ON A RECENT TRIP to New York, our schedule was packed. We visited our little nephews, saw our niece star in a play at her high school followed by an after-theater dinner at a very sweet French restaurant. We also had a wonderful wood oven pizza at a favorite spot on the Upper West Side as we absorbed the energy of Manhattan during the shopping season, all in 36 hours. I have always contended that the best food in the world is in New York. My memories were confirmed.
When I was a young mother, the best Italian restaurants I had experienced were not in Italy but in New York City. It wasn’t until many years later that I had the best meal of my life, thus far, and that was in Bologna, about 18 years ago. When we walked in, the tortellone were being made fresh, by hand, in a small pantry off the kitchen by an old woman, perhaps the grandmother of the owner. They were filled with veal and the sauce was a delicate herb butter and fresh sage topped with a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano offered by the waiter. It was our first meal in Italy celebrating a big birthday of mine with my son and his girlfriend, at the time, hosting us on the wonderful adventure. Bologna was our first stop on a 10-day trip.
In my early twenties I had experienced delicious food at two restaurants that I loved, Il Monello and Il Nido, which were owned by the same people. Their menus offered food very different from the “Italian” fare that I was familiar with, back when Italian meant red sauce dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna. Instead, these wonderful spots offered something new: pink sauces, where the tomato sauce was mixed with a little cream. This exposure to Northern Italian food was an inspiration and 10 years later, when I started my restaurant, I experimented with light sauces like fettuccine Alfredo, which is basically cream and Parmesan over light egg noodles. I started making my own noodles on a little hand machine, which I still have. I couldn’t believe how delicate a dish this was compared to the heavier tomato sauces that were so common. I still love tomato sauce, especially when made with San Marzano tomatoes, my favorite being a Bolognese made with veal, pork and beef, yellow tomatoes and some cream. Il Munello was on the Upper East Side, and my reminisces led me to ponder it as I thought about this column — could it still be around after so many years? Thanks to the internet, I learned that it is gone, having closed in 2001.
But there are new memories being made still. Recently we had dinner at a new Greek restaurant, Balos Estiatiro, in West Hartford, Conn. It has been a long time since I have felt so delighted by a dining experience. The ambience was designed to transport us into the crisp elegance of a summer beach restaurant with lots of white, wood topped tables and a thatched ceiling suggesting primitive huts that one might experience on a Greek Island. The service was warm and friendly but very professional and the food was fabulous.
A sampling of Greek olives, small balls of yogurt in olive oil and marinated cucumber slices is served in place of butter with a basket of rustic bread at Balos, and we could hardly stop ourselves from eating anything else it was so good. The menu offered traditional spreads like the tzatziki, a yogurt, cucumber and garlic dish; tarmac, a spread with cod roe and potato; and of course hummus, pureed chickpea and tahini. We had an octopus dish made with sashimi-grade fish, shaved onion, capers and sun-dried tomatoes in a delicious vinaigrette. While many of the dishes have names familiar to American diners, the flavors and quality of these Greek preparations, such as their incredible spanakopita, are the best I have ever tasted. We couldn’t wait to go back and do some more exploring the next time we had the chance, and we were again delighted. Alas, we haven’t gotten to items such as their whole fish on the grill or lamb chops. Some of that bread and a couple of appetizers and we’ve eaten all we can find room for.
I started thinking about other great restaurant experiences through the years and there aren’t as many as you might think. Indochine in Paris was a knockout. I had never experienced fish wrapped in banana leaves and served with a basket of fresh herbs. I started using banana leaves in my restaurant as a result.
The French restaurant Lutece in New York offered the most special menu served in the most elegant way. It was my introduction to rustic pâtés and terrines, served with cornichons, the tiny pickles. All I needed was a baguette and a few glasses of wine, I could have skipped the meal. I had dinner at a restaurant in Dijon, France, which was supposedly one of the best, and I loved its backyard herb garden, but my dining experiences at Andre Soltner’s Lutece were always remarkable.
Another experience deeply fried into my memory was also in New York, La Tulipe in the West Village, which was a favorite for years. The apricot soufflé was and still is my most favorite dessert. Preordered before dinner, it was brought to the table in a beautiful soufflé dish that the server punctured and allowed the perfume of apricot to permeate the space. Then he poured in freshly whipped cream. The ambience was totally quaint and totally French, which added to the experience, but the lovely ground floor storefront has been totally gone for a couple of decades now.
When I was the food editor of a TV show called “Look” on Channel 7 in Boston during the 1980s, they asked for my ideas on restaurants to cover in New York and I chose 21 and the River Cafe for our shoot. It wasn’t because they had the best food, it was because there was something special about sitting at the bar at the River Cafe and looking out at the Statue of Liberty. And at 21, it was the people watching that was great. I sat one time at the table next to Aristotle Onassis on a visit to 21, which was pretty remarkable, although I would have preferred to sit a few feet away from Jackie.
To put you in the mood for something French and delicious, I’m sharing a recipe from the “LUTECE” cookbook. I have modified it to make life easier with a few shortcuts.
Tourte de Valle de Munster or COVERED MEAT PIE
Cut two pounds of your favorite meats — any combination of pork, veal, rabbit or duck — into thin strips, removing fat and skin.
In a bowl mix the meat with 2 shallots, peeled and chopped, 2 tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley, 2 tsp. salt, few grinds of pepper, 2 tbsp. dry white wine, 2 tbsp. cognac. Toss well and let the mixture marinate for an hour.
Place a sheet of puff pastry in the bottom of a greased springform pan. Wet the edge with water with a brush. You can cut out a circle to fit your pan if you like of use a brownie pan and fit the rectangle into it.
Pour the meat onto the pastry.
Cover with another sheet of pastry and press firmly to seal the top and bottom crusts.
Flute with your fingers and brush with a wash of a beaten egg. Cut a hole 3/4 inch in diameter in the middle of the top crust. Insert a chimney made of aluminum foil into the hole.
Bake in a preheated, 350-degree oven for about 55 minutes.
Beat 2 eggs with a cup of heavy cream and a pinch of salt. Pour this into the chimney you made from the foil.
Bake another 20 minutes more. Serve warm or cold with a green salad and a wedge of nice cheese.