Recently in Dining & Travel category

Delving Deeper Into Coffee

Because I’m out of my mind, once I get something stuck in my craw, I’m not okay until I get it all figured out once and for all. I guess that’s why I’m a baker. Because I’m insane. When I got my new espresso maker, I became obsessed with that too, and I needed to figure out how to pull the best espresso out of it as I could, like they do in Italy.

So what did I do? I went to Italy.
Mais oui.

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Although I got a lot of questions answered there, new ones kept popping up when I got home. And when I posted about my trip there were some enlightening comments, especially from Greg Sherwin of CoffeeRatings.com. I clicked away, delving deeper into his site where there was much top-notch information and we began corresponding.

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Trieste Address Book

Trieste is located in the upper corner of Italy, located just at the border of Slovenia. It’s a compact port city and in addition to Slovenian influences, you might be surprised to come across a shop carrying beer steins, since there are residual Hungarian and Austrian influences in the melange as well. But unlike other Italian cities, you’ll find people drinking big glasses of beer, and dining on sauerkraut and dumplings…and I mean, big, hearty ones…not just gnocchi, although you’ll find those too. Which I certainly did.

Along with perhaps a little gelato here and there…

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My daily dose of heavenly gelato from Zampolli

Since my time was limited, I wasn’t able to explore the areas far out of town, which I’ve been told were where the best food was to be found. The restaurants in the city were a bit uninspiring, although the bars filled up in the early evenings and were great places to have a Gingerino or my favorite aperitivo; an oversized wine glass (God bless the Italians…) with a shot of bitter orange aperitif, chilled prosecco, and a chunk of blood orange served with a handful of ice. I couldn’t catch the name, but it sure tasted good with all the food the Italians pile up at the bars nightly to snack on. The first time I saw an enormous spread of food on a bar a few years back in Italy, free for the taking, I expressed my surprise to an Italian friend, who replied, “Well, it’s so much nicer to have a little something to eat with your drink…don’t you think?”

Why yes, since you asked.

Although I know it’s not a trend that’s going to cross the border into France. But it’s a national custom I’m happy to partake of when in Italy.

After all, I don’t want to be rude. Do I?

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Making Perfect Espresso at Illy

When I told a friend that I was going to Italy to learn how to make coffee, she responded, “You just dump the coffee into a filter and pour water over it. What else do you need to do?”

Well, since you asked, plenty.

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Illy barista Giorgio Milos shows off his skill, and one of my first efforts to match his

First of all, there’s an important distinction between ‘brewing coffee’ and ‘extracting espresso’.

Brewed coffee is steeping ground beans in hot water, which any fool like me can do, whereas making espresso involves a couple of crucial steps and the deft use of a high-pressured machine combined with several specific techniques. It’s not easy to make the perfect espresso, but anyone can make a pretty decent one, even using an inexpensive home machine.

And how do you know what a good espresso is?

It’s a very tiny cup of deep-brown liquid, just a couple of sips, not bitter-tasting, but rich, complex and lingering, which endures on your tastebuds for 10-15 minutes afterward—one singular, perfectly-extracted shot of true Italian espresso.

I was really anxious to visit Illy, since I’ve been having trouble getting just the right little shot to taste good at home. Mine was either too watery, or bitter and virtually undrinkable, even though I was using a very powerful espresso maker. But I was also curious why the espresso in Italy tastes so much better than it does anywhere else, even in the humblest caffè. So when Illy invited me to come to their roasting plant and Università del Caffè in Trieste, I cleared my calendar and jumped on a plane.

So what did I learn at Illy?
I learned that anyone, even me, can pull a great cup of espresso at home.
Here’s the 1, 2 and 3’s of it…

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Moreno Faina shows off a perfect crema while a barista keeps the Illy staff fueled all day long

1. Start with good coffee.

This seems like a no-brainer. But I have a friend who said his vinaigrettes never tasted as good as he’d like them to. When I pointed out that you can’t make a good salad dressing with crappy olive oil from Trader Joe’s, neither can you make a good cup of espresso unless you start with good coffee beans correctly roasted and packed.

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Taillevent, Illy, Chez Dumonet, and O-Chateau Wine Tasting

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Taillevant & Le Cave Taillevent

Last month I had a fabulous lunch at Taillevent, the recently-demoted three-star restaurant, courtesy of some good friends from the states. But if our lunch was any indication, I don’t know who’s plucking the stars. And at 70€ it’s the deal of the decade: Three courses and lots of little extras. Plus they were very pleased to substitute any of the desserts which didn’t appear on the fixed menu for the selection offered. And to make the lunch even more special, another recent guest kindly bought me a bottle of lovely champagne…what’s not to get all starry-eyed over?

But whether or not you can make it to Taillevent, the restaurant, you should definitely visit their wine shop in the main Printemps department store. Run by Alison Vollenwider, with the help of Stéphanie (aka la petite), this wine cave is one of the most interesting in Paris.

Alison trained as a sommelier at Windows On The World with famed wine expert Andrea Immer, then worked in Bordeaux as a sommelier before settling here in Paris. Stop by and say hi—you’ll find plenty of reasonably-priced wines, starting at less than 10€, and lots of good advice from Alison. She’s friendly and knowledgeable…what more could you want from a caviste?

Update: Alison is now a proud mom and no longer working at Le Cave Taillevent.

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Illy

Ever since I got my new espresso machine, I’ve been trying to learn as much about the complex art of making espresso as possible.

Continue Reading Taillevent, Illy, Chez Dumonet, and O-Chateau Wine Tasting…

Allegedly The Birthplace of Kouign Amann

Anyone who uses iPhoto probably remembers your first thrill of plugging in your digital camera and magically, with no effort at all, having your photos automatically downloaded for you. Then they’re neatly filed on your computer so you can view, cut, or paste your memories until your heart’s content.

It’s great for the first few times, but once you’ve hit a certain number of photos, in my case the 1k mark, things start to slow w-a-a-a-y down, making it necessary to either burn them onto disks like the old days (iPhoto’s dirty little secret, forcing us to resort to ‘outdated’ technology…bad Apple!)
Or sadly, just to delete them.

So I spent my weekend going through my older photos and realized that I never wrote about one of the most special places in France: Locronan, allegedly the birthplace of my beloved Kouign Amann.

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Note I used the word ‘allegedly’.
I’d been told by several French folks that the town is famous as the lieu de naissance of this buttery cake. But when I asked at the Office de Tourisme, the woman there had no idea what I was talking about. And wasn’t all that interested in pursuing it with me either. So I’ll let someone out there do the research since I’m too involved in burning photos onto disks all weekend. But even though Locronon may not the be the birthplace of this famous Breton Butter Cake, it’s certainly become the epicenter for lovers of butter & sugar bound-together.

Although the town is teeming with tourists who come to gawk at the granite buildings and churches, the town is also teeming with other fans of the sweet-stuff: les guepes, or yellowjackets.

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Every bakery had swarms of the lil’ stingers flying all around, hundreds of them are everywhere, feasting their wings off on the sugary treats and tartlets for sale, like the rhubarb ones above. The women who work in the bakeries must’ve made some top-secret pact with the bees since they showed no fear of them and would swat ‘em away while packing up tarts and cakes. We decided to use the bees as a guide and follow their advice, since they’d probably know which was the best Kouign Amann in town. Like truffle hunters use pigs and dogs, this pastry-hunter decided to follow the bees, and I reasoned the places with the most yellowjackets would have the best pastries.

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We Love Jam

As you can imagine, after living in San Francisco for almost twenty years, I have some pretty wacky friends. While I don’t want to recount everything that happened back in the days of free-love, many of us have grown up and gone on to tastier things.

One friend has a wildly successful cheese shop. Another opened a bakery , a chocolate factory, or became wine importers…and more folks I knew opened bakeries, and ice cream shops, and chocolate shops, and bread bakeries, and…(hey…someone remind me why I moved…)

But who was lovin’ the apricot jam?

As it turns out, my friend Eric was, using the organic Blenheim apricots from one very old tree in his backyard.

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A recent issue of Food+Wine called it “…simply the best jam we’ve ever tasted.” And one of their editors liked it so much that he’s now the first person on their waiting list for it. Sounds like it’s (almost) jam worth moving back for.

So if you’re interested, visit We Love Jam and get yourself on that waiting list!

Paris Restaurant Round-Up

I got a very cute message lately from a couple who had come to Paris and followed some of my restaurant suggestions. But it got to the point one evening here they were undecided where to go one night, and her husband said, “I don’t care. Let’s just go anywhere that chocolate-guy says to go!”

I was glad to be of service, but I like being known as ‘that chocolate-guy’ just as much.

But frankly, I don’t go out as much as most folks imagine. I love going to my market, talking to the vendors, and coming home with something new that I’ve never tried before, like the chervil roots I bought the other day, which involved a rather detailed, lengthy conversation with the vendor.

I mostly cooking all the fine things I find here and learn about. So when I do go out, I want it to be good…no, I want it to be great…and I find the best food in Paris is classic French cuisine; confit de canard, steak frites, and coq au vin. When you find a good version, I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying. Especially if it’s accompanied by good friends.

And, of course, a few obligatory glasses of vin rouge.

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So here’s a round-up of places I’ve eaten lately.
There’s a few you might to want to bookmark for your next visit, as well as one or two you might want to avoid.

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Cooking On Rue Tatin: Part 2

Since man, and woman, cannot live by chocolate alone (although wouldn’t it be nice if we could?), our group spent the rest of our time slaving away putting together sumptuous meals, and learning about wine the hard way: by tasting it.

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One of my favorite snacks of the class On Rue Tatin turned out to be these golden-brown, eggy gougères enriched with gruyère cheese and a dusting of freshly-toasted, fragrant cumin powder.

While it was a bit chilly to sit out in the garden overlooking the cathedral, enjoying our apéritifs and goûtes, we had plenty things to cook up indoors…

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Continue Reading Cooking On Rue Tatin: Part 2…