorious meals, but there’s something to be said for being nestled in the German countryside with the snow-capped Alps in view, eating a wonderful dinner paired with perfect wines, and enjoying the company of not only my wife, but some very kind and generous restaurant staff who seemed intent on us having the perfect dining experience... and it was!

April 26, 2007

My new favorite restaurant in Seattle

I've been wanting to try this place even before I first flew up to Seattle to interview for the new job. Dining solo at this gem of a spot for the first time tonight, I had:

salmon crudo with roasted beets, olives and sweet arugula
amazingly balanced, rich flavors. bold, but not overpowering. harmoniously sweet and savory.

slow cooked beef cheeks with polenta wedge and herbed jus
a hearty dish for a cold night. perfect comfort food as I learn my new city on my own, for the moment.

This place makes me love food all over again.

April 15, 2007

Greece, day 9: Going out with a bang

Alas, we had to say goodbye to J and Em, and Lav and I were on our own for one final day in Athens. Since it was a beautiful Saturday, folks were out and about, hanging out in streetside cafes and engaging in some serious people-watching.

To escape the heat and crowds, we ducked into the interior of a simple cafe called Dakos, which is a mezze from Crete consisting of a small rusk topped with tomato and cheese. The really memorable thing about this simple cafe was the fantastic greenish olive oil made exclusively of tiny Cretan olives. Fresh and zesty, with just a faint hint of a bitter grassy finish.

It may sound excessive, but we embarked on one final quest for loukoumades, this time setting our sights on Doris, a small cafe/restaurant on a tiny section of Kolokotronis street. We were served by a man whose expression can only be described as a friendly scowl, but whose service was kind, patient and gracious, particularly since the staff didn't speak too much English here.

Part of me is really glad we made this stop, because we encountered a third distinct approach to the loukoumades. These were impossibly crispy and light, but had relatively little interior... just a thin remnant of soft dough. A healthy dollop of honey, and a bold accompaniment of additional honey, to be added as desired. No messing around here, folks.

The other part of me eventually recognized our gluttony. Unfortunately, crispy golden sweet treats can make us a bit stupid, so we ordered two portions (um, yeah, I know). Somehow, the thought of sharing only five loukoumades seemed too little... the end result was that our initial moments of euphoria were replaced by a sad end of utter defeat. We'd finally had enough loukoumades to last us for a while. The only thing that saved my arteries was the Heineken I ordered (a surprisingly enjoyable pairing on a hot day).

For our last meal, I sent an email reservation request to the folks at Spondi, one of Athens' reputedly best restaurants. Set in a 19th century townhome with a texturally-rich stone and wood interior, this Athenian gastronomic icon has a fantastic ambiance of simultaneously historic and modern elegance. The confidence of the kitchen, bolstered by the aura of its Michelin star, is evident in the execution of hospitality from the top staff.
Rather than go into analytical detail on our impressions of each course, I just want to show you the meal that closed out our treasure of experiences in Greece. If there was a theme to the meal, it was the chestnut:

savory chestnut mousse, pickled daikon "sushi roll" with arugula puree, duck on toast, salt cod fritter

fois gras with milk chocolate and toasted hazelnut fragments, caramel accent

seared scallops with chestnut foam and jerusalem artichoke

filet of sea bass with potato crisp "scales", spinach, jus, and pressed cod caviar in wax (perfectly cooked... i mean really really perfectly cooked).

lamb with harissa tomato chutney, skewer of potato crisp and creamy spinach cube

cheese course

chestnut mousse, sesame tuille, pineapple

meringue crisp, ice cream, chestnut spaghetti, dried pear

chocolate mousse tart, vanilla cinnamon ice cream, gold leaf

petit fours

Whew. What an absolutely fantastic modern meal. We've eaten a LOT of food in the past nine days... really more than we should have, but it was all so enjoyable. From the simple, soul-satisfying decadence of a carefully-prepared gyros to the perfect setting of our first sea-side lunch (wow, that feels like a long time ago), Greece has given us a bounty of great food, amazing beauty, and lasting memories of friendship in another part of the world.

April 14, 2007

Greece, day 8: Three-part mission in Athens

We're into our final full day in Athens. And while the travel will center around seeing the birthplace of democracy, my mind is also occupied with a three additional food-related objectives: getting more loukoumades, seeing a genuine Athenian street market, and trying the much-hyped, supposedly uber-hip Mamacas taverna in Gazi.

Part One took us to Krinos in central Athens, thanks to a nicely written tip from this European travel blog. Looking like a Greek version of Cafe du Monde, Krinos is a large, self-service cafe where local workers stop for their afternoon snack and a caffeine hit. Scores of pastries and pies, both sweet and savory, filled the display cases. The famed loukoumades are made in a plain back room, where the deep fryer is located. At first, we were worried because a depressing looking batch of pre-made loukoumades were sitting under a heat lamp. PRE-MADE? That goes against everything that is good and righteous about this delectable treat!

Luckily, after a brief conversation with one of the employees and a request for freshly fried loukoumades, our hopes were restored. It seemed like folks often ask for a fresh batch, because the batter and fryer were ready to go. Fresh loukoumades coming up in 2 minutes!
This loukoumades-maker employed a completely different technique, dipping his hand into the vat of batter and, in one expert sweeping motion, dropping the dough into the fryer after making a hole in the center with his thumb.
After frying, a second person douses the loukoumades with sweet honey syrup with a single pass of a huge dowel. Impressive.
A little light on the cinnamon, these loukoumades were fantastic nonetheless. Of a totally different style, the Krinos version is much less dense than the version from Loukoumadopolis, without the interesting elasticity in the dough. Instead, the exteriers were much crispier, and the interiors a warm, pillowy and creamy. We engaged in a light debate about which type was better... but either way, you can't really go wrong.

Part 2: We next found ourselves at the Central Market in Omonia Square, where we gawked at the array of butchers and their fresh variety of cuts. The absolute lack of subtlety in the meat displays was so refreshingly real and tangible... nothing like the disassociating sterility of styrofoam and plastic wrap of the typical American supermarket. Here, you knew exactly what you were getting.
To remind us that we also eat fruits and vegetables after the extensive displays of carnage, we enjoyed the fantastic looking produce surrounding us.

Part 3 took us to Mamacas in the trendy, developing Gazi area of Athens. It was a nice night, so we dined outside under the lights, soaking up the pre-club scene. The great thing about Mamacas is that despite its South Beach chic environs, the staff was friendly and the food was actually very good. Our meal spanned a range of different simple, delicious mezze spreads, an outstanding roasted lamb (among the best of the trip), and a fantasticly crisp, almost tropical 2005 Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia, Thessaloniki.
What an awesome evening. My favorite part about today was the way we covered both the quintessentially tourist activities while also getting a bit of a glimpse into perhaps a bit of the lifestyle of the modern young Athenian crowd. I can't believe it's almost over!

April 13, 2007

Greece, day 7: Really expensive drinks

Somehow, it is already our last day on Santorini (and our last day of the ridiculous villa). We stopped first at the Archeological Museum of Ancient Thira, which had an interesting collection of cookware discovered during the excavation, like this bronze cooking pan and a pretty cool-looking small oven designed to be placed over an open flame.

These are petrified leaves from an olive tree, surprisingly well-preserved.

While we spent some of our last moments wandering through town, we came across a bakery selling a treat we'd been dying to try: katiafi: The shreds of filo soaked in syrup are browned and crispy on top, while noodle-like on the lower half. The interior is filled with sweetened ground walnuts and pistachios for a decadent, texturally contrasting bite of sweet goodness. We also tried elies, a traditional almond-based treat. Fans of marzipan, this one's for you.

Walking through the town, we also came across a tiny street market where some fishermen were selling fresh mackeral, bringing back memories of our splendid lunch at Malena.

But our real culinary target today was Lucky's, purportedly home of the best gyros. Lucky turned out to be the actual name of the owner, who was there cutting off slabs of well-caramelized meat from the biggest gyros meat stack we'd seen. Lucky's gyros were pretty good, but I didn't think they matched the unctuous goodness of our gyros in Mykonos. The real reason to stop by Lucky's is to chat it up a bit with Lucky, an animated and gregarious fellow interested in talking about world travels with his customers.

Loaded up with a significant amount of calories, we decided to walk down the path to the docks. On the way up, we stopped by one of the several cafes set up right along the edge of the caldera with magnificent views and a refreshing-looking "drink special" made with cactus fruit. Having walked back up the fairly steep path, we were pretty thirsty, and ended up doing some damage. Here's how our table looked at the end of our 45 minutes.

It was only just after we ordered our second round that we realized these drinks cost more than most top-shelf cocktails in New York. The treats we consumed from these empty glasses cost about $100. Whew, that's a pricey view! Mental note: check prices before ordering... Just one more gyros and it was time to go... (my stomach's capacity for gyros has been steadily increasing).

The rest of our day involved a quick flight back to Athens for the final leg of our trip. Since we arrived at our hotel pretty late, we decided to go for a simple dinner in Plaka. Since it's so touristy, Plaka is known for having a lot of really disappointing restaurants, some of which will scam you by attracting you with live music, then charging you extra on your bill for the music. To avoid this, we headed to Platanos Taverna, open since 1932 and, known for its spitiko fageto, or simple home cooking. Great prices and a down-home tavern ambiance, we fueled ourselves with a hearty portions of stewed beef and lamb, a well-executed moussaka, and a pasta dish that photographed way better than it actually tasted.

Well fed but exhausted, we walked the surprisingly navigable and charmingly quaint streets of Plaka back to the hotel to recharge for our final days.