Monday, November 21, 2011

Paris Part I - L'Epi Dupin

I am extremely behind on posts, but this next series of reviews consists of a short trip to Paris, not nearly enough time, but so be it. 

Our first lunch in Paris found us at a small restaurant called L'Epi Dupin. It's a small restaurant that is shielded by heavy curtains at the entrance to prevent the biting winds from entering every time someone enters. The menu can be found on several blackboards scattered throughout the restaurant (keep in mind it's only about twelve tables and a long tables for parties.)

Everything was in French of course so deciphering things was a little tricky, but our waiter spoke enough English to tell us that we had just ordered veal kidneys, we revised that mistake. I ordered the veloute de potimarron with a foi gras poêle and the cuise de canette fondante with fondue de blettes au condiment carotte, which when put into a translator is: Cream of pumpkin, faith gras, leg of duck melted, melted Swiss chard with carrot condiment. In short, pumpkin soup with fois gras and duck confit with Swiss chard. My girlfriend ordered the tartin d’endives caramélisee' au chèvre, sauce mielleuse à la coriandre and the porcelet marine "soja citron vert" with pommes paysannes: caramelized endive tart with a honey-coriander sauce to start and then pork and potatoes. 

After we had ordered we were greeted with an amuse of some sort of root vegetable soup with a root vegetable sorbet. The flavors were bright and vibrant, highlighted by the extreme change in temperatures between the ice cold sorbet and the hot soup. 

Hot potato, hot potato, who's got the cold sorbet?

My soup was quite rich, almost to the point that I couldn't finish it (I did though). There was a sizable lobe of fois in it that had been seared, but it had an odd texture almost like eating a quiche...still made for quite a heavy soup. The bits of toasted slivered almonds added good crunch to each bite, otherwise would have been a very one-note dish.

Big ole' hunk of fois

The tart was by far the best thing that we ordered. While the other dishes were good, they had some flaws here and there, but the tart was fantastic. The bitter endive was tempered by the sweet caramelization, but at the same time it was enhanced by where the caramel had been cooked just a little too long. The sauce that I had originally thought was some sort of reduction of vinegar was in fact a honey sauce, however it had a distinct bite to it so there must have been something else in it. In addition, the flaky pastry dough provided a nice base and sponge to sop up the delicious sauce.

Little dots are coriander seeds, which had a nice burst of flavor

The duck confit was perfect. The leg was crispy on the outside, yet it fell apart when I touched it with my fork. This would have been the best dish had it not been for some ghastly Swiss chard concoction underneath. As far as I could tell there was mustard, Swiss chard, and some sort of cheese. It had an unpleasant taste that I can only describe as a sweet cheesy mustard. 

Notice toxic yellow below duck...

My dining companion's pork was good, not great, but solid. It was reminiscent of Chinese barbeque pork. Perhaps they used five spice (not something I would generally associate with the normally tame French cooking), but whatever they used it definitely hinted towards Asia. The potatoes were nicely done and the sauce that coated both the pork and potatoes was quite good. I would have liked that sauce to be on the duck. 

Pork could have been cut a little better as some pieces were still connected to each other
Final Grade: B+, for €25,00 per person for two quite good courses, it was fairly priced. The food was good, clean, French cooking, but while each dish retained a certain rusticity it was certainly quite refined. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sudestada - Asian in Madrid? It can't be!

Living in Madrid has been great, however it lacks one big thing, something that has been true and dear to my heart for my entire life: Asian food. Really at this point I will settle for the General Tso’s Chicken at Ollies. However there is one place that, while a tad expensive, has been one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Madrid, and bonus, it’s Asian.

While a restaurant billed as fusion Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese might scare some off, the thought of any of those three made me salivate. True it gave me reason to pause, but there was enough literature on Sudestada (roughly translated to South-East) telling me that it was the best place to get real Asian food that there was no reason not to try it. We walked in to a well-lit room, more on the modern side of things with a bar on our right and the dining room on our left. It was pretty empty and while we didn’t have reservations, we were seated immediately.

The menu was presented to us and it had a huge range of food. It was clear that when they said Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese fusion, they meant it, but they weren’t horrific Frankenstinian dishes: ingredients combined that have no business being together, all combined by a gluey, corn syrup-rich brown sauce. They brought a cold soup in a Chinese teacup. I tasted rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce, cilantro and cucumbers. It was a tasty soup and it set the tone for the rest of the meal. To start we opted for the nem (Vietnamese fried spring rolls). For our main courses we got the braised beef cheek in red curry and the stir-fried rice noodles with lobster, iberico pork, squid and chanterelles.

Actually tasted quite similar to a sauce I make at home.

Now I’ve been looking for authentic Vietnamese food since I moved to the States many, many years ago, and I have yet to find it (despite living in New York), but the nem I had at Sudestada were some of the best I’ve had. They were fried to perfection. The filling was the right combination of meat (rabbit and shrimp I think) and mushroom, giving it a very specific taste that I can only describe as the essence of nem. The best part however was what it came with: a lettuce leaf to wrap, fresh mint, cilantro, and basil, bean sprouts, pickled vegetables, and the best part of all, nuoc cham (delicious, delicious fish sauce). These things are essential to creating the perfect nem, wrap all ingredients in lettuce leaf with the nem and dip in the fish sauce. I was in pure bliss. All the flavors of Vietnam came rushing back.

This is what heaven looks like, wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a big bite taken out of it.

With Vietnam now out of the way, we turned to our respective Thai and Chinese influenced dishes. My noodles were fairly bland, but the lobster was nice and the chanterelles were earthy and delicious. The noodles could have used some more kick, some chili peppers or something to just boost all the flavors. The whole thing ate heavy, but the finish was light and I didn’t feel overly stuffed.  

Good, but needed more overall flavor.

My girlfriend got the beef cheek, taking us from Madrid to Thai in a hurry. The flavors were absolutely explosive. The heat from the strips of chilies burned in a lovely way (since Spain seems to be allergic to spiciness). The dish was rich from the coconut milk and the lemongrass and galangal (slightly spicier, more ferocious version of ginger) lent brightness and very Thai flavors to the curry. The cheek itself was braised perfectly, fork tender and done in such a way that the fat was deliciously sticky and flavorful. It was all we could do to not dive into the bowl and lick up every last drop of the amazing curry.

One of the best things I've had since being here.

Final Grade: A, €63,00, while not cheap it was completely worth the price. The noodles fell a little flat, but the nem and curry were absolute knockouts. Next visit: the chef’s tasting menu.

Monday, November 7, 2011


About three weeks after I first got to Spain, I watched an episode of one of my all time favorite shows, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, where he goes to Spain. There I saw Zimmern travel through a very touristy neighborhood in Madrid called Sol and devour various bizarre and not so bizarre foods. As the camera panned around one tapas bar, it looked rather familiar. When they showed the shoes nailed to the wall I knew exactly where it was.

Zapateria. The shoe store. I had been there my second weekend in Madrid and had loved how small and intimate the place was as well as how everyone was incredibly friendly. I had wanted to go back since the last time I was there and this video gave me some suggestions of what to eat.

I decided to follow Zimmern's selection: crispy pig's ears, snails and bull tail. Unfortunately the bull tail was not available when I went so I was fortunate enough to have a dinner consisting of cartilage and gastropods (new name for blog?)

The ears came first and were plopped in front of us on a silver platter, literally. They were cut into small manageable pieces and were cooked with some sort of red sauce. The ears were cooked on the grill and pressed down for a while, thus formed a crispy exterior to some of the bits. The texture was definitely a bit funky. I likened it to the crunch of the pickled carrot one finds in banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), but it was definitely in its own class as far as bizarre textures. The gelatinous coating in my mouth spoke for the cartilage, which had clearly broken down a little bit when cooked. Flavor wise it was porky and slightly reminiscent of bacon, albeit not as smokey. The real kicker were the pieces of ear that still had small hairs on them, threw me off a little bit, but with those pieces kicked aside, I plunged right back in.

Bad picture I know, but trust me, it was a hairy situation

The snails were cooked in a spicy sauce, a nice change from the normally tame Spanish cooking. However the sauce completely overpowered any chance at tasting the snails. The snails themselves were soft, but gritty. With every snail I ate I hoped for a clean snail, but every bite I was met with the crunch of grit. The sauce was worth sopping up with bread although it could have used a little more salt.

Clearly a slow cooked dish...sorry for the bad puns...

Final Grade: B-, I'm definitely going back to get the bull tail, but overall the food was so-so. Everything was gone by the end of the meal, but I wouldn't order either of theses dishes again.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Porto Part II: La Mesa Restaurante

Our big dinner for the week, ranked in the top five of restaurants in Porto on tripadvisor, proved to have its highs and lows. The location was a bit tricky to get to, and we were late by nearly half an hour since we were counting on a cab being right near our hostel, but of course there weren't any. We ended up taking the subway to a more populated area and then hopping a cab from there. Already in bad moods the restaurant was tucked away in an apartment building. Literally an apartment building. Did not bode well in our minds....

However when we got out of the elevator we were greeted with an amazing room. Perfectly lit, aged wooden tables, intimate. It was just one of those rooms that instantly puts you in a good mood. Our hopes restored we apologized for our tardiness and proceeded into the dining room.

The menu was large, but we cut through it pretty easily and decided what we wanted fairly quickly. I ordered the foie gras stuffed with a plum compote and then the "traditional" Portuguese stew with monkfish and shrimp and fresh cilantro. I bold that because the cilantro was the first cilantro I had had since leaving the States. My girlfriend got a salad with grilled goat cheese, bacon and sun dried tomatoes and then ordered the braised veal cheek with turnip tops and potatoes.

We were sent an amuse bouche of a puffed pastry stuffed with goat cheese and honey. It was quite good, but would have liked the whole thing to be warm, somehow eating cold goat cheese was just not what I wanted to start with. Our first courses came out and they looked stunning. Another good sign for the night. The foie was creamy and delicious, but was set on some sort of sponge cake, which seemed like an odd choice. The plum compote provided the acid for an otherwise sweet and rich dish. The salad looked good, although the "bacon" tasted like was gone quickly so I assume that was a good thing.

What should darken our door but a goat cheese puff (literally, the picture is dark...)

Salt was a nice addition also, aged balsamic was of course delicious

A little broken, but it came in a huge cracker bowl, caught it just in time

Our main courses were next and again they were quite pretty to look at. My stew was quite good, although it was more or less a curry. Nice to have some really strong and bold flavors. The monkfish was tender and meaty while the shrimp were perfectly cooked. The cilantro brought a freshness to the dish that would have sorely missed it had it not been there. The only problem: my shrimp were not cleaned. I’m all for eating everything, but eating a poop vein is not my idea of a good time. It was gritty and there’s nothing worse than eating something delicious and then crunching down on some grit. 

More complete than I wanted them to be...

The veal cheek was fork tender, and the sauce it was in was delicious. Really you can't screw up anything slow braised. The turnip tops and potatoes melded beautifully together, the bitterness of the turnip greens paired with the creaminess of the potatoes. The dish was quite good, but was a little salty. 

Was the cherry (tomato) on top, almost

This is where the good part of the night ended. We declined desserts (too stuffed), as well as coffee/tea. We instead asked for the check. We waited for it. And waited. And waited. I flagged down our waitress and asked again. Again we waited, and waited. I caught her eye again and she nodded at me, indicating it would be right there. More waiting, more looks. Finally forty-five minutes later she came with the check, apologizing and saying that the machine had been broken so they had to write everything by hand. Five items (bottle of water too) took 45 minutes to write down? 

Final Grade: B, the food was pretty good, certainly for the quality of restaurant it was fairly cheap, however the 45 minute wait for our check proved to be fatal for this reviewer. Unfortunate for Mesa, and unfortunate for us, but hopefully they've hired a couple good writers.