Private Caribbean Villa

9E83801D-4408-4984-AE2E-35E0043F7930The day is picture-perfect: azure skies, turquoise sea and a warm Caribbean breeze.  The venue is a private villa tucked into a mountain overlooking Deep Bay on the West Coast of the Island of Antigua.  The occasion:  a milestone birthday celebration for a distinguished gentleman from Britain, currently living in Italy.  This is no ordinary guy: restauranteur, wine merchant and Bon Vivant, his wife is known for her elaborate dinner parties and hostessing flair.  Chef Miguel is in the kitchen and today he has been presented with the challenge:    The Guest of Honor does not eat fish.  After the shock of the conundrum of cooking on a Caribbean Island without sourcing the freshest wild-caught produce in the world, being from Peru where ceviche is renowned, he confidently proceeds.  The outcome, we are certain, will be meaty and heavy.  My primarily Pescatarian-in-winter husband and I enjoy the view and venue, consoling ourselves that it will be a joyous occasion regardless of the food.

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The lively and congenial bartender primes everyone with a hearty glass of white wine, chosen for the tastes of the Birthday Boy.  Fruity Sauvignon Blanc and dry Pinot Grigio flow like water.  Uniformed staff arrive at the outdoor bar/bbq with plates of h’orsdovres: vegetable spring rolls with a sweet chili dipping sauce, hummus and coconut prawns.  Shrimp aren’t really seafood, I think as I crunch into fried perfection: juicy, tender, mildly spiced toasted coconut without a drop of excess oil.  The accompanying citrus mango dip is not overly sweet with just a hint of heat.  Things are definitely looking up.

Guests mingle, drink and crunch happily, devouring the morsels quickly.  Just as fast, we turn towards the expansive glass dining table to a veritable sea of appetizers: tempura sweet potato and broccoli, and magnificent mountains of duck salad garnished with pomegranite.

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Oh, the salad.  I overheard many a guest gush: “I don’t eat vegetables and this is delicious!”  I, on the other hand, love my veggies and this salad was a symphony of tastes: smoky duck, hints of mint in the crisp mix of lettuces and that sassy punch of pomegranate.  The mango dipping sauce played double duty as the dressing.  I was extremely happy to see it again.

As the afternoon wiled away I watched as the enthusiastic bartender filled wine glasses to three quarters.  When met with protests (mostly from ladies) he feigned indignance and poured even more.  The party was a roaring success.  Then we got a whiff of the main courses.

Roast chicken: crispy salty skin, juicy meat – amazing in its simplicity.  Roasted baby potatoes, french green beans and teriyaki noodle stir fry, were surprisingly light and complimentary.

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The afternoon celebrations continued, the plates were cleared and a tart, crisp apple cobbler and fluffy hill of lemon meringue arrived.  Everyone found a bit of room in their satiated stomachs, including me.  Divine.

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Chef Miguel is employed by a Pittsburgh family when they are on-island, but is for hire when they are in Pittsburgh.

Phone: 268-783-6304

Food:  International ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ambiance: Zen Caribbean Luxury ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

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Ristorante Calagrana – Spedalicchio, Umbria

image Ristorante Calagrana is our neighborhood restaurant.  Since we live in the middle of the sparsely populated countryside of Umbria, there are only a lucky few who can say the same.  Frequented by foodie ex-pats, well-heeled travelers and celebrating locals,  the beautiful terrace with its panorama of rolling Italian hills, olive groves and cypress trees is created in the style of a traditional pergola:  rough timbers, stone floors and hanging baskets overflowing with flowers.   Italian tradition provides shelter for a refined dining experience:  white table cloths, crystal wine glasses and impeccable service.  With its consistently delicious, gorgeously presented food, Calagrana has all the qualities of a remarkable restaurant.

Chef Alberto was born and raised in Italy.  He spent considerable formative years learning and cooking in London and brings to Umbria a passionate, inventive take on Italian cuisine.

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Our starter of pan-seared prawns is superb.  The chef  preserves their seafood flavor and enhances it with chili- and garlic-sautéed tomato and al-dente green beans.  A generous but light appetizer that showcases Alberto’s finesse in the kitchen, even with a terrace full of hungry Sunday-lunch-ers, both the prawns and the beans are hot, firm and bursting with fresh flavor and color.

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My husband and I decide to have a truffle-off.  He chooses tagliolini, I choose risotto.  After intense fork-to-fork comparisons – it’s a draw.  Both of these are winners.  The risotto cradles a warm center of mild tomino  cheese; a delicate creamy sauce envelops the tagliolini –  equally scrumptious beds for the vast quantity of freshly shaved black truffle.  This is my kind of competition – I even manage to successfully turn my fork to the left once or twice.

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This chicken is a masterpiece.  Marinated in spices, oven roasted and served with carmelized red onion and a hint of red chili, it is tender, juicy, lightly salted and complimentarily, not overwhelmingly, herbed and spiced.  This dish easily  wins our vote for the best chicken in the area.

Ristorante Calagrana, Spedalicchio, Umbria, Italy: 39 075 9410865

info@calagrana.com

Ambiance: Casually elegant ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Food:  Gourmet Italian ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price $$

 

Castel Fragsburg – Merano, Italy

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Perched on a promontory in the Italian Alps, high above the quaint village of Merano in the Alto Adige region of Italy, Relais & Chateau’s Castel Fragsburg is a Gourmet Wellness Hotel.  Counter-intuitive?  Oxi-moronic?  Nope.  All of the ingredients that Chef Cristoph uses are organic & fresh, combined strategically to be beneficial for your body and mind.  Add bio-dynamic wine and you have a powerful combination. Evening palate seduction + sensual sipping  = clear-headed, energetic hiking in the morning.  Oh ….yes!!!!

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An appetizer of sesame-encrusted tuna, creamy avocado with a drizzle of curry is scrumptious.  The little pearl rice cakes have a kick from wasabi and the grilled baby corn cobs are surprisingly smoky.

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Beetroot risotto is a riot of color, garnished with smoky char, super-thin apple slices and horseradish foam swirled around with roasted beet, balsamic reduction.  Vegetables should always be this beautiful and taste like this.

imageGrilled turbot with celeriac, spinach and tiny bits of roasted hazelnuts has delicate flavors which meld deliciously with the edible nasturtium flower.

imageI have a penchant for taste cohesion in a meal.  This menu’s repetition of horseradish, smoke, wasabi and nut just makes my tongue happy, comforted….nurtured even. I feel like Christoph is a soulmate, without meeting him.  He knows.  This amazing dessert is triangles of wasabi ice cream on a bed of peanuts, coconut, salt & pepper.  It’s light, it’s spicy.  It’s sweet.  It gives you a little zippity-do-da and leaves the lasting impression that the chef is a genius.  A wellness genius.

Castel Fragsburg, Merano Italy.  Phone: 39 0473 244 071

Ambiance:  Outside, on the side of a mountain ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Food:  Gourmet Wellness ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price: $$$$

Psaraki, Santorini Greece

image  It looks like an ordinary roadside Taverna, bordered by cornflower blue picket fences, checkered tablecloths, a gorgeous view of a picturesque fishing harbor and the navy blue waters of the Agean sea, but ordinary does not describe Psaraki.  It doesn’t get any fresher, more simple and authentic than at this tiny, unassuming outdoor restaurant.  Perched above the busiest fishing harbor on the Island of Santorini (Thira), this is Greek seafood the old fashioned way.

White eggplant is one of the few vegetables that grow in abundance on this arid Island.  The chef grills them over an open fire, then roasts them in the oven with local cherry tomatoes, red onion, oregano and feta cheese.  Even if you don’t like eggplant, this smokey, tangy starter will rock your world, and you will find yourself scraping burnt feta/tomato from the sides of the baking dish.  You will not want this taste to end.

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The white tuna carpaccio is recommended and we are dubious.  It’s not red, and we are a tiny bit racist when it comes to tuna.  One bite: world peace.  I save the last bit because the flavor contains an unidentifiable, predominant herb that tips this dish over the top.  Caper leaf.  It’s incredible.  I don’t know how I can ever live without it again.

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I’m not a fan of fried food, but my husband is.  He orders the small shrimp and Greek fries (potatoes fried with fresh oregano).  He rants, he raves, all the while smiling widely while swigging local beer.

imageWhen the whole, grilled Sea Bass arrives, we’re already full….but not that full.  It’s served with a fine sauce of olive oil, lemon and a hint of mustard.  No easy task, it’s been grilled to perfection.  Fully cooked, finely salted, juicy and succulent, this chef gets full marks for his ability to serve nature’s finest with utmost simplicity.

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If you love seafood, Greece and a rustic ambiance, Psaraki will deliver an unforgettable, authentic experience.

Psaraki, Vlychida, Santorini. 30 2286 082783

Food:  Greek Seafood ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ambiance: Rustic: pickets, wicker chair seats and a turquoise blue fishing harbor ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price: $$

Le Vieux Logis Tremolat, France

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This precious restaurant is one of the rarest jewels in the crown of Relais & Chateau in all of France. Nestled in the small village of Tremolat, in the Dordogne region, Le Vieux Logis has 23 rooms and suites in its ivy-covered gingerbread-esque farmhouse accommodations.

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Even at the height of tourist season in August, the hotel’s tiny lobby’s aroma is log fire. One glance and the oversized fireplace in the country-style lounge explains everything. A glance in the opposite direction entices with dark-patina leather club chairs huddled in pairs amidst a wood- paneled bar and cigar room. This is not a place for a salad. Beef bourguignon beckons. The hotel owns three restaurants within 100 meters of the hotel: a bistro, a tartine-erie, and a Michelin-starred dining room. The quality of the fare as well as the service at all three are outstanding.
Forest of Dreams
The summer dining room is set in a courtyard behind the shuttered windows of the farmhouse. Perfectly pruned trees cozily insulate 20 white-clothed tables. As we’re seated at dusk, a young woman flits from table to table lighting taper candles, then carefully places clear glass cylinders overtop the flames. Cleverly disguised amidst the overhead foliage, lamps blink and illuminate the linen tables: crystal glasses, silver place settings and a hand-carved wooden knife. Beyond the moss-covered-stone babbling brook border, boxwoods trimmed into 4-foot round pom-poms tuft softly over the manicured lawn, slivers of turquoise from the pool flicker through the thick wisteria pergola surround. The stone walls of the farmhouse are covered in darkest green ivy climbing around white shutters to its tiled roof. The result is breathtaking. Enchanting is an understatement. Intoxicating is more like it.
Vichy-soisse arrives accompanied by a rectangle of toasted brioche with a centre of black truffle butter emulsion as a crouton. It melts in my mouth and delivers a superb but not over-powering flavor punch to the delicate herb-infused leek and potato soup. Heirloom tomatoes cut in large chunks presented separately on the plate by color come with three condiments: pesto, goat’s cheese and olive tapenade: a beautiful, fresh salad, innovatively served. The local beef entrecôte is perfectly cooked medium rare topped with tiny squares of potato which have been sizzled in duck fat, browned chanterelle mushrooms and slow roasted artichokes. The bearnaise sauce is classic.
I rarely eat sweets because I prefer to over-indulge in cheese, or anything savory. Not tonight. A snifter of key-lime foam arrives, with a dollop of basil creme. I proceed to eat my husband’s after he watches me inhale mine in 5 seconds flat. I can attest, from taking my time with the second helping, the enchantment has legs. And this is just the pre-dessert palate cleanser.

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Rhubarb is one of my favorite foods, if not over-sugared. This chef embraces the tartness of the vegetable, enhances it with a thin, sweet, meringue-tarragon swirl on top and rhubarb/tarragon creme beneath. Rhubarb and tarragon. Amazing.

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We have had the delight this particular evening to be looked after in such a way by the maitre’d that he has elevated our experience. Not overbearing, he is omnisciently thoughtful and subtly comedic throughout our meal. As the temperature falls, mohair shawls are offered to sleeveless women and when my husband looks up expectantly he is teased and prodded in such a humorous (but of course,masculine) way, he gives in and gets warm. The evening lingers. And so does the enchantment.

Le Vieux Logis, Tremolat, France

Phone: +33 5 53 22 80 06

Ambiance:  Alfresco elegant ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Food:  French ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

$$$$

 

 

Don Alfonso 1890, St.Agata, Sorenntino Peninsula Italy

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Amalfi Coast Must!

Casual, Don Alfonso, 1890 is not.  Michelin style decor, service and food – but despite these choices, this is a warm, friendly, family restaurant.  The reason is simple.  The same owner has been operating it as the family’s pride and joy, it’s Casa familia since 1890.  Livia, the (great..great….?) grand daughter is authentically and sincerely interested in your experience, as the traditional, gracious and knowledgeable hostess that she is.  She introduces you to her sons, one who supervises the restaurant, the other, much younger (and oh so bello) is apprenticing under his father, the chef.  Livia insists that it is her joyful purpose in life to do this, to oversee local Italian food prepared and served in such a special way that the experience can evoke emotions.  She succeeds.  And she does it with such grace and elegance, it feels natural and, yes, casual.

imageAs I swoon over my appetizer: clouds of ricotta-filled gnocchi in tomato sauce so flavorful that I am speechless, I glance through the window to see two lovely dogs jumping from a white van.  The driver, a grey-haired, mustached man, saunters around to help another, older dog out of the passenger seat and then proceeds to direct a number of young men to haul crates of fresh produce from the back of the van.   In the moment, the frolicking animals bring an earthy, playful ambiance, and in doing my research, the gentlemen is none other than the great chef himself.  Livia explains that their farm grows just a few miles away, that they own half of the mountain and that all of their produce is organic.

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The food is exceptional.  Each and every dish is presented (with a flourish of silver domes) artfully.  The tastes are delicate mastery, with the exception of the bold and the beautiful tomato sauce.  Mastery-yes, delicate-no.  I will dream of that sauce until I taste it again.  Livia invited me to come next summer and learn to cook it myself.  I will definitely be taking her up on it.  Maybe I could frolic with her dogs on the organic farm…And then Livia and I can get our nails done afterwards…..

imageRicotta Gnocci in Tomato Sauce from Heaven

imageRoasted Guinea Fowl with Pistacio and red pepper coulis

imageClam paccheri pasta with pesto and zucchini

imageLemon Sorbet, wild strawberry coulis and a little see-through sugar feather of fennel

Don Alfonso, 1890 -Santa Agata di Golfi, Italy

Ambiance:  Pink Italian Chic ⭐️

Food: Organic Gourmet Italian ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price: $$$$$

Barbuda Belle, Barbuda West Indies

 

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We arrive by boat, a shallow mooring conveniently located so we can jump off into soft sand, the turquoise waters not even dampening our tushies. We’re greeted by an elegant and welcoming hostess who introduces herself as Rosalind standing at the entrance to the resort between two tall Totem Poles playfully adorned with carved turtles, geckos and seagulls. She explains how the structures (5 huts and a lobby/ restaurant + totems) were conceived and assembled in Bali, Indonesia and brought by barge to the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda, 60 miles off the coast of St. Bart’s. Splashing nearby are three men and a woman disembarking from a rubber dingy with a cooler. We venture over to have a look to find that this is the owner and that the dingy is the tender to his 75 foot twin-hull yacht anchored a short distance away.

A French Chef In The Wild

After a tour of the ‘huts’ I have my first taste of what it would be like to glamp. Luxuriously rustic. The oxy-moron is right before my eyes. Even the simple four poster bed surrounded by mosquito netting has an ‘invisible air conditioner’ built into its canopy. Heaven. Limestone shower, l’occitane d’provence toiletries…..I digress….this is about the food.

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Sitting at our outdoor table of polished dark-wood planks, the wooden chairs adorned with pillows in various hues of orange, the place setting is formal on a woven bamboo placemat. Rosalind introduces our waitress who continues to use my name throughout the meal with genuine humor and delight. I order a dark rum and pineapple juice and when I receive it, am almost certain the pineapple was picked this morning, cut a moment before whirring with the darkest island rum. My husband and captain look on with envy, sipping their beers.

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My starter is goat cheese salad. The gooey cheese is warm, served on a barely-there whisper of toast, four of them perched on a local lettuce tomato salad and dressed in balsamic glaze. Delicious. My husband and captain share the ceasar salad which is homemade including the small but artful croutons. All of us can’t resist the farm chicken special, stuffed with local vegetables and drizzled with fois gras sauce. Garnished with a perfectly crisp rosti potato and two dollops of zucchini basil ‘dream whips’, it does not disappoint. The men share this and the fish burger, which arrives true to the ambiance using fresh filet of red snapper caught that morning on toasted brioche served with homemade tartar sauce. The addition of the rosti to the burger would have been redundant had it not been so excellent. The guys ate it again with gusto.

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The tarte tatin, always the yardstick for my husband, is a winner. Feather-light pastry, tart apples with the proper balance of carmelized sugar resting on a very shallow lake of creme anglais, garnished with a strawberry and fresh mint. Yes, the strawberry and apples are from California, but who the hell cares. It’s fantastic!

 

Barbuda Belle: 268 783 4779
Ambiance: Elegant rustic Caribbean ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Food: French ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price: $$

Russ & Daughters – New York City

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I expect comfort food….not to be impressed.  From the moment we enter to a twenty-minute-after-opening wait, it is evident that many agree.  Thankfully, a roomy windowsill and a menu occupy the ten minutes in a bustling, friendly, simple/quirky restaurant.  Russ & Daughters is a tweed newsboy cap positioned jauntily on traditional Orchard Street.  The staff are fresh faced, eager and intelligent: orders are taken efficiently, questions answered knowledgeably, compliments accepted earnestly.

Not Your Mother’s Borscht

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Maybe your mom is a gourmet chef, but I have never tasted borscht this flavorful.  Plenty of beets, onions and finely chopped potato thicken this ruby-red delight garnished with plenty of dill.  Not since Scandinavia have I experienced this fine a balance of sweet and sour, onion and dill.  Add the sour cream, and you have a masterpiece.  The pumpernickel bagel is replaced, as requested, with fresh sourdough caraway rye bread that rivals the best in New York.  Did I mention it’s fresh?  Just baked: one piece cold, the other hot and toasty.

My enthusiastic husband orders The Lower Sunnyside: smoked salmon, eggs and potato latkes.  Sure the salmon is Nova Scotia Gaspe Peninsula and the eggs organic, these two make this offering a no-brainer, it’s the latkes that are the standout.  Crispy and thick, onion and potato with just the right measure of salt, they are feats of wizardry.  Not greasy, not soggy and definitely not skinny, they attest to the magic in this kitchen.

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To finish, we share the blintzes which are light and delicious accompanied by a house-made fruit compote.  This tiny innocuous dish of blueberries is outstanding.  Again, success is in its fine balance of sweet and tart.  A sweet-tart of a dessert!

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Russ & Daughters, 127 Orchard Street NYC

Food:  Attention to detail of each ingredient, traditionally presented and artfully executed. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ambience: Simple, quirky, sophisticated Deli.  Efficient, friendly and intelligent staff.  ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Price: Value for Quality $$