Sunday, July 13, 2014

Peter Havens (Brattleboro, VT)

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For my birthday, my mom and step-father took me out to dinner up in Brattleboro at Peter Havens, a fine dining establishment that has been around for twenty years, but I somehow had never been to.  They went to a special dinner there the week before, and were quite impressed, so when our first choice, L.A. Burdick's The Restaurant at Burdick was unavailable to us (they only serve brunch on Sundays, not dinner), we ended up in Brattleboro.  While I definitely still want to go up to L.A. Burdick, I could not have been more pleased with the dinner we had.

The restaurant itself is small, with over half of it devoted to the bar area, which consists of a large wooden bar in a rather open area and a few tables, and a second area that is separated by a partial wall that has another half dozen tables.  It is lit just right, not so much that it seems bright but not so little it feels dark (an unfortunate trend in higher end restaurants these days), and it does not seem to be overly loud even with several groups together.  Our waitress was nice, but I like to have wait-staff that are very confident and have strong opinions on the menu; if asked "which do you recommend," there should be an answer, and "well, that depends on whether you're in the mood for X or Y" does not count.  That said, when she finally made a decision it turned out to be the right one.

I started off with the Escargot ("Brandy & vermouth marinated escargots sautéed with garlic, butter
and parsley, served in a puff pastry shell and finished with a touch of cream") at the recommendation of the waitress, who I tasked with choosing amongst that, the house Caesar salad ("Romaine lettuce. tossed in our classic house-made caesar dressing, topped with warm duck confit and  croutons"), and the special soup for the day, a gazpacho that sounded completely delicious.  In the end, while I am sure the soup and salad would have been very good, the escargot was spectacular.  The snails themselves were just the right mix of chewy and tender, the sauce was tangy and creamy, and the puff pastry was a great vehicle for both.  I just had raw escargot in Valras Plage, and while this restaurant lacked the ambiance of being located fifteen feet from a Mediterranean beach, eating them here was pretty delightful as well.  

We also split the Duck Liver Pate ("House made duck liver pate prepared with a hint of brandy, served with whole grain mustard, red onion jam, cornichons and toast points"), and I have one big complaint:  I can't have it every day.  Oh my God, that was good.  Creamy, smooth, decadent pate beautifully served in a small jar alongside some pieces of toast, a little pile of cornichons, which I love, really great rustic mustard that was distinctly German tasting, and the red onion jam, which stacks up really well to the pickled onions on the Pulled BBQ Duck Nachos at The Dirty Truth, which are legitimately crave-worthy.  I just wanted more and more and more of this; probably one of the three or four best appetizers I have ever had.

My entree was switched up at the last minute, as I had intended to go with the Roasted Statler Chicken Breast ("finished with two-mustard sauce and served with truffle mashed potatoes") since my step-dad was going with the Pan Roasted Duck Breast ("with French green lentils, caramelized apple, and sauce bigerade"), but when he switched to a swordfish special, I went with the duck.  Thank God I did.  The duck was gorgeous, a thinly (app 1/4 inch) sliced breast laid out and smothered in a dark, rich sauce that was incredibly savory, though I did not really taste any of the citrus I would expect from a Sauce Bigerade.  The duck itself was maybe the tiniest bit overcooked, but because of the sauce it was not a problem, and it was reasonably moist still.  I am not a huge fan of lentils typically, though when prepared properly they are really awesome, and the French green lentils were not only tasty on their own, but great eaten with the sauce.  The caramelized apple was really delicious, but kind of lame, in that it was just a single small piece about an inch wide and two inches long; it would have been greatly appreciated if there were a couple more pieces.  I am nitpicking here; the entree was awesome, and the meal all in all was one of the best I have ever had.  This is definitely a new favorite.

I had a McNeill's Brewery Dead Horse IPA with dinner, which is definitely a top ten in the category for me.  One of the smoothest IPAs I have had, it was just hoppy enough to make you aware of what it is, but not nearly like many of the other great (and terrible) IPAs that are on the market now, which seem to emphasize the hops to the max.  A great beer, it will get its own review soon enough I am sure.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fleurs d'Olargues (Olargues, Languedoc-Roussillon, France)

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In a vacation in Roquebrun, "Le Petit Nice," that included trips to the tremendous Cité de Carcassonne, the market at Saint-Chinian, and the beautiful Valras-Plage on the Mediterranean, the best and most memorable thing is without a doubt the lunch I had in the small town of Olargues.  Restaurant Fleurs d'Olargues is located next to the town's beautiful 13th century "Devil's Bridge," along Le Jaur, a tributary of the Orb river.  In addition to the idyllic location, the food is incredible, the service spectacular, and the overall experience nearly unbeatable.

A view of Restaurant Fleurs d'Olargues from "Devil's Bridge"
We were supposed to go to Carcassonne on the day we ended up in Olargues, but rain forestalled our trip to the fortress, and I am so very grateful for that.  Upon arriving the beauty of the location was immediately apparent, with outdoor seating just below the aforementioned bridge and thus the hillside village it led to.  It seemed unlikely that the food could live up to the atmosphere; I cannot emphasize how wrong I was about that.  With a menu that includes both prix fixe and a la carte options, there are not a huge amount of options, but they can accommodate vegetarians and omnivores alike; vegans need not apply.

I selected the standard prix fixe menu, a three or four course option that gave diners the choice of a few appetizers and main courses, a cheese plate and/or dessert.  I selected the foie gras appetizer, duck main plate, and the cheese plate.  Several people at the table went with the menu of the day, a three course meal that included a chevre salad that everyone raved about, stuffed pork tenderloin, and a lemon zabaione. 

My meal began with a shooter of cold zucchini and garlic soup.  Refreshing, bright, and with a bizarre yet delightful spiciness.  This was a really great start, very simple but delicious, an attractive little glass of soup that served essentially to wake up the taste buds and get you excited for what came next.

Foie Gras
And oh my, what came next.  Meat butter is the best way to describe foie gras, the incredible, smooth, silky liver that has caused so much angst here in the United States, and oh my god it is good.  Studded with figs, served with pickled onions, a crisp of cheese, and some dabs of tart sauce, this was among the best courses I have ever had in a life of eating some truly amazing food.  The presentation was gorgeous, so very simple, so focused on just presenting the food in a way that I tend not to associate with French cuisine.  I will admit, my general attitude toward French food is that technique takes too much of a role at the expense of showcasing the ingredients, but this was not that; it was just the food, and it was so stunningly good I really cannot describe it.

Following up the foie gras was always going to be a tough task, but they did an impressively admirable job of it.  Seared duck, along with a croquette of what I am fairly certain was shredded duck liver, a mash of celeriac, braised Brussels sprouts, and red cabbage cooked in wine.  The duck was perfectly cooked, medium rare with the fat cap both crisp and unctuously satisfying, while the mash was just the right consistency; not quite smooth, with some good texture to each bite, but not lumpy by any means.  Brussels sprouts have only recently moved from my short list of disliked foods, but if I had had these I would have always enjoyed them; so simple, but so delicious.  Cabbage is a hit or miss food for me, but these were perfect; a little crisp, savory, with a similar flavor, texture and look to German style red cabbage.  Best of all, however, was that croquette, which was tied with the foie gras as my favorite thing I ate all day.  Crunchy, savory, filled with umami flavor, just a hint of gaminess, and perfectly salted, this was literally perfect, but again, just very very simple.  I will go back to this restaurant just on the off-chance they have it again.

Rather than a sweet dessert, I decided to have the cheese plate, which came with four cheese, some bread, with a fruit compote and a berry sauce, and a single flax-like crisp, which was the only bad thing I ate all day.  The cheeses were delicious, from a goat cheese so sweet it nearly a dessert in and of itself to a stinky, delicious blue.  There was even one cheese that tasted and looked like a richer, albeit less sharp, version of America's cheddar.  I tried the dessert, and while it was delicious, I am glad I went with the cheese.

Following the dessert/cheese course, several of

Coffee after lunch
us had coffee (if you were not aware, coffee is never served with dessert in France; it is, in fact, its own separate course, and they do not appear to be willing to deviate from this, as one of our group discovered to his chagrine), which was also spectacular.  Essentially a slightly larger espresso, the coffee was strong and delicious, served with raw sugar cubes.  Typically I drink my coffee as it comes, but I added a cube of sugar and it was perfect in this case, since the coffee was so strong.  Definitely do not skip this course if you like coffee.

All in all, I cannot speak highly enough of this entire meal, and I will absolutely be going back when I am next in Roquebrun; the short trip to Olargues is more than worth it.   If you have the opportunity to go, do not miss this gem.

Olargues's hillside portion of town
Smoked tuna appetizer

Dining room from the outside seating area
Dining room from inside

"Devil's Bridge" and the tower that was the center of the keep when the town of was built