Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Grand Meal in the Grand Duchy

Ever since I made my first trip to Luxembourg, late last year to deliver an interactive culinary event aimed at employee development (ie. corporate team building program), I swore that if I had the chance to return I would spend more than the 20-hours I spent in country on my inaugural trip. A picturesque country, seemingly equal parts France and Germany, I had been intrigued by its claim to have more Michelin starred restaurants than cities (an impressive 13 stars by my tally). So almost the first thing I did after agreeing to facilitate another event in Luxembourg was make lunch reservations at the Michelin two-star Restaurant Mosconi (what better way to prepare for 18+hours of travel than a degustation menu?). Luxembourg city is a mid-sized metropolitan area of peaks and valleys, quite literally, as half the city is on the top of a deep vertical cliff, with much of the rest on the valley floor below. One of the venues that fill the valley, sitting along the very mellow Alzette river in the old brewery district, is the Restaurant Mosconi. A Relais&Chateau location that despite its prestigious recognition and slightly pretentious appointments (an elevator to take you up to the second floor while the Maitre de takes the stairs?), manages to be particularly friendly and approachable. This is not to say that Mosconi is not formal, after all it's the best restaurant in the banking capital of Europe (I intially thought they required gentlemen diners to wear coat, tie AND cufflinks). However, the food was anything but fussy. Nouvelle Italian through and through, I didn't have much luck finding an authentic Luxembourgeois restaurant (the locals I spoke with mentioned something about French food with larger portions and sausage added?). Mosconi ended up being one of those experiences perfectly suited for the time and place. After days of rushing to airports, meetings and events, it was really nice to settle into a very comfortable chair, on a especially rainy day and let the chef make what he would (a ten-course degustation menu as it happened). Particularly memorable courses included: Shooter of Cauliflower Soup with Black Olive, Grilled Squid Salad with Shaved Fennel and Preserved Lemon, Homemade Rigatoni with Lobster and San Marzano Tomatoes, Cinnamon Ice Cream with Shaved Parmesan & Aged Balsamic and Italian Cheeses (they had over 40 on a large cart to choose from!!!). The ice cream with aged balsamic and parmesan was especially memorable. When it was all said and done my lunch ran slightly over three hours, the perfect amount of time to eaves-drop on Luxembourgeois bankers, admire their cufflinks and appreciate my extra few hours in this charming country.

If you have some really good balsamic vinegar you've been dying to open, try it with a few shavings of Reggiano Parmesan over some homemade cinnamon ice cream. It's delicious and a little bizarre!

Cinnamon Ice Cream

Quantity Produced: Makes 4 Cups

Sugar 1 ¼ Cups
Milk 2 ½ Cups
Vanilla Bean, Scraped 1
Egg Yolks 6
Cinnamon Sticks, Broken 12”
Heavy Cream 1 ¼ Cups

Preparation Procedure-

In a medium saucepan bring milk, split vanilla bean, broken cinnamon and half the sugar to a simmer. Remove from heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cream remaining sugar and egg yolks. Bring milk back to a boil again and use milk mixture to temper eggs. Add remaining milk mixture, whisking steadily, and cook over a double-boiler until thick enough to coat back of a spoon (10 to 20 minutes). Cool custard in ice bath or in refrigerator over night. Add cream and freeze in ice cream machine.

Hotel Crillon le Brave-Provence

As our wonderful time in Languedoc-Roussillon concluded, and the high-impact combination of too much unpasteurized cheese and local rose wine, my wife and I arranged to spend several days in the small hill town of Crillon le Brave in Northern Provence. Our specific destination was the Hotel Crillon le Brave, a Relais&Chateaux property located at the perch of the village. The location was reminiscent of a Provencal movie-set: small stone church chiming from time to time, vineyards and olive groves everywhere, intense sunshine; a completely sublime setting. HCLB is a small hotel, only 20 or so rooms, spread out over a good portion of the village. And like many small French hill towns it is completely interconnected by stone, like wall to wall shag carpeting in the '70's, everything was awash in old stone. It was a perfectly charming location.

The outer facade of the hotel looks like most any of the old buildings in town, but after you enter the inner realm a whole other world presents itself. Connected by a number of small stone pathways are a variety of gardens, small cafe tables, bocce courts, private terraces and an intentionally green swimming pool ending at the large dining patio overlooking the valley and Mont Ventoux. If the hotels brilliance had ended with the ambiance, we would have been very happy indeed. However, the most pleasant surprise may have been how outstanding the food was (so good we ate at the restaurant on consecutive nights, something I never do when traveling). The chef, Philippe Monti, has put together an impressively simple Mediterranean menu, drawing from numerous local artisans, with a wide selection of sides to accompany the creative main courses (think of the market driven simplicity of Craft restaurant in NYC, in a much more relaxed atmosphere). To complete the dining experience there's the succinct, but comprehensive wine list made up of mostly local wines (Chat. du Pape is only 20 km away) and exquisite French cheeses (I realize my visit to HCLB was ostensibly designed to ween me off the cheeses, but I just can't resist those unpasteurized fresh milk selections). We ended up being so taken with our little hotel that we rushed through our day trips to Avignon and Isle-sur-la-sorgue just so we could get back and relax at the hotel. So for your next whirlwind trip around the South of France, I highly recommend ending your travels with a few days at this establishment: . Just don't expect to give up the wine and cheese until you return from your trip.

Some of my favorite menu items are the sides designed to accompany your entrees. Here's a great eggplant dish that works wonderfully with grilled meat, seafood or bread.

Warm Eggplant-Mustard Seed Relish

Quantity Produced: Makes 2 cups

Eggplant, Peeled/Diced 1#
Onion, Diced 1 Small
Garlic, Minced 1 Medium Clove
Olive Oil as needed
Cider Vinegar, Organic ½ Cup
Honey 2 Tablespoons
Sugar 1 Tablespoon
Mustard Seed, Brown & Yellow 3 Tablespoons
Cumin, Ground 1 Teaspoon
Italian Parsley, Minced 2 Tablespoons
Kosher Salt & Fresh Pepper To Taste

Preparation Procedure-

In a medium skilled sweat onion and garlic over medium-low heat, 5-10 minutes. Add eggplant and raise heat to medium high, stirring occasionally to ensure mixture browns but doesn’t burn. When eggplant is brown add cider vinegar, reduce for 3-4 minutes, add sugar, honey, mustard seed and cumin. Cook until eggplant is glazed, toss with parsley and season. Serve warm with chicken, salmon or as a dip for pita chips.