Friday, June 12, 2009
At the moment, I feel like writing about Croatia, where Christie and I spent the last couple days. Why isn’t Croatia more prominent on Americans’ list of places to visit in Europe? From what we saw, Croatia is a beautiful country with interesting (though also complicated) history, incredibly cheap prices, refreshingly cool water, and welcoming, friendly people. It could be a different story in Zagreb, but the Istrian Peninsula, in the northwest corner of the country, is paradise on the Adriatic.
A comfortable three hour ferry ride from Venice, the Istrian peninsula is the smaller, less well-known (perhaps less publicized, thus I hadn’t heard of it...) northern sister of the Dalmatian coast. Given that we only had a few days, we chose Istria, the coast closest to Venice. We stayed in Rovinj (Rovigno) which is the second largest city in Istria, after the Roman ruin city of Pula. During the height of the Venetian republic, Istria and Dalmatia were conquered and ruled under the Doge’s authority, and the Italian language has remained centuries later. Though many people do speak a little English, Italian is really the second language after Croatian.
We booked our stay in Rovinj at the Apartmani Celestina, easily found on hostelworld.com. After a ten minute walk out of the old town center, we found our host Celestina to be as charming and welcoming as her apartments, priced at 45€ a night (about 350 kuna). Apartmani Celestina is located in a residential neighborhood, away from the tourist restaurants that line the marina. Christie and I relished the opportunity to see Rovinj and her residents in their daily routines. We bought groceries at the local corner store, where tough looking Croatian men drank tall bottles of beer at all hours of the day. There was a man with one leg who frequently (and by frequently, I mean every time we walked by in three days, he was there) rode is Honda Four-Wheeler ATV to the shop and could be seen chain-smoking and drinking and chatting with his compatriots. The sheer number of bottle caps on the ground indicated this wasn’t an isolated incident. I couldn’t help but wonder if the one-legged man was involved in the Balkan wars and had lost a leg to a land mine.
While Rovinj isn’t scarred in any visible way from those wars, that’s probably because it is the opposite end of the country from Bosnia. However, a few short conversations revealed that the people of Rovinj certainly have connections with that conflict. We chose to dine at Restaurant Pineta, located in our less-touristy neighborhood. Our server was named Pavle, Bosnian by ethnicity. He said his family came to Rovinj when he was very little “because of the war, you know?” Christie and I thought to ourselves yes, of course, the war. Doesn't everyone move when they’re young because of wars?
Midway through our first dinner there, Pavle loosened up a little and began joking with us. We asked him to recommend a typical Croatian dish; he responded that everything on the menu was Croatian. Further questioning revealed that his favorites included cevapĉici (I think that’s how it’s spelled). He then admitted that cevapĉici are actually a Sarajevo specialty, ten thumb-sized ground beef sausages, served with a sweet red pepper and garlic sauce that only looks like Sriracha.
We started with two salads, one of dandelion and radicchio that turned out too bitter for our palates. However, I’m glad to say we tried a dandelion salad; how often do you see that on even the most inventive menus? The other appetizer was a delicious salad of pickled cucumber, tomato, olives and a fresh, salty cheese- which Christie aptly described as a cross between feta and goat cheese. We followed the salad with the cevapĉici and Istrian sausage, a smaller, sweeter version of bratwurst, with vegetable rice.
Though the sausages were delicious, the highlight of this first dinner was definitely the pickled cucumber and fresh cheese salad. We had never experienced a cheese of this flavor and consistency, and the cucumber was a refreshing foil to the salt of the cheese. Perhaps Pavle noted that we loved the salad, because the second night the dish arrived nearly twice as large.
For our second dinner at Pineta, Pavle directed us to a pasta dish with slow-stewed beef. The pasta wasn’t quite the consistency of gnocchi, but it was slightly chewy. After several mimed demonstrations from our obliging server, we discerned that the pasta is made similar to gnocchi, but with less potato. The little balls are rolled between your fingers until they resemble your pinky.
These skinny, knuckled dumplings must be the Croatian equivalent of macaroni and cheese- essentially, everything you could ask for in a comfort food. The beef broth is salty enough to hit the spot, the noodle dumplings are perfectly chewy; the whole dish is simply satisfying. It seemed like the kind of dish a Croatian mother fixes for her sick son, or her famished husband after an especially hard day of work. Christie and I had spent the day laying on the beach, suntanning and swimming on the Adriatic, so it’s not exactly like we earned it. But that’s what vacation is for- you can eat out of context, just for the taste experience.
Another gastronomic gem we found in our residential neighborhood was a little bakery with sweet and savory pastries and crusty loaves. The bread reminded me of a slightly heartier baguette- not quite as airy as the French original, but then it was better to suited to the peppered Croatian charcuterie and cheese we grabbed for our beach picnic.
The bakery specialized in burek, a heavier pastry that can be described as a cheese- or mince- filled pretzel, as though they had taken flat sheets of phyllo dough, wrapped them around filling and then wound the rope in the shape of a sweet palmier. It was a little too greasy for my taste, because the pastry was already pretty buttery. The cheese left the pastry’s paper wrapping visibly saturated. Obviously, we only ordered burek again at 3 a.m. on our last night there, after four too-many glasses of grappa and honey.
Their sweet pastries, however, were out of this world. A Nutella-filled brioche started my morning off with the perfect sugar shot, while Christie opted for a strudel filled with walnut paste. Croissants dusted with powdered sugar, braided rolls topped with sesame seeds- we tried it all. I think over our three days in Rovinj, we visited the bakery seven times. Luckily for us, it was open twenty four hours, so we could grab a little breakfast at 5:45 a.m., before our ferry back to Venice. Given the aforementioned excess with grappa and honey shots, the pastries were lifesavers, to say the least.
As I write, I am noticing that I frequently describe food items in comparison to something else, something I already know. Perhaps with more writing experience and more culinary knowledge, I’ll be able to describe dishes or particular foods in their own right. Or perhaps the comparisons are useful in that they provide a richer image and mental taste point for my reader.
Thus far I’ve written mostly about food in Croatia, and one might think all we did was eat and drink, but Christie and I did much more than that. We rented bikes for the day for 60 kuna (less than 10€) and rode south.
We left Rovinj around 10 a.m., and rode through RV parks filled with badly sunburned Austrian and German tourists. We rode past nude couples, old couples, babies, and techno-pumping Euro Spring Breakers. (Truly, one little beach resort was roped off for Europe Spring Break 2K9, which looked sparsely attended despite loud house music before noon). We rode through Croatian vineyards, carpeted with red poppy flowers. Unintentionally, we rode through a rock quarry and a cement factory, and left covered in a white dust. We also crisscrossed Croatian farms with ostriches, goats, and horses.
As we rode, we kept saying to each other, “We’re so far off the beaten path, there are no tourists here, this is great!” and “I bet other cyclists don’t have the legs to bike this far!” when in truth we were just lost. We had really made a sharp turn away from the coast and we had been biking away from the beach.
After riding for four and half hours in jean shorts and sandals, the sweat and dust in our eyes forced us to reevaluate our navigation skills. We flagged down a young man on a scooter and he informed us we had actually ridden off the map. We turned around, in desperate search of the closest spot to swim and refresh our overheated faces.
When we finally got back to the coast, we jumped in the water immediately and found the Adriatic to be remarkably salty, so salty that you don’t have to try to float. If you just sit there, or inhale deeply and lay back, you’ll float easily. The water was cold, but not to the point of taking your breath away. We swam and picnicked, and allowed our legs to recover after our long ride.
I hope I make it back to Croatia soon. It would a fantastic place to visit during the World Cup to root with fervid Croatian fans. It would also be a great place to ride a bike down the entire coast for a month or two. We saw many people with saddle bags on their bikes for longer bike tours along the cypress-lined beaches.
When I go again, I might avoid the grappa and honey shots, but I will certainly look forward to another glass of Karlovaćko beer.
I’ve been in Italy less than a day, and I wonder: Why does food taste so much better in Italy than in the United States? The caffè macchiato this morning was three sips, but three sips better than any cup of translucent coffee water in the U.S. Though the apple croissant was a little heavy on the butter, making it droopy rather than your typical airy croissant, it was certainly a pleasure to eat. Or maybe that was just the fact we were sitting right along the Giudecca canal in Venice, with an offshore breeze cooling our faces- I can’t be certain.
Even an American’s home cooking in Italy produces a tastier product, it seems. Last night, Christie made gnocchi with a homemade meat ragù sauce, salad with tomatoes and Parmiggiano cheese, and a few slices of baguette. It was perfection. I asked if the ingredients came from a specialty store; she named two local grocery stores- Billa and Coop. Imagine the best dinner you’ve had in the U.S. being prepared from ingredients purchased at Food Lion and the Dollar General. The difference in quality at the most pedestrian of shops is remarkable.
Our meal was simple but delightful: the gnocchi felt like pillows between my tongue and teeth. The garlic, onion and red wine in the meat sauce provided the piquant flavor needed to stand up to the heavier gnocchi pasta. And the parmesan- if only you could get such parmesan in the States for the price! A modest wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the U.S. will run around $12, I’d guess, while the same block is 2€ at a Venetian grocery store. And we are shopping on an island.
For lunch, I’ve got a panino Christie prepared. I’ll probably supplement with some fruit from the floating vendors as I wander the narrow calli e canale. Tonight I think we will eat out. Perhaps Restaurant Ivo, an osteria that shares its name with my Bulgarian friend Ivo Ninov. Perhaps we’ll stay on Giudecca, Christie’s island neighborhood, and go to Trattoria Ai Cacciatori where she watches Champions League Soccer matches. I’ll review that meal too, but I’m guessing it will be more of the same: just plain delicious!
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Given the state of the economy these days, it is crucial that a high end restaurant wow its guests to prove that an extravagant dinner is worth the expense.
I hope someone forwards this memo to Santé at the Fairmont Mission Inn in Sonoma, CA, where I dined last week. Though it strives to serve haute cuisine in wine country- and its prices reflect this effort- Santé too often misses the mark. Somewhere between a splendidly light cauliflower custard and a lackluster haché hearts of palm salad, I felt duped. I had come to be impressed, but the high points were too far and few between to warrant the price.
Since we went to Sonoma to drive race cars at the Infineon Race Way, a car analogy seems apt. It occurred to me that the hundred dollar tasting menu at Santé could be the culinary cousin of a Jaguar sports car. For the same price, there are many other cars with superior handling, reliability, and power. The Jaguar is therefore more of a status symbol than a high performance car, just as this restaurant looks and feels like haute cuisine but simply isn't worth the price tag. While there were high points and sublime tastes throughout the meal at Santé, I left thinking this was a lot of money for an acceptable- not fantastic- dinner.
The meal began with an unfortunate amuse-bouche: a shredded duck crostini with mushroom consommé and truffle foam that was too salty to really tease the palate. It left me wanting a tall glass of water, not the glass of champagne that accompanied it. Inauspicious from the starting line.
However, the next course of cauliflower custard topped with caviar was exquisite. While the texture of the custard reminded me of my grandmother’s best leche flan dessert, the salt content was perfectly apportioned in this dish, with the majority coming from the caviar topping.
The hearts of palm salad impressed no one at our table, and the saffron risotto was similarly disenchanting. Just because saffron is an expensive spice does not mean it should be used wantonly to impress. Worse, the undercooked rice was still grainy to the bite. The deep yellow color and brash flavor of the rice suggested what the chef lacked in preparation time, he made up with seasoning.
I do not wish to ignore some of the wonderful dishes Santé serves, for the seafood course demonstrated that Santé can do some things- and perhaps many others with a little more focus- remarkably well. Given my allergy to shellfish, I substituted the lobster for a halibut dish, but my fellow diners and I were impressed with both plates. The aroma of the butter poached lobster with squash was enough to make me wish I had an Epi-Pen handy. I wasn’t disappointed, though, because the halibut was expertly seared and remarkably moist. The accompanying bacon and peas provided the crunch each bite of fish deserved.
Half way through the meal, I wondered: Was Santé just confused? Did the different station cooks possess wildly varying abilities? The inconsistency reminded me of the Jaguar owner who relishes driving the car but must bring it into the garage, again.
After dancing around the issue for several courses, Santé had the opportunity to really impress with their Kobe beef entrée. I was expecting to see the value of the dinner after this course, that the first several courses were merely stepping stones to the jewel in the tasting menu crown. The rib eye cuts were tender, certainly, and they were juicy enough. However, I wasn’t bowled over by any particular pairing or flavor. The Prime Merlot that came with the Kobe beef was more intriguing to me than anything on the plate. I wish I could recall more about the preparation of the dish and its accompaniments; perhaps that speaks to its mere acceptability, rather than it being a truly memorable taste.
The cheese course was delightful in taste, but too small for our party of four. We chose five year Gouda, Rouge et Noir triple cream brie from Napa, and raw goats milk cheese. Though the cheeses themselves were pleasing, the miserly portions had everyone rationing their bites. For the price, the cheese course should be at least adequate for everyone to try every cheese. Again, I felt duped.
Santé closed the evening with two desserts, a blueberry sorbet with strawberries, raspberries and crème frâiche, and a Grand Marnier and chocolate soufflé. Of the two, I preferred the soufflé, which was prepared expertly and folded and puffed perfectly when topped at the table. The blueberry sorbet, however, did not have the refreshing quality of more typically flavored sorbets. The repetitive berry pairing surprised no one. Though a simple dessert can be classic, Santé should consider how inventive pastry chefs elsewhere are pushing the novel flavor envelope.
Given the precarious situation in which many restaurants find themselves these days, Santé must step up its game. Flashes of talent and true quality indicate that it can perform at the caliber its prices suggest. Whether they will do so remains to be seen.