Monday, May 21, 2007

For the Pasta and Music Alone, Worth the 10-Straight Busy Signals

While in New York recently I had the opportunity to dine at Mario Batali's flagship eatery the revered Babbo Ristorante, which is by many accounts the toughest reservation in town. That would explain my purse-designer sister's glee at managing a Monday night same-day reservation (albeit after a mild onset of blackberry carpal tunnel from having to call 11 or 12 times to get through to the reservationist). For resident New Yorkers, where everything is crowded virtually all the time, gaining access to one of the coveted "crowded places" has an understandable cache attached to it. And despite, or perhaps as a result of, having just returned from a trip to Europe where I'd eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world, I was excited as well. Part of my enthusiasm came from having had great meals in several of Batali's other restaurants (Lupa & Esca). Also I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Buford's book Heat which documents in great detail life in the Babbo kitchen and the huge personality that is Mario Batali. Mainly though it was Babbo's reputation for serving delicious, creative, and authentic contemporary Italian food in an unfussy setting that had me hyped.

The Babbo experience did not disappoint. Their winelist is among the best Italian lists I've ever seen (the Franz Haas 'Manna' from Trentino-Alto Adige was a fun and memorable wine) and the food was exciting, yet familiar. We had some salumi made by Batali's father who has a salami shop in Seattle (when thinking about great salami who thinks the Pacific Northwest?), great lamb's tongue with morels (it tastes like full-flavored beef brisket) a bunch of different homemade pastas and assorted carne, as well as a Brachetto d'Acqui with some cheese for dessert.

In it's essence Babbo is a great neighborhood restaurant that no one in the neighborhood can get into (my sister lives a couple blocks away). I will remember the surreal environment of our dinner for a long time: elderly Italian couple to our left looking slightly confused, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) to our right, Grateful Dead playing on the stereo as if we were at The Blue Bird in Leelanau, Michigan.

In the spirit of our "Pasta Fest", here's one of my pasta dough recipes. I use different doughs for different types of pasta, but this version is great for any stuffed pasta or an egg rich pasta (ie. tagliatelle).

Flour 2 ½ Cups
Semolina Flour 2 ½ Cups
Eggs, Room Temp 8
Olive Oil, Extra Virgin 1 Teaspoon
Water ¼ Cup, or as needed

Preparation Procedure:

In a food processor pulse flour and semolina to combine. Whisk together eggs and olive oil. With the machine running, pour the egg mixture through the feed tube and add just enough water for the dough to come together into a mass. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 – 10 minutes, until smooth and resilient. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow dough to relax before proceeding.
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Basil, a lot of Basil

It's garden time for most of America. When we cooks ambitiously decide to plant three varieties of lavender to infuse our own honey or think that we'll finally have time to work on some recipes using lemon balm. Well here is where Kirk saves you quite a bit of time and garden space: you won't and you don't. Take it from me, someone who cooks with any and all unusual ingredients (everything from purslane to cuitlacoche), when it comes to your private garden save it's precious terra firma for herbs you'll use frequently. In other words: Italian parsley, thyme, rosemary, a little sage, chives, cilantro (pots), mint (pots), dill, tarragon (pot) and basil, a lot of basil. If space allows, I recommend planting twice as much parsley and basil as the rest, it's amazing how much you'll use with your favorite summer recipes. Also, plant the cilantro, tarragon and mint in pots. The cilantro and tarragon because they sometimes grows better if not constantly in direct sunlight and pots keep the mint from taking over the rest of the garden. Follow this recommendation and not only will you get a lot more from your garden, but will undoubtedly be surprised at how rarely you find yourself craving fennel pollen or lemon verbena.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Putting a Little Chez Panisse Back in Paris

I have been guilty for years of badmouthing restaurant food in France, specifically Paris. Not the cuisine, but the restaurants. I've always said that if you wanted to spend several hundred dollars per person, then yes, you could have a great food experience. That the so called "temples of gastronomy" (Guy Savoy, Alain Chapel, Alain Ducasse, etc.) were still knocking it out of the proverbial culinary park. But if you were looking for simply a really good restaurant serving solid, original food in a stylish environment- good luck! The types of local, independent restaurants we cherish, yet to a certain extent take for granted, in cities all over this country seem to be a rare commodity in France. Maybe it's the French labor laws or business culture that make it very hard for small, independent restaurants. Perhaps it comes from cooking a cuisine that is so revered that there aren't many young chefs willing to experiment or take chances. Who knows, so just when I was about to give up on eating out casually in Paris, I recently came across a gem on the left bank, adjacent to the Hotel Saint-Germain: Le Comptoir. Chef Yves Camdeborde clearly isn't one of those chefs afraid to take some liberties with his native cuisine. His locally sourced food prepared in a simply yet original fashion has taken Paris by storm. He is credited with reinvigorating the local food movement in restaurants throughout Paris. (I sampled the outstanding Brandade de Morue, Veal Breast with Baby Artichokes, French Green Lentil Soup with Foie Gras Butter). Dinner reservations for the incredibly reasonable, set prix fixe dinner are among the hardest to get in the city, so go for an early or late lunch. Here are the specifics for the next time you're in Paris:

Le Comptoir
Hôtel Relais Saint-Germain
9, carrefour de l’Odéon
Paris 75006
phone: +33 (0)1 44 22 07 97
fax: +33 (0)1 46 33 45 30